[JURIST] Judge John Bates of the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] heard arguments Monday on the Obama administration’s ability to conduct “targeted killings” in the case of radical Muslim cleric and US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki [BBC profile; JURIST news archive]. Counsel for the plaintiffs, including Awlaki’s father, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) [advocacy websites] argued against the government’s right to kill any US citizen labeled a terrorist without a court warrant and demanded [press releases] it disclose the standards for authorizing the targeted killings outside of combat zones of individuals considered threats to national security. Lawyers for the government argued the case should be dismissed on procedural grounds, saying Awlaki’s father, a citizen of Yemen, has no legal standing to bring the lawsuit [JURIST reports] and that the case involves state secrets [NYT report] the court is not permitted to examine. ACLU Deputy Legal Director, Jameel Jaffer, who presented arguments for the plaintiffs, said the Fourth and Fifth Amendments [texts] present limits to the government’s power to target American citizens:
If the Constitution means anything, it surely means that the president does not have unreviewable authority to summarily execute any American whom he concludes is an enemy of the state. It’s the government’s responsibility to protect the nation from terrorist attacks, but the courts have a crucial role to play in ensuring that counterterrorism policies are consistent with the Constitution.
The arguments took place on the same day Awlaki called for jihadist attacks on US citizens in a video posted on extremist websites and found by SITE intelligence group [official website]. In the 23-minute video, Awlaki speaks in Arabic to jihadists, telling them no special permission is needed [WSJ report] to kill Americans or any enemies of Muslims. Awlaki, a suspected member of al Qaeda [GlobalSecurity backgrounder], is believed to be linked to Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooting suspect, as well as the Christmas Day airplane bombing attempt [JURIST news archive].
Last week, Yemeni prosecutors charged [JURIST report] Awlaki with incitement to kill foreigners. Awlaki is believed to be hiding in Yemen and was charged in absentia. US officials have labeled Awlaki as a terrorist and have placed him on a list to be captured or killed. The Yemeni government has sent forces on a counter-terrorism operation into the Province of Shabwa, where it is believed that Awlaki is hiding. In August, the ACLU and the CCR obtained a specially designated global terrorist (SDGT) license that enables them to represent Awlaki, but announced they were still pursuing a legal challenge [JURIST reports] to the licensing scheme. The Obama administration has defended [JURIST report] its use of targeted killings, specifically those made by unmanned predator drone strikes [JURIST news archive]. State Department Legal Adviser [official website] Harold Koh [academic profile] has said the drones “comply with all applicable law” because they target only military targets and enable minimal damage to civilians and civilian structures. Last October, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston [official website] noted that the use of unmanned drones by the US to carry out attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan may be illegal [JURIST report].