Families Sue Over U.S. Deaths In Yemen Drone Strikes

Civil rights groups and the families of three Americans killed in drone strikes in Yemen filed a lawsuit against top Obama administration officials Wednesday. The suit claims U.S. authorities executed their sons without charge or trial — outside the law and the Constitution.

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The families of three Americans killed in drone strikes in Yemen are suing the secretary of defense and the director of the CIA. Their lawsuit claims U.S. authorities executed their sons last year without charge or trial, operating outside the bounds of the Constitution. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Last September, missiles fired from an American drone hit their target, killing radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and another man in the car, alleged al-Qaida propagandist Samir Khan. About two weeks later, a couple hundred miles away, al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son died in another drone strike while he ate at a restaurant in Yemen. His grandfather, Nasser al-Awlaki, is one of the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit.

NASSER AL-AWLAKI: I never expected, you know, that a small boy who was born in America, who was a citizen of America, would be killed by the United States government, his own government.

JOHNSON: Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union is helping with the case. Jaffer says the Obama administration is executing its own citizens, while keeping the reasons secret.

JAMEEL JAFFER: We want the government to introduce whatever evidence it relied on to a court. And a court can decide whether that evidence was sufficient to justify the government's actions.

JOHNSON: None of the dead Americans had been publicly charged with a crime or convicted of one, points out Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

PARDISS KEBRIAEI: And the rights at issue are the most elemental afforded to all U.S. citizens, and they include the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law.

JOHNSON: But courts have been reluctant to wade into these kinds of national security debates, with good reason, says American University Professor Kenneth Anderson.

KENNETH ANDERSON: The targeting decisions are really at the heart of what war consists of. And the idea that one would insert a U.S. federal judge into that, or that U.S. federal judges would allow themselves to be put in that position I think is really farfetched.

JOHNSON: The new lawsuit may not get very far in the American court system, especially if the Obama administration asserts the State Secrets Doctrine to shield the details of those drone strikes. But John Bellinger, a State Department official in the George W. Bush years, says the case could be far more effective as...

JOHN BELLINGER: An effort to stir up an international legal debate on the subject that may ultimately force the Obama administration to back down or place greater limits on drone strikes.

JOHNSON: Bellinger says it took a while, but international momentum eventually swung against the U.S. military facility in Guantanamo Bay. And, he points out, that a U.N. official has already raised the prospect that the program that targeted Anwar al-Awlaki could be considered a war crime. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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