WASHINGTON A federal judge fired difficult questions at the Obama administration and at civil liberties lawyers on Friday in a court case about whether U.S. citizens abroad targeted in drone strikes can seek compensation from the government.
At a hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, Judge Rosemary Collyer said she would rule as soon as she could, at least on the preliminary question of whether citizens or their family members have a right to bring a lawsuit.
The U.S. government acknowledged in May that it had killed four Americans in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan since 2009 as part of its campaign against al Qaeda and affiliated groups.
The families of three of those killed, including New Mexico-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, are suing over their deaths. They argue the killings were illegal.
In a courtroom so full that people stood in the back, Collyer openly struggled with what role U.S. courts should have in overseeing the highly secretive targeted-killing program run by President Barack Obama and his senior staff.
She reacted skeptically to U.S. Justice Department lawyer Brian Hauck, who urged Collyer to leave the program's work to the military and the White House. "The executive is not an effective check on the executive when it comes to a person's constitutional rights," Collyer said.
To civil liberties lawyers who argued the killings took place away from active hostilities, Collyer said that the United States is at war against a diffuse group of militants without a clearly defined battleground.
"There is no doubt that al Qaeda attacked the United States in 2001, and that the organization has called for continued attacks against U.S. interests around the world," she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, both based in New York, represent the families.
Hina Shamsi and Pardiss Kebriaei, lawyers for the groups respectively, said that in killing the Americans the government violated fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution to due process and to be free from unreasonable seizure.
The lawyers also said that for those rights to be meaningful for U.S. citizens, the families of those killed must be able to assert those rights in a courtroom.
Collyer countered that the lawsuit was highly unusual, and she wondered what documents the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights might demand from the government if she allowed the lawsuit to move forward.