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Another challenge on the use of drones

The U.S. policy of using armed drones to kill American citizens suspected of terrorism is again being challenged in federal district court.

The lawsuit, Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia this week on behalf of three U.S. citizens who were killed by armed drone attacks in Yemen. Two civil rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, joined the suit and are seeking monetary damages from four top government officials for violating the Fifth Amendment right to due process, the Fourth Amendment right to not be subjected to unreasonable seizures, and the Constitution’s bill of attainder clause, which requires a trial before punishment.

Two years ago, in the same court, the father of a suspected terrorist filed a similar suit, Al-Aulaqi v. Obama, to prevent the use of a drone to kill his son, who was on the government’s “kill or capture list.” The district court dismissed the case on the grounds that the father lacked standing to bring the claim -- as his son was still alive -- and that the issues were better left to Congress under the political question doctrine.

Less than a year later, the man’s son was killed in a drone strike, along with his 16-year-old grandson, who was not on the "kill or capture list."

Nasser al-Aulaki, who filed the suit, said that "his son made his own decisions and knew he was a target, but he said that did not give the government the right to kill his 16-year-old grandson."

It has been reported that armed drones are used in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and the Philippines. The American drone program has been criticized from many quarters for:
  • failing to take steps to prevent killing of innocent bystanders
  • relying on highly secretive and tenuous information to identify the targets
  • not receiving the consent of foreign governments to carry out the attacks
  • violating American law by not arresting and trying the suspects in court
While the American government counters that the use of drones narrows the collateral damage of going to war and sending American forces into the most dangerous corners of the world, others reply that people are being killed before being proven guilty and that civilians are all-too-often accidentally killed.

This case will undoubtedly have profound implications for civil rights and for military policy, and is certain to be one of the most-watched cases in federal court.