Author of Obama drone memos clears hurdle for federal judgeship

David Barron testifies before the Senate Judicary Committee during his nomination hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a contentious federal appeals court nominee who helped develop the government's legal rationale for using drones to kill American terrorist suspects abroad.

The 52-43 vote cleared the way for a Thursday roll call on the confirmation of David Barron for a seat on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is in a tight re-election race, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia were the only lawmakers to cross party lines and vote against him.

As the Justice Department in 2009 and 2010, Barron wrote memos that asserted the government's right to kill Americans overseas who are believed to be terrorists. Barron, now a Harvard Law School professor, also worked at the department in the Clinton administration.

A U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011 killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American who administration officials say became an al-Qaida leader.

The department has acknowledged that three other Americans also were killed by drones in overseas counterterrorism operations, but that those deaths were inadvertent.

The Obama administration on Tuesday decided to release a censored version of one of Barron memos. It was not immediately clear when that document will be disclosed. But the decision to not fight a federal appeals court order to release it won over at least two Democrats who had demanded that it be made public.

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, said it will be "a very constructive step" for the administration to release the document.

"I believe that every American has a right to know when their government believes it has a right to kill them," Wyden said.

Weeks ago, Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican and possible 2016 presidential contender, threatened to try delaying Barron's nomination unless the administration released legal documents giving its legal rationale for the killings.

Paul said this week he would oppose Barron under any conditions because killing Americans without a trial is unconstitutional.

"I cannot and will not support a lifetime appointment of anyone who believes it's OK to kill an American citizen not involved in combat without a trial," Paul said Wednesday.

Other Republicans said Barron was too liberal.

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