In a last-ditch effort to get a terrorism lawsuit dismissed, the Obama administration invoked a claim of "state secrets" on Friday, arguing that revealing details about efforts to capture or kill an American citizen charged with leading a terrorist group would endanger national security.
The suit, filed by civil liberties groups, charges that Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen and Islamic cleric in Yemen, has been placed on a list of high-value targets the CIA would like to see dead.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights specifically charge that lacking threat of an imminent attack, efforts to kill al-Aulaqi amount to the targeted, "extrajudicial" assassination of a US citizen, which is illegal.
Attorneys for the groups want to see these efforts ended.
Al-Aulaqi was alleged to have been in contact with US Army Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 fellow soldiers in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood. Al-Aulaqi also had an "operational role" in the failed plot to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger jet on Christmas Day, US authorities charge.
The Justice Department characterized the groups' lawsuit as asking the government to "take the unprecedented step of intervening in an ongoing military action to direct the President how to manage that action - all on behalf of a leader of a foreign terrorist organization."
Groups had sued on behalf of al-Aulaqi's father, who insists his son is not the dangerous terrorist US authorities make him out to be.
""If al-Aulaqi wishes to access our legal system, he should surrender to American authorities and return to the United States, where he will be held accountable for his actions," a DoJ spokesman opined to the court, according to The Washington Post.
"The idea that courts should have no role whatsoever in determining the criteria by which the executive branch can kill its own citizens is unacceptable in a democracy," the groups argued. "In matters of life and death, no executive should have a blank check."
Civil liberties groups have been concerned about the case since it was revealed by President Obama's Director of National Intelligence that the US looks to "take direct action" against anyone thought to be a terrorist, even if they're American.
If "we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that," intelligence director Dennis Blair said in Feb., responding to a question from Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI).
Months later, Deputy White House National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John O. Brennan suggested that "dozens" of names may now occupy America's assassination list.
"There are, in my mind, dozens of U.S. persons who are in different parts of the world, and they are very concerning to us," Brennan told The Washington Times, "not just because of the passport they hold, but because they understand our operational environment here, they bring with them certain skills, whether it be language skills or familiarity with potential targets, and they are very worrisome, and we are determined to take away their ability to assist with terrorist attacks."
"If an American person or citizen is in a Yemen or in a Pakistan or in Somalia or another place, and they are trying to carry out attacks against U.S. interests, they also will face the full brunt of a U.S. response," he continued. "What we need to do is to apply the appropriate tool and the appropriate response."
"The Obama administration has cited the state-secrets argument in at least three cases since taking office - in defense of Bush-era warrantless wiretapping, surveillance of an Islamic charity, and the torture and rendition of CIA prisoners," the Post noted. "It prevailed in the last case last week, on a 6 to 5 vote by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit."