The family of two American citizens killed in Yemen this week announced that it has dropped its lawsuit against the United States, deciding not to appeal the decision of a federal judge to dismiss their lawsuit against Obama administration officials.
In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a suit against then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, then-CIA Director David Petraeus, and other officials for their role in the death of both radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16 year-old son Abdulrahman. In the suit, the family of al-Awlaki sought an unspecified set of damages from the government over the intentional deaths of the two — killed in separate drone strikes in Yemen in 2011 just two weeks apart — and the waiving of their rights to due process.
A federal judge dismissed Nasser al-Awlaki’s case in April, saying that while the question of whether federal officials can be held personally liable for their role in targeted killings “raises fundamental issues of regarding constitutional principals,” she would side with the government in their request to end proceedings. “The persons holding the jobs of the named defendants must be trusted and expected to act in accordance with the U.S. Constitution when they intentionally target a U.S. citizen abroad at the direction of the president and with the concurrence of Congress,” Judge Rosemary Collyer wrote in her opinion. “They cannot be held personally responsible in monetary damages for conducting war.”
“I believe that my son and 16-year-old grandson were unlawfully killed by their government, and for a long time, I had faith that an American court would decide whether the killings of at least these American citizens violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process,” Nasser said in a statement on Wednesday. “My faith was shattered by the district court’s opinion, which went out of its way to defer to the government’s claims of killing authority, without allowing those claims to be challenged.” Nasser continued to say that he now has “no faith left in a judiciary that refuses even to hear whether Abdulrahman, an American child, was wrongfully killed by his own government.”
In a joint statement, the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights said that “our system of checks and balances failed these families,” slamming the courts for not following through with their suit. “Parts of this case were complicated, but at bottom it was simple and profoundly consequential: The U.S. government killed three Americans without due process,” it read. “Their families asked a U.S. court to fulfill its crucial role in deciding whether the government’s claims of killing authority are lawful. […] We share our clients’ deep disappointment that in deferring to the government on national security grounds and refusing to hear their claims, the court’s decision fell short of its constitutional duty.”
Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter to Congress admitted for the first time that the U.S. has killed four American citizens as a result of armed drone strikes in Yemen, including both Anwar and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Though this was long assumed to be the cause of death of both al-Awlakis, Holder’s letter was the first official confirmation that the U.S. government was behind their deaths. In his letter, Holder indicated that aside from Anwar, the drone strike victims in question were “not targeted” specifically. In the speech that followed Holder’s revelation, President Obama announced that his administration would be more narrowly targeting future drone strikes, doing away with so-called “signature strikes” — a process where groups of men between 16–55 who meet a certain profile are often considered legitimate targets, often with the U.S. having no concrete knowledge of their identities.