Lawsuits seek more than U.S. acknowledgement of drone killings

WASHINGTON Thu May 23, 2013 6:54pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a point about his administration's counter-terrorism policy at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, May 23, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a point about his administration's counter-terrorism policy at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, May 23, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is facing demands in court to reveal more about the U.S. drone program, despite his speech addressing it on Thursday and his government's acknowledgement a day earlier that four Americans have died in drone strikes.

Civil liberties advocates, news organizations and the families of those who died have brought lawsuits in New York, Washington and Oakland, California, challenging the government's refusal to provide information.

Now that the drone program's existence has at last been confirmed, government lawyers on Wednesday indicated they would abandon their previous arguments, which did not confirm or deny the drone program. In the case in Oakland, they said they would give a new response to the Freedom of Information Act request filed by the First Amendment Coalition within 30 days.

That suit asks the government to release the legal justification behind the 2011 targeted drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and militant cleric in Yemen.

In a separate case in Washington, a federal judge acted immediately after news reports emerged on the U.S. acknowledgement of the four American deaths, and late Wednesday she ordered Justice Department lawyers to file a memorandum next month on the implications of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's letter on Wednesday about the drone program.

The letter from Holder to lawmakers confirmed for the first time reports that New Mexico-born cleric Awlaki died after he was targeted in a U.S. attack.

Three other U.S. citizens have died in drone attacks but were not intended targets, Holder wrote. Those other Americans were Awlaki's teenage son Abdulrahman; Samir Khan, an American of Pakistani origin who died in Yemen; and Jude Kenan Mohammed of North Carolina, who was indicted on U.S. terrorism charges in 2009 and was killed in Pakistan.

Holder's letter was intended as a step toward reducing government secrecy around the drone attacks, which the United States considered essential in fighting militants in Pakistan and Yemen. The administration has come under criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers for withholding information about the drone program.

On Thursday, Obama announced plans for restricting drone attacks, including putting the military in charge of the program, rather than the CIA.

The American Civil Liberties Union said on Thursday the details in Holder's letter will not be enough to get the organization to back down from lawsuits it has filed in New York and Washington federal courts.

DAMAGES SOUGHT

"We hope that the government will move beyond unverifiable allegations and actually respond on the merits to our lawsuit seeking due process," Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, said in a phone interview.

The ACLU represents family members of Awlaki and his son, and of Khan in one of the lawsuits. After seeing news reports about Holder's letter, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer in Washington on Wednesday ordered Justice Department lawyers to file a memorandum on its impact.

The suit asks for a finding that the government violated the three men's rights and for damages, possibly including money. The Justice Department asked for the suit to be dismissed, saying it involves classified information and that the drone strikes are a matter best left to Obama, not the courts.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Thursday.

Lawsuits by the ACLU, the New York Times and the First Amendment Coalition, a free speech organization, seek documents related to the drone program. They want to see a memorandum from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel that lays out the arguments giving the U.S. government authority to target Awlaki despite his U.S. citizenship.

In trying to defeat the First Amendment Coalition's suit, the Justice Department initially responded that it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any memorandum.

Reversing themselves, lawyers on Wednesday wrote, "The president has determined that the United States' responsibility for that operation can now be publicly acknowledged." They promised an update within 30 days.

Thomas Burke, a lawyer for the First Amendment Coalition, said he was "incredibly encouraged" by the week's events and optimistic the legal memorandum might be declassified at least in part.

"We've been waiting a long time, and the public's been waiting a long time, to see and review and debate among themselves the legal position of the United States," Burke said.

The New York Times is pursuing the same kind of information in federal court in New York, with the support of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a journalist group.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Bill Trott)

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