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Federal appeals court releases secret legal memo on drone killing

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit [official website] on Monday released a previously secret government memo [text, PDF] outlining the Obama administration's legal basis for the 2011 drone strike against US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] in Yemen. According to the memo, al-Awlaki played an important role in al Qaeda [JURIST news archive] in the Arabian Peninsula. The disclosure of the memo represents a significant concession [WP report] by the Obama administration after years of fighting to keep the memo secret from the public. The memo stated that the administration does not believe that al-Awlaki's US citizenship imposed constitutional limitations that would prevent them from taking lethal action. The memo's release was applauded by various civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website], whose deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer called it an "overdue but nonetheless crucial step towards transparency."

Awlaki, a dual US-Yemeni citizen, had been approved for targeted killing [JURIST backgrounder] by the Obama administration, an action that was challenged based on Awlaki's US citizenship. In December 2010 a judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] dismissed a lawsuit [JURIST reports] challenging the Obama administration's ability to conduct "targeted killings" in al-Awlaki's case. Judge John Bates found that the court lacked jurisdiction over the case, filed by the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Awlaki's father, dismissing it on procedural grounds and noting that important questions remain. Bates heard arguments [JURIST report] in the case in November 2010 on the same day Awlaki called for jihadist attacks on US citizens in a video posted on extremist websites. Earlier that month Yemeni prosecutors charged [JURIST report] Awlaki with incitement to kill foreigners, and he was later sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison.

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