WASHINGTON -- The families of three U.S. citizens killed in drone strikes last year in Yemen filed suit Wednesday against Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and three other senior U.S. officials in the latest attempt to shed light on the Obama administration's secretive program of unmanned aerial strikes overseas.
The families charge that the deaths of al-Qaida propagandist Samir Khan, radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, were part of a policy of "targeted killing" that the Obama administration has wrongfully conducted outside the context of armed conflicts.
Khan, a Charlotte, N.C., resident before moving to Yemen, and al-Awlaki were killed on Sept. 30, 2011, when an unmanned U.S. drone fired missiles at their vehicle as it drove through the desert. Two weeks later, another drone strike 200 miles away killed at least seven people in an open-air restaurant, including al-Awlaki's son.
Khan's mother, Sarah, who still lives in Charlotte, and al-Awlaki's father, Nasser, filed the wrongful death suit in U.S. District Court in Washington against Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus and two senior military officials.
"This is not about Samir Khan. It's not about what he believed. It's not about what he did or thought," said Jibril Hough, a Khan family friend who encouraged members to file the suit. "This is about our Constitution, our principles as Americans and the power we're willing to concede to the president to kill at will."
The suit contends that U.S. officials violated the Constitution and international human rights laws that prohibit the use of lethal force except as a last resort to protect against an imminent threat. They say Khan and Adbulrahman specifically were not engaged in hostile activity and that the government failed to take necessary steps to avoid harming civilian bystanders.
"The killings violated fundamental rights afforded to all U.S. citizens, including the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law," the complaint states.
The Pentagon declined to comment on the lawsuit. Defense officials, however, pointed to a 2011 speech in which President Barack Obama referenced their deaths and linked al-Awlaki to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a State Department-designated terror organization.
"He repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda," Obama said.
Al-Awlaki, who's believed to have inspired jihadists with his online sermons, was the first American to be placed on the CIA "kill or capture" list by the Obama administration in April 2010. His assassination is believed to be the first instance in which a U.S. citizen was killed based on secret intelligence with the president's approval. It is considered one of the major successes of the Obama administration's campaign against al-Qaida leadership.
It also triggered a debate among constitutional scholars who questioned whether a president could authorize the assassination of a U.S. citizen without a formal charge or trial.
Nasser al-Awlaki said 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.
"I want Americans to know about my grandson," he said in a video posted by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is assisting the families with the lawsuit. "I never thought that one day this boy, this nice boy, would be killed by his government for no wrong."
Samir Khan was 25, a former Central Piedmont Community College student who started writing a radical blog in the basement of his family's Charlotte home.
Hough and other leaders of the Charlotte Muslim community say they tried to convince Khan that radicalism was misguided. But his radicalism only grew and he later moved to Yemen in 2009 and helped start the al-Qaida English-language magazine Inspire. Through his writings, he gave instructions on how Muslims in the United States could use tools from their mothers' kitchens to build a bomb to murder Americans.
In another column, he wrote: "I am proud to be a traitor to America."
Daniel Byman, an expert on terrorism at the Brookings Institution, said that Khan was essential to al-Qaida as a recruiter.
"He was very valuable to those in al-Qaida who wanted to reach into the United States. Khan was able to translate al-Qaida concepts into jargon young Americans could understand," Byman said.
Mary Ellen O'Connell, an international law expert at Notre Dame University, said that the rules of war should apply only in war, and that the United States is not at war in Yemen. While allowing that those targeted might be "bad actors," she added that outside of a hot war there might be law enforcement options to pursuing people like al-Awlaki and Khan, and she likened drone strikes in Yemen to the "excessive use of military force" of which the Obama administration accuses the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.