The families of three U.S. citizens killed in drone strikes in Yemen last year, including militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, filed a lawsuit this week that accuses top CIA and U.S. military officials of violating the constitutional rights of those killed.
The lawsuit, which was prepared in part by the American Civil Liberties Union, represents the most direct legal challenge yet to the Obama administration's decision to kill U.S. citizens in counterterrorism operations without open due process or scrutiny from courts.
"These killings rely on vague legal standards, a closed executive process, and evidence never presented to the courts," the suit alleges.
The suit stems from two drone strikes that took place in a six-week stretch last fall. The first, in September, killed al-Awlaki and alleged al-Qaida propagandist Samir Khan. The second strike, in October, killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son. All three were born in the United States.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, said the suit seeks compensation for the families, but is primarily aimed at forcing the Obama administration to disclose details about decisions that were made in secret.
The defendants named in the suit include Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus and two of the top officers in the U.S. military Special Operations ranks: Navy Adm. William McRaven and Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel.
The plaintiffs listed include Nasser al-Awlaki, the father of the cleric, and Sarah Khan, mother of Samir.
In March, Attorney General Eric Holder said that "it may not always be feasible to capture a United States citizen terrorist who presents an imminent threat of violent attack. In that case, our government has the clear authority to defend the United States with lethal force."
The suit argues that none of the three U.S. citizens killed met the standard and that the government failed to exhaust opportunities to apprehend the men without resorting to lethal force.
U.S. officials have said that al-Awlaki, a native of New Mexico, was directly tied to several terrorist plots against the United States, including a Nigerian man's failed attempt to detonate a bomb aboard a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009.
Neither Khan nor al-Awlaki's son, Abdulrahman, was the intended target of the strike in which he was killed, according to U.S. officials. The suit alleges that the U.S. government failed to comply with requirements under the laws of armed conflict to "take all feasible measures to protect bystanders."