A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit aimed at preventing the government from trying to assassinate, without due process, a radical Muslim cleric who was born in the United States but now lives abroad.
The Obama administration hailed the decision by Judge John Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as a valuable affirmation of the government’s secret intelligence and military operations.
But the two groups behind the lawsuit—the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights—pursued the case with a larger goal in mind. They hoped to set a precedent that would prevent the government from executing U.S. citizens outside of combat zones who do not pose an imminent threat to the United States.
The groups noted that the judge did not rule on the merits of the case but rather that there was not sufficient legal standing for the plaintiff in the lawsuit to go forward.
The lawsuit was filed in response to the administration’s active campaign to kill U.S.-born radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of the group known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula who is believed to be hiding in Yemen. Among other things, the group recently claimed responsibility for trying to mail bombs disguised as printer cartridges in cargo planes from Yemen to the United States.
The lawsuit, which listed al-Awlaki’s father, Nasser, as the plaintiff, was filed against CIA Director Leon Panetta, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and President Obama.
“We are pleased with the court’s ruling in this case,” Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said in a statement. “It recognized that a leader of a foreign terrorist organization who rejects our system of justice cannot enjoy the protection of our courts while plotting strikes against Americans.
“The court properly rejected that course and declined to intrude into sensitive military and intelligence matters,” he added. “We are also pleased that the court concurred with the administration that this case could be resolved without addressing the issue of state secrets, which we did not believe it needed to do in this case.”
The ACLU wanted the court to rule that, outside the context of armed conflict, the government can carry out the targeted killing of an American citizen only as a last resort to address an imminent threat to life or physical safety.
It also hopes the lawsuit would prompt the court to order the government to disclose the legal standard it uses to place U.S. citizens on government kill lists.
“If the court’s ruling is correct, the government has unreviewable authority to carry out the targeted killing of any American, anywhere, whom the president deems to be a threat to the nation,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU. “It would be difficult to conceive of a proposition more inconsistent with the Constitution or more dangerous to American liberty.”