US Senate clears way for drone memo author's judicial nomination

David Barron, Harvard law professor who drafted key memo authorizing controversial targeted killing program, poised to become federal judge after 52-43 vote

The man who wrote a White House legal memo endorsing the execution of Americans by drone strike is poised to become a federal judge after Senate Democrats used new anti-filibuster rules to quash opposition from civil liberties critics.

David Barron, a Harvard law professor who drafted a key memo authorising Barack Obama's controversial targeted killing programme while at the Department of Justice, on Tuesday saw his lifetime appointment to the appeals court in Boston clear the main procedural hurdle in the Senate. The 52-43 vote was split along party lines.

Previously, Senate cloture rules meant judicial nominees required 60 votes to bring an end to debate and move to a simple majority vote, but this was scrapped by Democrats last November after Republicans frustrated a series of similar appointments with the threat of filibuster delaying tactics.

As a result, Barron's appointment now looks certain to proceed with Democratic support alone and an attempt by Republican critic Rand Paul to stand against the nomination was limited to a brief speech.

Paul claims Barron is unfit to serve as a judge because his once-secret White House legal advice authorising the use of drone strikes in cases involving US citizens breaches the constitution.

“I oppose the nomination of anyone who advocates the executive branch killing of American citizens not involved in combat without trial,” Paul said.

“Any nominee who rubber stamps and grants such power to the president is not worthy of being placed one step away from the supreme court.”

The White House had previously attempted to placate critics by promising to release the Barron memo – first to senators only and then, once it has been redacted, to the public too.

But this decision failed to satisfy Paul, who said: “It isn't about seeing the memos; it's about what they say and about disrespecting the bill of rights.”

Unusually, Paul's argument for civil liberties over national security interests brought unanimous support from Republicans including conservative senator Chuck Grassley, who criticised the White House for not saying whether Barron had drafted similar legal memos.

Opponents of Obama's targeted killing programme, which has been used to assassinate at least one American, Anwar Al-Awlaki, alleged to have been working for Al-Qaida in Yemen, argue that suspected US terrorists should be tried in absentia if they cannot be brought before a US court.

“Critics will argue that these are evil people,” said Paul. “I understand that. My first instincts, like many Americans, is to immediately want to punish these traitors. The question is how we decide guilt. Aren't we in a way betraying our country's principles when we relinquish the right to trial by jury?”


Dan Roberts in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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