A US federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against officials from US President Barack Obama’s administration for the 2011 drone-strike killings of three US citizens in Yemen, including an al-Qaeda cleric.
US District Judge Rosemary Collyer on Friday said the case raises serious constitutional issues and is not easy to answer, but that “on these facts and under this circuit’s precedent,” the court will grant the Obama administration’s request.
The suit was against then-US secretary of defense Leon Panetta, then-CIA director David Petraeus and two commanders in the US military’s Special Operations forces.
Permitting a lawsuit against individual officials “under the circumstances of this case would impermissibly draw the court into ‘the heart of executive and military planning and deliberation,’” Collyer said.
She said the suit would require the court to examine national security policy and the military chain of command as well as operational combat decisions regarding the designation of targets and how best to counter threats to the US.
“Defendants must be trusted and expected to act in accordance with the US Constitution when they intentionally target a US citizen abroad at the direction of the president and with the concurrence of Congress,” Collyer said. “They cannot be held personally responsible in monetary damages for conducting war.”
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, called it a “deeply troubling decision that treats the government’s allegations as proof while refusing to allow those allegations to be tested in court.”
At oral arguments in July last year, the judge challenged the Obama administration’s position repeatedly, pointedly asking “where was the due process in this case?”
When an administration lawyer said there were checks in place, including reviews done by the executive branch, Collyer said: “No, no, no, no, no,” adding that “the executive is not an effective check on the executive” when it comes to protecting constitutional rights.
In Friday’s ruling, it was clear that the administration’s arguments had a strong impact on the judge, who was appointed by former US president George W. Bush.
The government argued that the issue is best left to Congress and the executive branch, not judges, and that courts have recognized that the defense of the nation should be left to those political branches.
Anwar al-Awlaki’s classification as a key leader raises fundamental questions regarding the conduct of armed conflict, Collyer’s opinion said.
The US Constitution commits decision-making in this area to the president, as commander in chief, and to Congress, the judge said.
US-born al-Qaeda leader al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, an al-Qaeda propagandist, were killed in a drone strike in September 2011.
Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, was killed the following month.
The lawsuit was filed by Nasser al-Awlaki — Anwar’s father and the teen’s grandfather — and by Sarah Khan, Samir Khan’s mother.
“What I am asking is simply for the government to account to a court its killings of my American son and grandson, and for the court to decide if those killings were lawful,” Nasser al-Awlaki said. Anwar al-Awlaki had been linked to the planning and execution of several attacks targeting US and Western interests, including a 2009 attempt on Christmas Day on a Detroit-bound airliner and a 2010 plot against cargo planes.