SAN FRANCISCO – The latest call for the Obama administration to publicly release its legal justification for a drone strike that killed U.S.-born al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last year came Wednesday in the form of a federal lawsuit.
The First Amendment Coalition of San Rafael is demanding release of a reported U.S. Department of Justice memo that authorized the attack that also killed a second American, Samir Khan, who edited al-Qaida's Internet magazine.
The free speech advocates argued in the lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco that the American public has a right to know the "legal justification for the use of lethal force against al-Awlaki and potentially other U.S. citizens who join forces with foreign terrorist organizations that threaten U.S. interests."
The coalition filed the lawsuit after the DOJ rejected a formal request for the memo made under the Freedom of Information Act. The DOJ cited national security in refusing to even acknowledge the memo's existence.
The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union previously filed separate lawsuits after receiving similar DOJ rejections after making FOIA requests for the memo. Several other groups have also filed FOAI requests and a growing number of politicians in both political parties are calling on the Obama administration to release the memo.
DOJ spokesman Charles Miller in Washington, D.C., declined comment Wednesday.
Peter Scheer, the coalition's executive director, said the administration is entitled to redact portions of the memo that would disclose sensitive national security information. But he said the public is entitled to see portions of the memo that lay out the legal framework authorizing the killing of American citizens on foreign soil.
"Whatever one's views on this administration's counter-terrorism policy, the use of lethal force by the U.S. government against a U.S. citizen is a situation that cries out for a public airing and debate," Scheer said in a press release.
Scheer and the coalition argue that much of what the DOJ seeks to protect has already been made public in its own court filings, media reports and diplomatic cables leaked by the website Wikileaks.
Wikileaks, for instance, reported the Yemeni government agreed to allow U.S. drone strikes on its soil. Several media outlets have also reported on the memo's existence and content in the days after the Sept. 30 attack.
The DOJ's own lawyers publicly disclosed previously secret details concerning al-Awlaki's activities for al-Qaeda when it filed court papers in the federal case of underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Abdulmutallab was sentenced earlier this month to life in prison after admitting he attempted to blow up an international flight with a bomb in his underwear as the plane approached Detroit on Christmas 2009. The Nigerian told FBI agents that his mission was approved after a three-day visit with al-Awlaki in 2009.