NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Attorney General has personally asked for more time for the government to file papers in a lawsuit launched by a civil liberties group seeking the legal records authorizing strikes that have killed U.S. citizens abroad.
In a publicly filed letter on Monday to District judge Colleen McMahon, federal prosecutors in Manhattan said that Attorney General Eric Holder had instructed them to request an extension.
Holder "has personally directed us to seek this additional time to allow the government to finalize its position with regard to the sensitive national security matters presented in this case," the prosecutors - who represent the U.S. government in this case - said.
"Given the significance of the matters presented in this case, the government's position is being deliberated at the highest level of the executive branch," the letter said.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, declined to comment on the court filing.
The American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit was filed in Manhattan federal court in February. It called on the judge to order various U.S. law enforcement agencies to disclose legal documents justifying the targeted killings, such as the fatal drone strike against dual U.S.-Yemeni citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in September last year.
Awlaki was a suspected al-Qaeda militant. U.S. officials confirmed that a second American, Samir Khan, was also killed in the drone attack. Khan had served as editor of Inspire, a glossy English-language magazine used by the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a propaganda and recruitment vehicle.
Reuters reported [nN1E7930RY] last year that American militants like al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior U.S. government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions.
There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House's National Security Council, current and former officials have said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.
The ACLU said it filed its lawsuit after requests under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain legal documents were denied.
In recent speeches, both Holder and Defense Department lawyer Jeh Johnson have acknowledged the existence of the targeted killing program, and have said the use of lethal force against Americans abroad would have to comply with several principles governing the law of war.
Given the speeches and other comments in the media by U.S. officials about the program, the ACLU has argued the government cannot be allowed to claim secrecy and security concerns as a reason not to turn over the documents.
Monday's letter was the second time the government has asked Judge McMahon for an extension to file their motion for summary judgment, which was originally due on April 13. McMahon agreed to postpone the deadline to May 21.
In granting the extension on Monday, McMahon agreed to keep secret an accompanying classified declaration by James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, which the letter said explained the "complexity" of the government's position.
"Believe me, I appreciate the irony," McMahon said in a handwritten note at the top of the letter, a dry dig at the government's concern for secrecy in this case.
The case is ACLU v. U.S. Dept of Justice et al., U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-0794.
Additional Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Editing by Eric Walsh