NPR logo

Father Plans To Sue CIA After Son Put On 'Kill' List

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Father Plans To Sue CIA After Son Put On 'Kill' List

National Security

Father Plans To Sue CIA After Son Put On 'Kill' List

Father Plans To Sue CIA After Son Put On 'Kill' List

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Civil liberties groups are looking to challenge the U.S. government's right to target an American citizen on the grounds that he's a terrorist. Anwar al-Awlaki is a cleric living in Yemen. He is also an American citizen. And the U.S. has argued that it has the legal right to strike and kill him.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The search for an accused terrorist raises a troubling legal question. The question is whether it's legal for the CIA to kill an American citizen.

INSKEEP: That question comes up because the agency maintains what is called a Capture or Kill list. People on that list are accused terrorists or Taliban leaders, such as the people hit by drone strikes in Pakistan.

MONTAGNE: At least one person the U.S. is targeting is a U.S. citizen. His name is Anwar al-Awlaki. He's a radical cleric who has been linked to terrorist plots against the U.S. and is believed to be hiding in Yemen.

INSKEEP: Now his father is planning to sue the U.S. government for putting his son on the kill list.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has the story.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The case all started with a meeting between two ACLU lawyers and Awlaki's father in Yemen.

Mr. VINCE WARREN (Center for Constitutional Rights): Mr. Awlaki was concerned about the public statements about his son being on a targeted killing list and wanted to know whether that was legal and whether there were any avenues that he could take in order to stop that from happening.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Vince Warren is the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is working with the ACLU on the case.

Mr. WARREN: His view was that the United States stands for the idea of giving people due process before it decides to kill them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The ACLU and CCR said that was their view too. So in July, the father, Nasser al-Awlaki, hired them to file a lawsuit that would challenge whether his American-born son can be on the CIA's Capture or Kill list. There are still procedural hurdles for the lawsuit to go forward, but if it does it would be the next step in a progression of terrorism cases.

In the past, the courts have focused on the government's power to detain or interrogate a suspect, or to gather intelligence. Now, for the first time, a case would look at the government's authority to summarily kill someone.

Professor SAM RASCOFF (New York University School of Law): From the standpoint of trying to create a kind of legal buzz around the issue of targeted killing, filing such a lawsuit could potentially be very powerful and effective.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sam Rascoff is a professor at NYU Law School and used to run intelligence analysis at the New York City Police Department.

Professor RASCOFF: Here the executive is claiming the power to go ahead and target al-Awlaki for assassination without going through anything that resembles traditional legal process.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And, Rascoff says, that needs to be tested in court. Anwar al-Awlaki was put on the Capture or Kill list earlier this year - shortly after a young Nigerian tried to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day. The Nigerian man told U.S. authorities that Awlaki had helped him launch the attack.

Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security advisor in the Bush administration, says Awlaki's links to episodes like that have made him a legitimate target.

Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Transnational Threats Project and Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program): When an individual like Anwar al-Awlaki joins the enemy force in an ongoing war, which the Obama administration calls a war on al-Qaida in a global context, there is very little that American citizen can do in court to challenge what may happen to that individual in the field of battle.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Critics say the problem is Awlaki isn't in a traditional field of battle - he's not in Iraq or Afghanistan - he's in Yemen, so those definitions shouldn't apply. That's the heart of the argument over the target list. Where is the field of battle? People familiar with the case expect lawyers will likely get permission to represent Awlaki soon. So the next question is where the case will go from there. And most analysts say it won't get very far. The Obama administration is likely to invoke the State Secrets Act and stop it in its tracks.

Again, NYU's Rascoff.

Prof. RASCOFF: It is very likely that the government would make an argument that the state secrets doctrine controls here and that even for a court to entertain this lawsuit would compromise national security. I think it's almost 100 percent likely the government would make that kind of argument and, frankly, that a court would receive it well.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So far, the Obama administration has refrained from discussing the case. When White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked about it yesterday, he kept saying he was not at liberty to discuss intelligence matters.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Father Of Internet Imam Plans To Sue CIA

Radical American-Yemeni Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has been linked to al-Qaida and deemed a national security threat to the United States. But Awlaki hasn't been publicly charged or indicted in the U.S. Muhammad ud-Deen/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Muhammad ud-Deen/AP

Radical American-Yemeni Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has been linked to al-Qaida and deemed a national security threat to the United States. But Awlaki hasn't been publicly charged or indicted in the U.S.

Muhammad ud-Deen/AP

The father of the Internet's most famous radical cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, is planning to sue the U.S. government for including his son on a CIA target list.

Nasser al-Awlaki hired the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights last month to file a lawsuit that would question whether his American-born son can be on the CIA's "capture or kill" list. A lawsuit ultimately could seek an injunction to get him removed from the list. That lawsuit hasn't been filed. But it would mark the first legal challenge to the military and CIA target lists.

"This represents a new kind of challenge to American counter-terrorism," said Sam Rascoff, a New York University law professor. "Previous lawsuits have focused mainly on the government's power to detain, interrogate and gather intelligence on individuals as part of the so-called 'war on terror.' Now, for the first time, the government's authority to kill one of its own citizens is in question."

Anwar al-Awlaki is thought to be a senior operative for al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, and he has been linked to both the Fort Hood shootings last November and an attempted bombing on a U.S. airliner on Christmas day.

NPR reported last week that Awlaki's father had been in contact with lawyers in the United States to file the lawsuit.

Restrictions On Representing Awlaki

The American Civil Liberties Union and the CCR say the details of that lawsuit have yet to be worked out, partly because the lawyers have been hamstrung by a federal regulation that limits their ability to defend Awlaki.

Under U.S. Treasury Department rules, the ACLU and CCR have to apply for a license to represent him because he has been designated a terrorist. The human rights lawyers asked a federal district court judge Tuesday to strike down that regulation.

"The same government that is seeking to kill Anwar al-Awlaki has prohibited attorneys from contesting the legality of the government's decision to use lethal force against him," says the complaint filed Tuesday morning.

Later Tuesday, the ACLU and CCR issued a statement addressing the status of the standoff with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control:

"OFAC has neither issued a license nor stated that we don't need one. It suggests that it might eventually grant us a license for our work, but our application has already gone unanswered for eleven days. OFAC is well aware that the case relates to the government's decision to add a U.S. citizen to its 'targeted killing' list. To say that the matter is urgent is a dramatic understatement. Instead of issuing press releases, OFAC should simply issue us a license."

The Obama administration placed Awlaki on a target list earlier this year. The decision came after a young Nigerian tried unsuccessfully to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25. He told U.S. authorities that Awlaki had directed him to launch the attack. Awlaki is also thought to have inspired Maj. Nidal Hasan, the army psychiatrist who allegedly opened fire on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas last year.

Deemed A National Security Threat

The Treasury Department's decision to put Awlaki on its terrorism list was more recent. It came just weeks ago — about the same time that Awlaki's father was exploring whether to file a lawsuit against the U.S. government.

Stuart Levey, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, called Awlaki a national security threat.

"Anwar al-Awlaki has proven that he is extraordinarily dangerous, committed to carrying out deadly attacks on Americans and others worldwide," Levey said last month. "He has involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism — fundraising for terrorist groups, recruiting and training operatives, and planning and ordering attacks on innocents."

ACLU executive director Anthony Romero acknowledged that Awlaki is a controversial client to represent. "But the issue isn't about Awlaki's character or crimes," he said. "The issue is due process under the law. Mary Poppins isn't on a terrorism list."

Travel To Yemen

Jameel Jaffer was one of two ACLU attorneys who traveled to Yemen in May to sit down with Awlaki's father and discuss the case.

Nasser al-Awlaki formally retained the ACLU and the CCR in early July. He told the lawyers that he feels the Obama administration has essentially green-lighted his son's assassination — without filing any charges or having a court weigh the evidence in the case.

Awlaki hasn't been publicly charged or indicted in the U.S.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, there has been a debate about where the boundaries of the battlefield actually lie in the war against al-Qaida. The Obama administration has maintained that the battlefield isn't limited to specific parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, but essentially is wherever terrorists may be plotting against the U.S. That's the same position the Bush administration took.

An Awlaki court case could go right to the heart of that issue.

"There's no question that the government has the authority to use lethal force against Americans who join the Taliban, say, or who join the insurgency in Iraq," the ACLU's Jaffer said. "But the United States is not at war in Yemen, and the government doesn't have a blank check to kill terrorism suspects wherever they are in the world. Among the arguments we'll be making is that, outside actual war zones, the authority to use lethal force is narrowly circumscribed, and preserving the rule of law depends on keeping this authority narrow."