Targeting Of Muslim Cleric Draws Legal Challenge

The United States has said that it has targeted an American cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who has provided support for terrorists. Now, for the first time, a group of human rights lawyers are preparing a legal challenge to having him on a list of terrorist targets. Awlaki, who lives in Yemen, has been connected to several plots, including the failed attempt to down a U.S. airliner last Christmas. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The U.S. has made no secret that it has been trying to kill an American cleric with ties to al-Qaeda. His name is Anwar al-Awlaki and he's been linked both to the Fort Hood shootings and the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas day. Earlier today, a group of human rights lawyers filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court here in Washington. They want to challenge the targeted killing of Americans like Awlaki.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins me now. And Dina, what's the background here? How did this case get started?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Awlaki's father met with some ACLU lawyers in May in Yemen, and he asked him if it was legal to have his son, who was born in the U.S. and is an American, on this target list without ever charging him anything or brining him to trial. And he was told that he might have a case.

Now, I spoke to one law professor who said that putting an American on this list essentially skips a trial and a jury verdict and goes right to the death penalty phase. And this lawsuit would essentially be the first challenge to that.

Now, up until now most of the challenges we've seen have focused on the government's power to detain someone or how they interrogate them or how they gather intelligence. And this is really the next step, whether the government has the authority to kill one of its own citizens without due process under the law.

NORRIS: And we mentioned that the man at the center of this case, Anwar al-Awlaki, has been linked to a number of recent terrorist plots against the U.S.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right. He's the Internet imam whos thought to have inspired Major Nidal Hasan. He was the soldier who was charged with opening fire on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood last year. And then there was that young Nigerian who attempted to blow up a U.S. airliner last Christmas. Allegedly, he told U.S. authorities that Awlaki actually directed that attack. And Awlaki was put on this target list a short time later.

And more recently, a number of suspected terrorists in this country have links to Awlaki. And he's thought to be hiding out in southern Yemen and been in contact with his followers through the Internet. Now, of course, Awlaki's father, for his part, says all these allegations against his son are complete lies.

NORRIS: And, Dina, today the lawyers who are working with Awlaki's father were in federal court here in Washington, as we mentioned. What is the basis of their lawsuit? What are they claiming?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they're basically there to try and gain the right to represent Awlaki's father. They're challenging a Treasury Department rule that makes them have to ask for permission to represent a terrorist. If you're on the Treasury Department's specially designated global terrorist list, all kinds of things happen. You're assets are frozen, your travel is limited and Americans can't do business with you.

So by extension, American lawyers can't represent you without special permission from the Treasury Department. So this morning what happened is the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit asking for that rule limiting legal services in terrorism cases to be struck down. And their argument essentially is that the U.S. Treasury shouldn't be able to decide whether an American can have access to a court of law.

NORRIS: And, Dina, what happens now? What's the next step?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the lawyers are expected to get this U.S. Treasury license to represent Awlaki's father. That's not really at issue. What's unclear is where it goes from there. I mean, broadly the Awlaki lawsuit is going to question whether an American can be on a target list without being able to challenge it in court.

And the ACLU and CCR could seek an injunction to get him removed from that list, even though they say they haven't really decided exactly which legal avenue they're going to end up pursuing.

NORRIS: And how would that work, Dina? If these human rights groups were to try to get Awlaki removed from the target list, what would their argument be?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, one argument could be that Awlaki's not in a warzone. He's in Yemen. So he can't be lawfully targeted without some sort of due process. So if he were in Iraq or Afghanistan, that would change the rules a bit. If he can be targeted in Yemen, it means that there are no boundaries to the battlefield in the war against al-Qaida. And that might be a really hard argument to make in court.

I mean, that's the argument the Obama administration's been making publicly that there are no boundaries in this battle. But it would be a totally different thing to try to convince a judge and jury of that. I mean, the truth is the Obama administration can stop this whole thing by saying, hey, this would imperil national security by discussing this publicly. And they could sort of put a stop to it that way.

But this is definitely the next phase of legal wrangling we're going to see related to counterterrorism.

NORRIS: Okay. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Thank you very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Thank you.

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