(CN) – Though it is already mired in similar New York cases, the Department of Justice should be prepared for a California fight with a group demanding information on the U.S. government’s targeted killing of U.S. citizens, a federal judge ruled.
The Sept. 30, 2011, unmanned drone strike in Yemen that killed American-born radical Muslim propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki has spawned a series of claims from both devastated relatives and civil rights groups.
In separate complaints filed in December 2011 and early February 2012, The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union asked a Manhattan federal judge to order the disclosure of a legal memorandum concerning the strike that the government has allegedly been shielding.
About a month after the ACLU’s complaint, the Freedom of Information Coalition filed a similar suit in San Francisco. The coalition’s Freedom of Information Act request cites media reports about the legal memo that purportedly sanctioned al-Awlaki’s targeted killing.
Though it acknowledges that the memo “is almost certainly classified,” the coalition says the government should be able to release the “discussion of legal issues” while redacting factual and tactical information.
In response, the Justice Department said that the “very fact of the existence or nonexistence of such a document is itself classified, protected from disclosure by statute, and privileged.”
The department has moved for summary judgment in both New York cases, and has asked for a stay of the California case until the New York cases are resolved.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken instead ordered the parties to file cross-motions on the California case.
Noting “the interest of judicial economy,” however, Wilken agreed to delay her ruling on such motions until resolution of the New York cases.
“Because the DOJ has already filed a summary judgment motion in the [New York] cases, in which plaintiffs pursue broader document requests that include the single document at issue here, it should not be difficult for DOJ to file a cross-motion for summary judgment here,” Wilken wrote Tuesday.
She also directed the parties to meet and confer about a briefing schedule for their cross-motions.
In its December 2011 complaint, The New York Times and two reporters seek “copies of all Office of Legal Counsel opinions or memoranda since 2001 that address the legal status of targeted killing, assassination, or killing of people suspected of ties to Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups by employees or contractors of the United States government.”
The Times also wants a copy of “all Office of Legal Counsel memorandums analyzing the circumstances under which it would be lawful for United States armed forces or intelligence community assets to target for killing a United States citizen who is deemed to be a terrorist.”
The complaint from the ACLU and its foundation seek records related to the “legal authority and factual basis for the targeted killing” of al-Awlaki and two other U.S. citizens.
Al-Awlaki’s father and relatives of another U.S. citizen who died in the strike sued national security officials earlier this month. Their case, which claims that the assassination of U.S. citizens on terrorist “kill lists” violates due-process rights, is pending in Washington.