Victims' Families Sue Over Drone Strike Program

The ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights are suing the U.S. Defense secretary, CIA director and two military commanders who played a role in the Obama administration's deadly drone strike program. Drone strikes killed three Americans in Yemen last year. They say lethal force against Americans far from the battlefield should be a last resort.

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Relatives of three Americans killed in drone strikes in Yemen last year are suing. Today, they filed a lawsuit against the secretary of Defense and the director of the CIA, over a targeted killing program. They say the program operates outside the law, as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The plaintiffs in the new lawsuit include Nasser al-Awlaki. His son Anwar - a radical Islamic cleric born in New Mexico, in 1971 - was killed by missiles fired at his car inside Yemen last September. U.S. officials had placed him on a so-called kill list, after they determined he played an operational role in plots launched by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

NASSER AL-AWLAKI: I think what America did was death penalty to my son, without the due process of law.

JOHNSON: The drone strike, in September 2011, that targeted al-Awlaki also killed Samir Khan, a North Carolina man described as a propagandist for al-Qaida. Neither man had been publicly charged with a crime, let alone convicted. Pardiss Kabriaei is a lawyer working on the case at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

PARDISS KABRIAEI: Unless there's been due process; unless there's been charge, trial and conviction; lethal force is only permissible as a last resort in the face of a specific, concrete and imminent threat.

JOHNSON: She says U.S. surveillance drones may have been watching the men for up to three weeks before the deadly strike, which she says means the government had time to try to capture them instead.

The third American citizen who died last year in Yemen was al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdul Rahman. The boy was killed two weeks after his father died and about 200 miles away, while he was eating dinner in a restaurant with half a dozen other people. Kabriaei calls him, and those other victims, bystanders with no known ties to terrorism.

KABRIAEI: To the extent they weren't being targeted, the government had an obligation to protect them in those strikes. And it clearly failed to do that - because they're dead.

JOHNSON: Jameel Jaffer is deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, which is also involved in the new lawsuit. Jaffer says he's frustrated by a lack of information - no clear standards for who's put on the drone target list, and no opportunity to challenge it.

JAMEEL JAFFER: Our argument is just that when the government is killing its own citizens, it has an obligation to explain why it's doing it. And the administration's position right now is not just that it doesn't have to explain its actions, but that it doesn't even have to aknowledge them. We think that that is a truly dangerous opposition.

JOHNSON: The CIA and the Pentagon didn't want to talk about the case. But senior national security officials, including White House adviser John Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder, defended the targeted killing program in speeches this year. Holder said the administration has built layers of review across several agencies, into the program.

ERIC HOLDER: The Constitution guarantees due process. It does not guarantee judicial process.

JOHNSON: To win in court, the family members will need to get past two, big obstacles. The administration could try to invoke the State Secrets Doctrine, to hide details about the drone strikes and evidence they've gathered against al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Government lawyers could also argue the issues are the sole province of the executive branch, too political for the courts and judges to weigh in.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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