Discuss as:

McCain, Graham assail Rand Paul on targeted killings policy

Highlighting the discord among Republicans over President Barack Obama’s targeted killings policy, two prominent GOP senators, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, took to the Senate floor to criticize Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s 12-hour filibuster Wednesday. 

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., (L) and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. confer at the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington March 5, 2013.

Thirteen Republican senators – including Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and the junior GOP senators from McCain’s and Graham’s home states -- joined Paul during his filibuster to show their support for his demand that President Barack Obama explicitly say whether he thinks he has the authority to order the killing of a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil who was a noncombatant and posed no imminent threat of an attack.

Paul has delayed the confirmation of Obama’s CIA nominee John Brennan in order to dramatize his demand for an answer from Obama.

On Thursday Paul received a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder saying that the president does not have the authority "to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil."

McCain said Thursday the Senate needed to conduct hearings and an in-depth debate on Obama’s targeted killings policy, “but that conversation should not be talking about drones killing Jane Fonda and people in cafes. It should be all about what authority and what checks and balances should exist” in order to combat “an enemy that we know will be with us for a long time.”

Sen. John McCain voices criticism toward fellow Republican Senator Rand Paul for indicating that it was possible for the government to attack an American cafe with a drone strike.

In his filibuster Paul had approvingly quoted an article by National Review writer Kevin Williamson which said, “As satisfying as putting Jane Fonda on a kill list might have been, I don’t think our understanding of the law would have approved such a thing even though she did give communist aid to the aggressor in Vietnam (in the 1970s).”

While Paul was conducting his filibuster, McCain and Graham were among a group of Republican senators having dinner with Obama at a Washington, D.C. hotel.

Graham scoffed at Paul’s question about whether Obama thinks he has the authority to kill a noncombatant American citizen on U.S. soil.

“I find the question offensive,” Graham said Thursday on the Senate floor. “As much I disagree with President Obama and as much as I support past presidents, I do not believe that question deserves an answer.” Paul’s question, the South Carolina Republican said, “cheapens the debate.”

Graham said flatly that Obama would not use a drone against a noncombatant sitting in a café somewhere in the United States.

Recommended: Senate panel advances bill beefing up gun trafficking laws

But there was less of a policy split that might have appeared on the surface: Paul repeatedly said during his filibuster that the government can and should use lethal force in cases when an attack is imminent.

He cited the scenario of a terrorist who was about to attack the U.S. Capitol with a bazooka or rocket launcher, as well as similar scenarios.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reflects on Wednesday's 12-hour filibuster that was led by Sen. Rand Paul.

But Paul said the Obama administration has not yet made clear “what rules are going to be used in America. If you’re going to kill noncombatants, people eating dinner in America, there have to be some rules. Does the Constitution apply?”

When Holder testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday he repeatedly said the use of a drone to kill an American citizen on U.S. soil who wasn’t an imminent threat wouldn’t be an “appropriate” use of lethal force.

After repeated questioning from Sen. Ted Cruz, R- Texas, Holder finally said it would also not be constitutional. Holder said, “I thought I was saying ‘no.’ All right, no.”

In his comments on the Senate floor Thursday, Graham reprised the points he made Wednesday during the Holder hearing.

But the Paul filibuster and the excitement it generated among libertarians and Republicans has given new visibility to the discord over the targeted killings strategy and whether Obama might seek to apply it to U.S. citizen who posed an imminent threat.

Graham said to Holder, “I want to stand by you and the president to make sure we don’t criminalize the war and that the commander-in-chief continues to have the authority to protect us all.” He said “a lot of my colleagues are well-meaning but there is only one commander-in-chief in our Constitution.”

This story was originally published on