The Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the lawsuit Monday in Washington. It asks US District Judge John Bates to order the government not to carry out the alleged plot to conduct a targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki.
Mr. Awlaki is a militant Islamic lecturer who used the Internet to spread the ideology of Al Qaeda. Born in the US and educated at American colleges, Awlaki has provided a bridge between militants overseas and some radical Muslims based in the US.
He is reported to have encouraged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. He allegedly helped train Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who has been charged with attempting to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day, and is said to have inspired would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
According to the lawsuit, US officials placed Awlaki’s name on a “kill list” in early 2010. The suit says that American officials are using secret criteria to determine who goes on the list.
“The right to life is the most fundamental of all rights,” says ACLU lawyer Arthur Spitzer in the complaint.
“US citizens have a right to know what conduct may subject them to execution at the hands of their own government,” Mr. Spitzer writes. “Due process requires, at a minimum, that citizens be put on notice of what may cause them to be put to death by the state.”
The complaint adds: “Both the Constitution and international law prohibit targeted killing except as a last resort to protect against concrete, specific, and imminent threats.”
Government officials have defended the program, saying that after the 9/11 attacks Congress granted the executive branch wide latitude to take action to protect the country from Al Qaeda.
“The US is careful to ensure that all its operations used to prosecute the armed conflict against those forces, including lethal operations, comply with all applicable laws, including the laws of war,” Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.
"This administration is using every legal measure available to defeat Al Qaeda, and we will continue to do so as long as its forces pose a threat to this nation," he said.
The same two civil rights groups filed a lawsuit on Aug. 3 challenging the legality of Treasury Department regulations that require lawyers in the case to obtain a government-issued license before they could file a lawsuit on behalf of someone on the government’s terrorism list. That suit asked a judge to declare the licensing requirement illegal and unconstitutional.
Both lawsuits were filed in the name of Awlaki’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki. The arrangement was necessary, according to the complaint, because his son, Anwar, is in hiding in Yemen and cannot gain access to lawyers or the courts to assert his constitutional rights without risking imminent death.
The elder Awlaki was a Fulbright scholar from Yemen studying in the US in the 1960s. He married a US citizen and they had a son, Anwar, who is also a US citizen because he was born in the US. The family returned to Yemen in 1978.
“Upon information and belief,” the suit says, “Anwar [Al-Awlaki] is now subject to a standing order that permits the CIA and JSOC to kill him.”
The suit alleges that the targeted-killing program violates Awlaki’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure and his Fifth Amendment right not to be deprived of life without due process.