WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration will on Monday try to persuade a U.S. judge to throw out a lawsuit challenging its program to capture or kill U.S. citizens who have joined militant groups like al Qaeda, including Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
In a test of President Barack Obama’s war powers, the Center for Constitutional Rights and American Civil Liberties Union have demanded the program be halted and subject to public scrutiny over when Americans can be targeted.
The Obama administration has refused to officially confirm the program exists, though U.S. officials have said the CIA has been given the green light to capture or kill al-Awlaki, an American citizen hiding in Yemen who has been tied to several plots against the United States in the last year.
U.S. District Judge John Bates will hear arguments at 2 p.m. (1900 GMT) by the civil liberties groups who want an injunction against the program as well as rebuttals from the administration, which has urged him to dismiss the case.
The ACLU and CCR filed the lawsuit in August on behalf of al-Awlaki’s father, who wants to protect his son, but they argue the case is more about the president’s authority to use lethal force and the limits upon that power.
Obama’s Justice Department urged the judge not to interfere with the president’s decisions on how best to protect the country. The government also contends al-Awlaki can show up in court to defend himself, so his father has no right to bring the case.
“If the arguments that the government has made in this case are accepted, then the president will have the unreviewable authority to order the assassination of any American whom he labels an enemy of the state,” Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU lawyer who will argue part of the case to Bates, told Reuters.
Jaffer stressed the challenge was bigger than al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico but left the country in late 2001, and focused on whether individuals far from the battlefield can be lawfully targeted.
Nonetheless, al-Awlaki will loom large over the hearing as U.S. officials have said the cleric has taken a leadership role in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which has claimed responsibility for several recent attacks.
And that has taken on even more significance in the last two weeks because the group said it was behind the plot to send bombs to the United States through U.S. cargo carriers. The packages were intercepted before they could explode during stopovers in England and Dubai after a tip from Saudi Arabia.
“We are not proposing that the president can never carry out a targeted killing of a suspected terrorist even if the terrorist is an American, but the question is how broad is that authority,” Jaffer said.
Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller declined to comment ahead of the hearing.
Miller said in September the challenge “asks a court to take the unprecedented step of intervening in military matters and directing the president how to manage military action -- all for the benefit of a leader of a foreign terrorist organization.”
The Obama administration also invoked a state secrets claim, arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed because national security could be compromised if certain information about al Qaeda, AQAP and al-Awlaki is revealed.
A ruling is expected a few weeks after the hearing.
Editing by Todd Eastham