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Senate Advances Judicial Nominee Who Wrote Drone Strike Policy


The man who wrote the legal justification for the use of drones against terror suspects is one step closer to becoming a federal judge. David Barron's nomination kicked off a debate about drone strikes. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, after clearing a procedural vote today, Barron could win confirmation as early as tomorrow.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Only a week ago, David Barron's bid to become an appellate court judge hovered on the brink. A coalition of Tea Party senators and civil liberties advocates raised doubts about Barron because he gave a green light to drone strikes against Americans early in the Obama administration. Then, a break. The White House agreed to share some of his secret writings on drone strikes with senators. And last night, the Justice Department said it would abide by a court ruling and eventually make one of those memos public. That was enough for Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, a longtime critic of government secrecy.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: This is not a memo that I would have written. It contains what in effect are some analytical leaps that I would not endorse.

JOHNSON: But Wyden says the commitment to release part of that document is a constructive step, one that he says could help generate public pressure to answer some fundamental questions.

WYDEN: How much evidence does the president need to determine that a particular American is a legitimate target for military action? Or can the president strike an American anywhere in the world?

JOHNSON: Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, who last year famously mounted a 13-hour filibuster on drone policy, says he's far from satisfied.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: It isn't about seeing the memos, it's about what they say and how they disrespect the Bill of Rights.

JOHNSON: Paul says he's convinced radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki, who died after being targeted by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011, was a bad guy. But, Paul says, the precedent worries him.

PAUL: I suspect that the next time they kill an American it will be done in secret, by the executive branch, because that's the new norm. You're voting for someone who has made this the historic precedent for how we will kill Americans overseas.

JOHNSON: And Paul says all that is happening without criminal charges, juries and guilty verdicts.

PAUL: Due process can't exist in secret. Checks and balances can't exist in one branch of government. Whether it be upon advice of one lawyer or 10,000 lawyers, if they all work for one man, the president, how can it be anything but a verdict outside the law?

JOHNSON: Iowa Republican Charles Grassley warned his colleagues they had caved too soon without demanding access to several other memos concerning drone strikes. But today's vote means David Barron, called enormously qualified by the White House, could be confirmed to a lifetime position as a judge as early as tomorrow. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.