MANHATTAN (CN) - The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the U.S. government for details on decade-old program of targeted drone killings.
"The request relates to a topic of vital importance: the power of the U.S. government to kill U.S. citizens without presentation of evidence and without disclosing legal standards that guide decision makers," the ACLU's complaint states. "Given the momentous nature of the governmental powers that are subject of the request, the fullest possible transparency and disclosure is vital."
The ACLU says that it does not know how long the United States has targeted its own citizens in drone assassinations, which have been running since at least 2002. But the program came under greater scrutiny two years ago, following press reports that the Obama administration planned to kill suspected al-Qaida member Anwar al-Awlaki without a trial.
Born in New Mexico, al-Awlaki was living in Yemen when he was killed in a collaborative drone strike between the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command on Sept. 30, 2011. The United States bombed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in a separate strike weeks later.
President Barack Obama defended the drone attacks in a digital interview from the White House hosted by Google+'s "hangout" feature.
"I want people to understand that drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties," Obama said. "For the most part, they have been very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaida and their affiliates, and we have been very careful about how it's been applied."
But the government has not disclosed any of the standards surrounding the "kill list," the ACLU says.
"Although U.S. government officials, including the president and the secretary of defense, have made statements on the record confirming the existence of the targeted killing program, the government has not disclosed the process by with it adds names to the so-called 'kill lists;' the standards under which it determines which Americans may be put to death; or the evidentiary bases on which it concluded that those standards were satisfied in any particular case," the complaint states.
"The government has refused to release its legal or evidentiary bases for the September 30 and October 14 strikes. It has not explained whether Samir Khan and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki were killed 'collaterally' or were targeted themselves. It has not said what measures, if any, it took to minimize the possibility that individuals not targeted would be killed incidentally."
Intense secrecy surrounding the program has upset several members of Congress and former attorneys for the Office of Legal Council, including Jack Goldsmith, the former assistant attorney general who headed the OLC; John B. Bellinger, the former legal advisor to the U.S. Department of State in the Bush administration; and Sen. Carl Levin, current chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to the ACLU.
The nonprofit says it submitted its Freedom of Information Act request on Oct. 19 to the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, CIA, U.S. Special Operations Command and OLC. All are listed as defendants to the Wednesday lawsuit.
The Justice and Defense Departments rejected the requests weeks later.
In its denial, the CIA allegedly insisted that the "fact of the existence or nonexistence of the requested records is currently and properly classified," despite public statements from officials.
The case was assigned on Thursday to U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahan, who set an initial conference date for Feb. 24.
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