The Cable

Rand Paul Goes Down Swinging Against Obama's Judicial Nominee

The White House's decision to release a secret memo describing its legal justification for killing U.S. citizens abroad has paved the way for the confirmation of David Barron, the author of the memo, to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But not without a loud public fight.

On Wednesday, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul blasted Barron, a former top Justice Department official, for authoring a memo that justifies the targeting of Americans overseas who are suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. Although pleased that the White House agreed to release Barron's memo in the coming days, the Republican lawmaker vocally opposed Barron's confirmation.

"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," said Paul. "Any nominee who rubber stamps and grants such power to a president is not worthy of being placed one step away from the Supreme Court."

The libertarian's critique of Obama's drone program was followed by similar criticisms by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Or.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.) on the Senate floor on Wednesday. However, even Republicans concede they won't be able to stop Barron's confirmation following Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's easing of filibuster rules in November.

"Because of Reid's rules changes he will get confirmed, but support among Republicans will be limited," said a Republican Senate aide. "There is the drone stuff, but also concerns from conservative social groups that are voting against him as well."

Barron's controversial drone memo was written in advance of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American with ties to al Qaeda who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. A later U.S. strike killed Awlaki's teenage son. In a letter to Congress last May, Attorney General Eric Holder said U.S. drones had killed a total of four Americans in Yemen and Pakistan. 

Barron's almost certain ascension to one of the nation's most powerful courts didn't stop Paul from lashing out at liberal critics of Obama's drone war, such as Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who have announced their support for Barron following the decision to make the memos public. "Some seem to be placated by the fact that, oh, they can read these memos," he said. "The Barron memos, at their very core, disrespect the Bill of Rights."

Paul challenged Democrats to consider whether they would support a Barron nomination if he wasn't being pushed by a Democratic president. "I would oppose this nomination were it coming from a Republican president," he said.

Barron, currently a Harvard law professor, served as the acting head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in 2009 and 2010. Many Republicans, such as Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, oppose him for his liberal orthodoxy, saying he's "even outside the mainstream of typically left-wing legal thought that we see in so many of our law schools." 

Last week, 47 conservative groups, including the Committee for Justice, asked the Senate to oppose his nomination, calling him "arguably the most unabashed proponent of judicial activism ever nominated by President Obama." GOP critics also cited his purported lack of experience. 

The liberal American Civil Liberties Union urged Reid to delay the vote until Barron's legal opinions were made public.

However, Barron enjoys broad support among Democrats, who control the Senate, and even liberal critics of Obama's drone war, such as Wyden, pledged support for his nomination.

The Cable

Forget Ukraine: Washington's Now Targeting Russians Tied to a Dead Lawyer

The Obama administration added more Russian names to a U.S. blacklist Tuesday, risking a further deterioration in Washington's already troubled relationship with Moscow. The trigger wasn't the high-profile standoff over the future of eastern Ukraine, however. This time around the hard-hitting measures came in response to the mysterious 2009 death of a Russian lawyer-turned-whistleblower.

The U.S. added 12 people -- including doctors, prison officials and a judge -- to a list of Russian human rights abusers for their alleged roles in the deaths of Sergei Magnitsky and two other Kremlin critics. Magnitsky, the highest profile victim, was arrested after trying to bring to light a wide-ranging tax fraud and died in prison after authorities allegedly denied him urgently needed medical care. The new U.S. move -- which freezes the assets and denies visas to virtually everyone involved in Magnitsky's arrest, trial and medical treatment -- came in response to lobbying by powerful lawmakers who see the case as part of a broader pattern of abuse in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Washington took the move despite what appears to be a concerted attempt by the Putin government to prevent tensions with the West from rising further in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea and its dispatch of tens of thousands of troops to its border with eastern Ukraine. Putin has struck a more conciliatory tone recently in advance of a two-day trip to China designed to try to seal a massive gas deal with Beijing. The Russian strongman has promised to withdraw his forces from the frontier with Ukraine and praised the pro-Western government in Kiev -- which he normally derides as a illegitimate junta -- for launching what he implied was a serious dialogue with the pro-Russian forces who have taken over swaths of eastern Ukraine.

It's not clear if those were just words, however. This is at least the third time Putin has promised to withdraw his forces from the Ukrainian border, but Pentagon officials and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there's been no sign yet of a withdrawal.

Washington has tried to force Putin's hand by freezing the assets of 45 people, including some of the Russian president's closest allies, and 19 banks and companies since March in an attempt to pressure Putin to reverse his annexation of Crimea and abandon his threats of invading eastern Ukraine. The Treasury Department insisted that Tuesday's measures, by contrast, weren't prompted by anything Putin did or didn't do in Ukraine.

"Our action today is independent of Russia's actions in Ukraine," a spokeswoman for Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control said in an email, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Instead, the Obama administration was responding to a congressional request made under a 2012 law the administration originally fought. The Magnitsky Act gave Congress the right to request sanctions against Russians accused of human rights abuses. The State Department, Treasury Department, and President Obama's National Security Council all originally opposed the idea, but came around to it after prominent senators made it clear they wouldn't vote to normalize trade relations with Russia unless the provision was attached.

"We appreciate the strong interest in Congress in this case and human rights in Russia, and will continue to coordinate with Congress on these issues," the Treasury spokeswoman said.

The new measures target doctors, investigators and a judge that worked on Magnitsky's case, as well as four people who were allegedly involved in the $230 million tax fraud he exposed. Dr. Larisa Litvinova, for instance, head of the Butyrka Detention Center Hospital was added to the list for withholding "appropriate medical care for Magnitsky while he was being held at the pre-trial detention center," according to Treasury.  The administration previously added 18 names, mostly mid-level officials, to the Magnitsky list in April 2013.

Treasury also blacklisted two people allegedly responsible for the deaths of two other Kremlin critics, American journalist Paul Klebnikov and Chechen rebel fighter Umar Israilov.

American hedge fund manager Bill Browder, who helped push the Magnitsky Act into law after the Russian lawyer was arrested and died in a Moscow prison, said Tuesday's list proves that the law can be used to punish Russians involved in new human rights abuses, not just those involved in the Magnitsky case.

"The hope is that imposing visa sanctions and asset freezes on human rights abusers can happen whether there's a good relationship or a bad relationship, diplomatically, with a country," said Browder.