A federal judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit against top Obama administration officials that was filed by the parents of three United States citizens whom the government killed without trial in drone strikes, including Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/05/world/judge-dismisses-suit-against-administration-officials-over-drone-strikes.html?ref=world&_r=0
In a 41-page opinion, Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that courts should hesitate before deciding to hold a government official personally responsible for violating a citizen’s constitutional rights in the context of a wartime action.
“The persons holding the jobs of the named defendants must be trusted and expected to act in accordance with the U.S. Constitution when they intentionally target a U.S. citizen abroad at the direction of the president and with the concurrence of Congress,” Judge Collyer wrote. “They cannot be held personally responsible in monetary damages for conducting war.”
The lawsuit sought unspecified damages against several top national security officials for the deaths caused by two American drone strikes in Yemen.
In September 2011, a strike targeting Mr. Awlaki killed him and Samir Khan, also an American citizen. Two weeks later, another drone strike killed Mr. Awlaki’s teenage son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. The Obama administration has said that the deaths of Mr. Khan and the younger Mr. Awlaki were unintentional.
If it stands, the ruling suggests that courts have no role to play, before or after, in reviewing the legality of government decisions to kill citizens whom officials deem to be terrorists in overseas wartime operations, even away from “hot” battlefields where conventional American forces are on the ground.
“We believe the court reached the right result,” said Brian Fallon, a Justice Department spokesman. Lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which helped bring the suit, said they had not decided whether to appeal.
Baher Azmy, the center’s legal director, criticized the judge for accepting “at face value the government’s claims” that Mr. Awlaki was a terrorist without first conducting an adversarial hearing to gather evidence.
“The Constitution cannot permit the killing of U.S. citizens based on the government’s untested claim of dangerousness,” Mr. Azmy said.
Judge Collyer cited officials’ statements that Mr. Awlaki was a terrorist leader with the Yemeni group known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. She also cited an account of his role in a plot to blow up a Detroit-bound jet in 2009, based on court documents from the trial of a Nigerian man who pleaded guilty to trying to bomb the plane, and statements by Mr. Awlaki praising and encouraging acts of terrorism.
Nasser al-Awlaki, the father of Anwar and grandfather of Abdulrahman, and Sarah Khan, Mr. Khan’s mother, filed the lawsuit in July 2012 against several officials it accused of authorizing and directing the strikes, including the secretary of defense and the director of the C.I.A. It did not name the president, who is immune from such lawsuits.
Nasser al-Awlaki had filed a lawsuit in 2010 seeking an injunction to stop attempts to kill his son, but another Federal District Court judge, John D. Bates, dismissed the case on the grounds that Mr. Awlaki had no standing to bring it on behalf of his son. In the second lawsuit, Mr. Awlaki was acting as the executor of his son’s and grandson’s estates.
In May 2013, the Obama administration declassified and formally acknowledged the fact that it had killed the three men. It argued that the case should be dismissed without any further evidence before the court. Judge Collyer agreed, saying that allowing the plaintiffs to pursue the case would “impermissibly draw the court” into executive deliberations about how to protect national security.
“The Constitution commits decision-making in this area to the president, as commander in chief, and to Congress,” she wrote, adding that allowing a lawsuit against top government officials would “hinder their ability in the future to act decisively and without hesitation in defense of U.S. interests.”
Judge Collyer was appointed to Federal District Court in 2002 by President George W. Bush. Last year, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. selected her to serve a term on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees government spying on American soil, filling a seat previously held by Judge Bates.
The Obama administration is separately fighting Freedom of Information Act lawsuits brought by The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union seeking disclosure of a classified Justice Department memo explaining its legal reasoning for the strike, although an unclassified “white paper” summarizing those arguments has become public.