ACLU sues to represent suspected terrorist in Yemen


Two civil liberties groups filed suit in a federal court Tuesday, asking a judge to strike down an unusual George W. Bush-era regulation that they say has stymied their attempts to challenge the military’s use of “targeted killings” far from a battlefield.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights have wanted to challenge the targeted killing policy but have been stopped by a requirement that they first get permission from the Treasury Department before they sue the government on behalf of a “designated global terrorist.”

The specific case involves Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen in Yemen who is said to be working with Al Qaeda. On July 16, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed the designation on Awlaki, which froze his assets and blocked legal services.

The two civil liberties groups asked on July 23 for a license from the Treasury Department to represent him but have not heard back.

The suit filed in Washington contends that the two groups should be granted a license or the requirement should be struck down as unconstitutional.

“The government is targeting an American citizen for death without any legal process whatsoever, while at the same time impeding lawyers from challenging that death sentence and the government’s sweeping claim of authority to issue it,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We don’t think lawyers should have to obtain permission to bring a lawsuit against the government.”

Hours after the suit was filed, a Treasury Department official said his agency would not stand in the way of a lawsuit filed on behalf of a designated global terrorist.

Adam Szubin, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, disputed the ACLU’s description of its regulations. He said the agency would grant a license for “legal proceedings challenging governmental action.”

The civil liberties groups’ broader goal is to challenge the constitutionality of the U.S. government’s policy of targeted killings outside “the theater of war.”

The Obama administration has increasingly used drones to attack and kill Al Qaeda leaders, not just in the war zones of Afghanistan and its border with Pakistan, but in Yemen and elsewhere.

“We don’t think it is wise or legal to regard the entire planet as the battlefield,” said Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU lawyer.

The constitutional claim relies on the 5th Amendment, which says “no person shall … be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”

In April, the administration put Awlaki on its target list. He is an American-born Muslim cleric who lives in Yemen and has reportedly encouraged a series of attacks on the United States, including the failed Christmas Day bombing of an airplane arriving in Detroit. He was also in contact with Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army major accused of killing 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas, in November.

The cleric’s father has insisted his son is not a terrorist, and he enlisted the help of the two civil liberties groups.