White House to give senators access to drone assassination memo

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Facing a bipartisan revolt over a judicial nominee, the White House on Tuesday promised senators a chance to review a secret memo that provided the legal rationale for killing an American-born al Qaeda leader abroad.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle had called for the release of the secret memo written by David Barron outlining the legal justification for striking Anwar al-Awlaki, who was accused of planning and encouraging terrorist attacks against the United States.

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President Obama nominated Barron, a former acting assistant attorney general and Harvard Law professor, to serve on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has vowed to place a hold on Barron’s nomination unless the Justice Department made the memo public.

“The constitutionality of this policy has been the subject of intense debate in our country since its implementation,” Paul wrote in an April 30 letter obtained by The Hill.

“The disclosure of this document will not only clarify that debate, it will also allow the Senate to gain critical insight into David Barron’s judicial philosophy,” he added.

Democrats also have voiced concerns over Barron’s nomination and pressed the administration to disclose the contents of the controversial memo.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said in a statement he would not support Barron’s nomination unless the White House complied with a court order to release a redacted version of the document. The administration is contemplating whether to appeal that order, which came after The New York Times sued the administration for its release.

“David Barron is highly qualified, but as one of the authors of the Anwar al-Awlaki opinion, Barron’s nomination understandably raises key questions about the administration’s legal justification for the targeted killing of Americans and about its year-old pledge of greater transparency,” Udall said in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday urged senators to delay a confirmation vote for Barron until all lawmakers have had a chance to review the memo.

The bipartisan calls prompted the White House to offer a look at the document to every member of the Senate.

“I can confirm that the administration is working to ensure that any remaining questions members of the Senate have about Barron’s legal work at the Department of Justice are addressed, including making available in a classified setting a copy of the al-Awlaki opinion to any senator who wishes to review it,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement.

The move appeared to pay immediate dividends, with Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) issuing a statement applauding the White House.

Last year, Leahy voted against the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan, protesting the administration’s drone program. While the Vermont lawmaker supported Barron in a committee vote, he had also pushed the Justice Department to release the legal rationale.

“All members of the Judiciary Committee were previously able to review this memo, and I am glad all senators will have the opportunity to do so now,” Leahy said.

Still, ranking Judiciary Committee member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he was unimpressed by the move.

The Iowa Republican said he wanted the White House to turn over additional memos Barron authored during his time in the Justice Department that had thus far been withheld.

“It’s anybody’s guess what other relevant materials on the drone program written by, or related to, Mr. Barron haven’t been released,” Grassley said.

— This story was updated at 7:50 p.m.