WASHINGTON -- A federal judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit against Obama administration officials for the 2011 drone-strike killings of three U.S. citizens in Yemen, including an al-Qaida cleric.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer said the case raises serious constitutional issues and is not easy to answer, but that "on these facts and under this circuit's precedent," the court will grant the Obama administration's request.
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The suit was against then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, then-CIA Director David Petraeus and two commanders in the military's Special Operations forces.
Permitting a lawsuit against individual officials "under the circumstances of this case would impermissibly draw the court into 'the heart of executive and military planning and deliberation,"' said Collyer. She said the suit would require the court to examine national security policy and the military chain of command as well as operational combat decisions regarding the designation of targets and how best to counter threats to the United States.
The government has argued that the issue is best left to Congress and the executive branch, not judges, and that courts have recognized that the defense of the nation should be left to those political branches
U.S.-born al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, an al-Qaida propagandist, were killed in a drone strike in September 2011. Al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, was killed the following month.
The lawsuit was filed by Nasser al-Awlaki -- Anwar's father and the teen's grandfather -- and by Sarah Khan, Samir Khan's mother
Al-Awlaki had been linked to the planning and execution of several attacks targeting U.S. and Western interests, including a 2009 attempt on Christmas Day on a Detroit-bound airliner and a 2010 plot against cargo planes.
Anwar al-Awlaki's classification as a key leader raises fundamental questions regarding the conduct of armed conflict, said Collyer. The Constitution commits decision-making in this area to the president, as commander in chief, and to Congress, the judge said.
Allowing a lawsuit against the individual officials "would hinder their ability in the future to act decisively and without hesitation in defense of U.S. interests," she added.
Collyer also focused on al-Awlaki's role. "The fact is that Anwar al-Awlaki was an active and exceedingly dangerous enemy of the United States, irrespective of his distance, location and citizenship," said Collyer. "As evidenced by his participation in the Christmas Day attack, Anwar al-Awlaki was able to persuade, direct and wage war against the United States from his location in Yemen, without being present on an official battlefield or in a hot war zone."
She said that the U.S. government moved against al-Awlaki as authorized by the defendants and that the officials acted in accordance with the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was enacted by Congress after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.