The families of the three — including Anwar al-Awlaki, a New
Mexico-born militant Muslim cleric who had joined al Qaeda's Yemen
affiliate, and his teenage son — sued over their 2011 deaths in U.S.
drone strikes, arguing that the killings were illegal.
Judge Rosemary Collyer of the U.S. District Court in Washington
threw out the case, which had named as defendants former defense
secretary and CIA chief Leon Panetta, former senior military
commander and CIA chief David Petraeus and two other top military
"The question presented is whether federal officials can be held
personally liable for their roles in drone strikes abroad that
target and kill U.S. citizens," Collyer said in her opinion. "The
question raises fundamental issues regarding constitutional
principles, and it is not easy to answer."
But the judge said she would grant the government's motion to
dismiss the case.
Collyer said that the officials named as 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. They cannot be
held personally responsible in monetary damages for conducting war."
Awlaki's U.S.-born son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was 16 years old when
he was killed. Also killed was Samir Khan, a naturalized U.S.
citizen who had moved to Yemen in 2009 and worked on Inspire, an
English-language al Qaeda magazine.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional
Rights, both based in New York, represented the families. They had
argued that in killing American citizens, the government had
violated fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution to due
process and to be free from unreasonable seizure.
"TRAVESTY OF JUSTICE"
"This is a deeply troubling decision that treats the government's
allegations as proof while refusing to allow those allegations to be
tested in court," ACLU lawyer Hina Shamsi said. "The court's view
that it cannot provide a remedy for extrajudicial killings when the
government claims to be at war, even far from any battlefield, is
profoundly at odds with the Constitution."
Center for Constitutional Rights lawyer Maria LaHood said the judge
"effectively convicted" Anwar al-Awlaki "posthumously based solely
on the government's say-so." LaHood said the judge also found that
the constitutional rights of the son and of Khan "weren't violated
because the government didn't target them."
"It seems there's no remedy if the government intended to kill you,
and no remedy if it didn't. This decision is a true travesty of
justice for our constitutional democracy, and for all victims of the
U.S. government's unlawful killings," LaHood added.
Collyer ruled that the families did not have a claim under the
Constitution's Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable
seizures because the government did not seize or restrain the three
who were killed.
[to top of second column]
"Unmanned drones are functionally incapable of 'seizing' a person;
they are designed to kill, not capture," she wrote.
Collyer also wrote that the families had presented a plausible claim
that the government violated Awlaki's due process rights.
"Nonetheless, the court finds no available remedy under U.S. law for
this claim," the judge wrote.
"In this delicate area of war making, national security, and foreign
relations, the judiciary has an exceedingly limited role," Collyer
Allowing claims against individual federal officials in this case
"would impermissibly draw the court into the heart of executive and
military planning and deliberation," she wrote.
It would "require the court to examine national security policy and
the military chain of command as well as operational combat
decisions," she said.
Nasser al-Awlaki, father of Anwar al-Awlaki, said in a statement he
was disappointed in the American justice system and "like any parent
or grandparent would, I want answers from the government when it
decides to take life, but all I have got so far is secrecy and a
refusal even to explain."
Drone attacks have killed several suspected figures in al Qaeda's
Yemen-based affiliate including Awlaki, who is accused of
orchestrating plots to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and
U.S. cargo planes in 2010.
The United States has faced international criticism for its use of
drones to attack militants in places such as Pakistan and Yemen. A
U.N. human rights watchdog last month called on the Obama
administration to limit its use of drones targeting suspected al
Qaeda and Taliban militants.
President Barack Obama's administration increased the number of
drone strikes after he took office in 2009 but attacks have dropped
off in the past year. The United States has come under pressure from
critics to rein in the missile strikes and do more to protect
(Additional reporting by Dena Aubin in New York;
editing by Bernard
Orr and Mohammad Zargham)
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