Civil rights groups sue Treasury over targeting of terror suspects for killing

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; 11:16 AM

Civil liberties groups sued the Treasury Department on Tuesday, alleging that its rules do not allow them to challenge the federal government's authority to target for killing Anwar al-Aulaqi, a U.S. citizen suspected of terrorism.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit against the department and its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in U.S. District Court in Washington. The groups say that without a change, it would be a crime for them to provide even free legal services to a citizen whom the government has designated a terrorist and is seeking to kill.

Human rights lawyers said they were retained early last month by Aulaqi's father, Nasser al-Aulaqi. Anwar al-Aulaqi is a U.S.-born radical cleric based in Yemen who U.S. authorities say is a propagandist for al-Qaeda and has helped plan attacks against the United States.

The center and the ACLU said Aulaqi's father contacted them shortly before Treasury named Aulaqi a "specially designated global terrorist" on July 16, freezing his assets and barring U.S. entities -- including lawyers -- from doing business with or providing services to him without obtaining a license from OFAC.

"The government is targeting an American citizen for death without any legal process whatsoever, while at the same time impeding lawyers from challenging that death sentence and the government's sweeping claim of authority to issue it," ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a written statement. "Such an alarming denial of rights in any one case endangers the rights of all Americans."

The groups said OFAC has not responded to their July 23 request for a permit.

In a statement, OFAC Director Adam Szubin called the civil liberties groups' claim significantly misleading, saying, "The Treasury Department has long had in place a general license that broadly authorizes the provision of pro bono legal services to or on behalf of designated persons such as Anwar al Aulaqi" without any requirement for a specific permit.

Szubin said the general rule applies to "criminal, civil or administrative proceedings," as well as challenges to "detention or the imposition of sanctions," adding that to the extent the legal groups' intended services fall outside those categories, "OFAC will work with the ACLU to ensure that the legal services can be delivered."

Stuart Levey, Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said at the time of Aulaqi's designation that "Anwar al-Aulaqi has proven that he is extraordinarily dangerous, committed to carrying out deadly attacks on Americans and others worldwide." He added that Aulaqi "has involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism -- fundraising for terrorist groups, recruiting and training operatives, and planning and ordering attacks on innocents."

The lawsuit alleges that subjecting unpaid legal services to a licensing requirement violates constitutional guarantees of free speech, due process and separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches.

The groups said that if they could file a broader lawsuit, they would allege that the government has not disclosed what standards it uses to designate U.S. citizens for targeted killing off the battlefield, instead treating them as criminals and bringing them to trial. Human-rights groups say the Constitution and international law do not permit such broad action against civilians, and that lethal force outside a battle zone should be used as a last resort when a threat is imminent.

"President Obama is claiming the power to act as judge, jury and executioner while suspending any semblance of due process," said Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "Would we tolerate it if China or France secretly decided to execute their enemies inside the U.S.?"

"Attorneys shouldn't have to ask the government for permission in order to challenge the constitutionality of the government's conduct," Romero said.

The Washington Post reported in April that Aulaqi had become the first U.S. citizen added to a list of suspected terrorists that the CIA is authorized to kill.

Aulaqi was previously placed on a target list maintained by the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command, and his citizenship status required special approval from the White House before his placement on the CIA list, officials said.

Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said June 30 that Aulaqi "had a direct operational role" in a failed bombing attempt against a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day carrying 290 passengers and crew. Last month, the Treasury said Aulaqi instructed alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate an explosive aboard a U.S. airplane, after which Abdulmutallab received the bomb from trainers with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also based in Yemen.

Abdulmutallab, the son of a Nigerian banker, has pleaded not guilty to terrorism-related charges.

Aulaqi also exchanged e-mails with Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November, U.S. officials said.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company