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the Wall Street Journal

White House Defends Targeted Killing Program

Evan Perez

The Obama administration was preparing a request on Friday to block a lawsuit over the scope of its targeted killing program for suspected terrorists, in a case that challenges the government's powers in its war on terror.

U.S. officials say national security is threatened by Yemeni-American Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whose fiery sermons are a major draw for anti-American jihadists on the Internet. Mr. Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, is believed to be targeted for extrajudicial killing for his alleged involvement in terror plots against the U.S.

A terrorism task force led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in San Diego for years has been building a case against Mr. Awlaki, according to people familiar with the matter. Obama administration officials have recently weighed whether to bring an indictment against him, these people say.

Last month, Mr. Awlaki's father, with the aid of U.S. civil-liberties groups, filed suit in District of Columbia federal court seeking an order to stop the government from killing Mr. Awlaki unless he posed an immediate threat. The suit also asked the court to force the government to disclose the process it used to determine that a U.S. citizen can be executed without trial.

The government was scheduled to file its response to the suit late Friday. A U.S. official said the government would challenge Nasser al-Awlaki's standing to bring the suit on behalf of his son, who is believed to be hiding in Yemen. The government doesn't admit or deny whether it plans to kill Mr. Awlaki, or disclose any details of the targeted killing program. But the official said it would argue that Mr. Awlaki, as a U.S. citizen, would have access to the courts if he wants to surrender peacefully.

The filing was set to argue that it is not for the courts to decide whether it is legal to kill an American in Yemen, far from the actual battlefield in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is fighting al Qaeda. Congress and the president should determine that question, according to the filing.

As a fallback argument, the U.S. was planning to say that even if a court decides to allow a case to proceed, the government's state-secrets privilege would prohibit the suit because classified programs could be exposed.

Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said: "Targeting a person for assassination without due process is exactly the question for the courts to answer."

The center and the American Civil Liberties Union are representing the elder Mr. Awlaki.

Asked whether the father has standing to bring the lawsuit, Mr. Warren says: "The fact is, Mr. Awlaki cannot take steps to legally protect his life without endangering his life. Even communicating with lawyers risks exposing his location, potentially leading to them killing him."

U.S. authorities have alleged links between Mr. Awlaki and several recent terrorist plots, including communications with Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people in a shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, last year, and with Christmas Day airline-bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The Treasury Department in July designated Mr. Awlaki a "global terrorist."

The Awlaki case raises broader issues of how far the government can go in its efforts to pursue terrorists. Robert Chesney, a University of Texas law professor, said: "What this is really about is the overarching question: Is the battlefield really limited to Afghanistan or is it the whole world?"

The Obama administration has expanded the use of targeted killings, mostly in drone attacks carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency or the military. Most of those attacks have been in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where al Qaeda planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The administration has cited the laws of war and a post-9/11 congressional authorization for use of military force as the legal grounds for many of its counterterrorism moves. 

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