WASHINGTON -- A lawsuit filed Wednesday contends that the U.S. violated the constitutional rights of Al Qaeda cleric Anwar Awlaki and two other U.S. citizens when it killed them with drone strikes in Yemen last year.
The lawsuit questions the legality of two drone strikes, one in September that killed Awlaki and Al Qaeda propagandist Samir Khan, and a second in October whose victims included Awlaki’s 16-year-old son.
All three were U.S. citizens, and the overarching theme of the lawsuit is that the attacks violated the Constitution’s guarantee against the deprivation of life without due process of law.
Lawyers for two activist groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed the case on behalf of relatives of the dead. The defendants are CIA Director David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Special Operations Commander Adm. William McRaven, and Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads the Joint Special Operations Command, known as JSOC.
The CIA and JSOC are cooperating in carrying out drone strikes in Yemen, U.S. officials have said.
The suit does not name President Obama, who is reported to have made the decision to target Awlaki.
“The Constitution does not permit a bureaucratized program under which Americans far from any battlefield are summarily killed by their own government on the basis of shifting legal standards and allegations never tested in court,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director.
The CIA and Pentagon had no comment on the lawsuit.
Among the lawsuit’s arguments is that the U.S. had ample chance to attempt to capture Anwar Awlaki because he had been under surveillance for some time -– as long as three weeks, according to "Kill or Capture," a new book by Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman that is cited in the complaint.
The lawsuit also argues that the killings were unlawful because the U.S. is not at war with Yemen, and that Awlaki did not pose the sort of imminent threat to American lives that would have justified an action against him.
In the case of the other two victims -- who were not the intended targets of the strikes, according to U.S. officials — the suit says the U.S. did not take sufficient care to avoid civilian casualties.
The October strike that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Denver-born Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki, “killed at least seven people at an open-air restaurant,” including one other child, the lawsuit charges. The intended target was Ibraham Banna, a top Al Qaeda figure of Egyptian descent, but it was later reported that he was not among those killed by the strike.
“When a 16-year-old boy who has never been charged with a crime nor ever alleged to have committed a violent act is blown to pieces by U.S. missiles, alarm bells should go off,” said Center for Constitutional Rights senior staff attorney Pardiss Kebriaei. “The U.S. program of sending drones into countries in and against which it is not at war and eliminating so-called enemies on the basis of executive memos and conference calls is illegal, out of control, and must end.”
U.S. officials say Awlaki posed a major threat to the U.S. homeland, in part because his English sermons encouraged people to kill Americans, and in part because they allege he played an operational role in several terrorist plots, including the attempt to bring down an airliner over Detroit in December 2009. But the U.S. government has never sought to prove those allegations in court.
-- Ken Dilanian
Photo: Anwar Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was a U.S. citizen, was killed in a drone strike in northern Yemen in 2011. Credit: Getty Images