WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit seeking to halt the Obama administration’s program to capture or kill American citizens who join militant groups abroad, a case involving a Muslim cleric in Yemen.
The ruling was a defeat for civil liberties groups that brought the lawsuit on behalf of the father of Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who joined al Qaeda in Yemen and has been tied to plots against the United States.
U.S. District Judge John Bates threw out the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds. Bates said the father lacked legal standing to bring the case and that his claims presented political questions that cannot be decided by the courts, requiring dismissal of the lawsuit without addressing the heart of the allegations.
The lawsuit aimed to halt the program and reveal the criteria the Obama administration set for targeting someone.
U.S. officials have refused to officially confirm the existence of the program, although they have said the CIA gave the green light to capture or kill al-Awlaki, who has never been tried or convicted of any terrorism-related crime.
“The serious issues regarding the merits of the alleged authorization of the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen overseas must await another day or another (non-judicial) forum,” Bates concluded in his 83-page ruling.
The judge called it a unique, extraordinary case. “Vital considerations of national security and military and foreign affairs ... are at play,” he wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that brought the case, said it still believed the U.S. government’s power to use lethal force against American citizens should be subject to meaningful court oversight.
“If the court’s ruling is correct, the government has unreviewable authority to carry out the targeted killing of any American, anywhere, whom the president deems to be a threat to the nation,” said Jameel Jaffer, the group’s deputy legal director.
Al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and who lived in Virginia until leaving the United States shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks, has been sought by Yemeni authorities who also want to capture or kill him.
U.S. officials have described al-Awlaki as having a leadership role in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In addition to communicating with the U.S. Army major who gunned down 13 people at a military base in Texas last year, he has urged attacks on the United States in Internet videos and writings.
The al Qaeda affiliate has said it was behind the plot by a Nigerian man who tried to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb hidden in his underwear. The group also said it was involved in a more recent plot to send package bombs via U.S. cargo carriers.
Assistant Attorney General Tony West said he was pleased with the ruling and called al-Awlaki “very dangerous.”
If al-Awlaki wants access to the U.S. court system, then he should surrender to authorities and “be held accountable for his actions,” West told reporters at the Justice Department.
The administration advanced a number of arguments on why the lawsuit should be dismissed.
The judge said he was throwing out the lawsuit without embracing the administration’s claims that the case could expose national security state secrets.
Editing by Will Dunham