7 Pages That Gave President Obama Cover to Kill Americans

A newly released memo from the Office of Legal Counsel calls the wisdom of David Barron's lifetime appointment to a federal judgeship into question.
Reuters

Before David Barron was confirmed this year to a lifetime seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, his critics objected that the cover he gave President Obama to carry out extrajudicial killings of American citizens ought to disqualify him from the bench. "I rise today to oppose the nomination of anyone who would argue that the president has the power to kill an American citizen not involved in combat and without a trial," Senator Rand Paul declared in remarks opposing the nomination. "I rise to say that there is no legal precedent for killing citizens not involved in combat and that any nominee who rubber stamps and grants such power to a president is not worthy of being one step away from the Supreme Court."

Barron, who wrote his controversial memo while at the Office of Legal Counsel, was confirmed anyway, before the public was permitted to see the legal reasoning he used to weaken the Fifth Amendment as well as an executive order banning assassinations and a statute prohibiting the murder of American citizens abroad. Now that analysis is available for review. 

One memo was released with significant redactions on June 23. Charlie Savage of The New York Times, who has fought alongside the ACLU for the release of all such memos, set forth what it revealed about Team Obama's legal reasoning. Then on Friday, the administration released an even earlier Office of Legal Counsel memo. Also heavily redacted, it nevertheless gives us insight into Barron's initial attitude toward one of the most fraught questions in American constitutional law. The memo, co-written with Marty Lederman, is here. And it coveys disturbing information about an Obama-appointed federal judge.

Though the targeted killing of an American citizen implicates the Fifth Amendment, an executive order that forbids assassinations, and a federal statute that prohibits murdering American citizens abroad, the initial memo giving Obama legal cover to carry out extrajudicial killings spanned just seven pages.

As that length suggests, the memo, which could have resulted in a human's death at any moment, was woefully incomplete as a legal analysis. The Times reported as much before its reporters had even seen the document based on interviews. "As months passed, Mr. Barron and Mr. Lederman grew uneasy," the newspaper reported. "They told colleagues there were issues they had not adequately addressed, particularly after reading a legal blog that focused on a statute that bars Americans from killing other Americans overseas. In light of the gravity of the question and with more time, they began drafting a second, more comprehensive memo, expanding and refining their legal analysis and, in an unusual step, researching and citing dense thickets of intelligence reports supporting the premise that Mr. Awlaki was plotting attacks."

Note what this means. For months, the Obama administration was poised to kill an American at any moment, based on legal advice even its authors believed was inadequate and incomplete. And those authors, Barron and Lederman, signed off on an American's death before delving into intelligence reports and doing other due diligence they completed for the later memo, which would be more than four times as long as their earlier effort.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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