WASHINGTON May 23 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.
"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
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
"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