Senate to vote on lawyer who authored drone strike memos

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday filed a motion to advance David Barron, President Obama’s nominee to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, setting up a fight over drone policy.

Reid scheduled a vote on Barron’s nomination hours after White House lawyers met with Democratic senators to address their concerns over his role in drafting legal memos justifying the 2011 killing of an American citizen in Yemen with a drone.

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A Senate aide said the vote on Barron would likely take place on Wednesday. Reid’s decision to go ahead with the vote signals Barron has enough Democratic support to win confirmation but that not all of his critics in the Democratic Caucus are satisfied.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a critic of the administration’s drone policy, declined to say after the meeting whether he would vote for Barron. He reiterated his demand that the Obama administration should make public the memos authored by Barron justifying a lethal strike against an American citizen without a trial.

“This is one of the few windows when members of the Intelligence Committee really have the opportunity to get documents that are critical for us to do strong oversight, so that is really central to my making judgments,” he said.

Wyden said whether the administration agreed to make the controversial memos public would weigh heavily on his decision.

Democratic senators met Thursday afternoon with White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler and Neil Eggleston in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility located in the Capitol Visitor Center.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a leading Republican critic of Obama’s drone policy, announced he would filibuster Barron.

“There is no valid legal precedent to justify the killing of an American citizen not engaged in combat. In fact, one can surmise as much because the legal question at hand has never been adjudicated. Therefore, I shall not only oppose the nomination of David Barron, but will filibuster,” Paul said in a statement.

The White House has allowed senators to view some of the memos in private, but lawmakers say they should be made more widely available. Democratic and Republican critics of the administration’s drone policy also question how many secret memos exist.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) staff estimates there may be as many as nine documents.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the Senate should not vote on Barron until lawmakers have the opportunity to read all of the memos he wrote justifying drone strikes on American citizens.

“No senator can meaningfully carry out his or her constitutional obligation of providing ‘advice and consent’ on the nomination without reading all of Mr. Barron’s opinions on the drone program,” Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, said in a statement.

“The White House has continued to play hide the ball by not providing all of the opinions written or signed by Mr. Barron on targeted killing, regardless of citizenship,” she said. “The memos raise fundamental due process and rule of law issues, and no senator should agree to vote on the nomination without first getting each and every one of his memos on targeted killing.”

Barron's nomination was approved by the Judiciary Committee in January on a partisan 10-8 vote. 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said after Thursday’s meeting with White House lawyers that he and other Democrats felt reassured on Barron’s nomination because the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to review the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against terrorists.

The authorization of force may have been used to justify the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen targeted in Yemen who was allegedly linked to terrorist plots.

“I think it’s incredibly timely that the Foreign Relations Committee is moving forward with the hearing next week on AUMF authorization,” he said. “For a lot of us, our concerns about the opinion can be taken care of if we make a commitment to debate and reauthorize AUMF.

Murphy is a member of the Foreign Relations panel.

—This story was updated May 16 at 9:38 a.m. 

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