​ACLU sues Obama administration over ‘kill list’ documents

Reuters / John Gress

Reuters / John Gress

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the US government in an effort to compel a court to release documents detailing the Obama administration’s use of a secret, so-called “kill list” containing potential drone strike targets.

Filed Monday in US
District Court in Manhattan, the lawsuit asks the Southern
District of New York to order four government agencies, including
the Departments of Justice, Defense and State, to heed Freedom of
Information Act requests filed by the ACLU in 2013 concerning the
administration’s “targeted killing” program.

Although the US has relied on unmanned weaponized aircraft, or
drones, to conduct strikes in counterterrorism and military
operations for over a decade, the ACLU says the Obama
administration has been far from forthcoming when it comes to
releasing details on to how those operations are carried out.

“Despite the public promises of openness, the government has
continued to fight tooth-and-nail against releasing
ACLU legal fellow Matthew Spurlock said in a
statement Monday.

The ACLU began filing requests in October 2013 for records
containing any legal justification for the lethal drone strikes
and the process by which those targets are designated,
“before-the-fact assessments” concerning potential civilian or
bystander casualties and the names and numbers of individuals
killed or hurt as a result of these “targeted killings.” Nearly a
year and a half later, however, the ACLU says that none of the
agencies served with FOIA requests have followed through and
released documents, despite assurances given by Obama.

This week’s lawsuit asks the District Court to order the Justice
Department, the Pentagon, the State Dept. and the CIA – as well
as the Dept. of Defense’s Office of Legal Counsel and Office of
Information Policy – to “immediately produce all records” on the
drone strikes.

“The Obama administration has made numerous promises of
greater transparency and oversight on drones,”
said. “In his 2013 State of the Union address, President
Obama pledged to make lethal targeting ‘more transparent to the
American people and the world’ because ‘in our democracy, no one
should just take my word for it that we’re doing things the right
way.’ But the administration has failed to follow through on
these commitments to openness, and it is continuing to withhold
basic information.”

Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s legal director, told The Guardian this week that US-led drone
strikes have been blamed in the deaths of thousands of people,
including hundreds of innocent civilians.

“The public should know who the government is killing, and
why it’s killing them,
” Jaffer said.

Spurlock said Monday that the release of the Al-Awlaki memo was
an “important victory for transparency,” but nevertheless leaves
many questions unanswered.

A New York Times report from 2012 revealed that the Obama
administration maintains an expanding “kill list,” described by
the paper as “macabre ‘baseball cards’ of an unconventional
” containing the details of suspects sought for execution
by drone.

One of the administration documents sought by the ACLU, and
successfully received, revealed that the US considered Al-Awlaki
an “operational leader” of an “enemy force,”
and therefore could be targeted “as part of the US’ ongoing
non-international armed conflict with Al-Qaeda
.” With other
requests for details having gone unfulfilled, however, the
organization hopes to have a District Court judge compel the
government to make further disclosures.

Explaining the 2011 strike that killed Al-Awlaki in Yemen, US
Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2012 that “Al-Awlaki
repeatedly made clear his intent to attack US persons and his
hope that these attacks would take American lives
.” He
added: “Based on this information, high-level US government
officials appropriately concluded that Al-Awlaki posed a
continuing and imminent threat of violent attack against the
United States.”

Spurlock said that the Obama administration’s drone program
lives far too deep in the shadows.” He added: “As
long as the government continues its campaign of secret,
unacknowledged lethal strikes across the globe, we will fight to
subject this policy to the scrutiny and debate it deserves.”

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