The American Civil Liberties Union sued Barack Obama’s administration in federal court on Monday in an attempt to compel the release of classified information regarding the White House’s secretive targeted-killing program.
The lawsuit, which was first reported by The Guardian, seeks disclosure of the criteria for placing individuals on the administration’s “kill list.” Obama acknowledges that the White House has remotely singled out and eliminated suspected terrorists, but the administration has guarded closely any information about how the targets are selected.
“The public should know who the government is killing and why it’s killing them,” said ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer in a statement. “There’s no good reason why legal memos relating to the targeted-killing program should be secret in their entirety. Nor is there any legitimate justification for the government’s refusal to acknowledge individual strikes or to disclose civilian casualties or to disclose the procedures under which individuals are added to government ‘kill list.’”
Exact figures regarding the number of people killed through U.S targeted-killing programs, including drone strike campaigns, are difficult to obtain. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that 2,442 to 3,942 people in Pakistan have been killed by CIA drone strikes since 2004. Although Pakistan is by far the site of the most frequent strikes, hundreds more people are thought to have been killed by U.S. drones in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.
In May 2013, the White House formally acknowledged that four of those killed by U.S. drone strikes since the program began have been American citizens. Last June the U.S. Justice Department released a previously secret memo explaining the legal rationale for targeting one of those citizens, high-ranking Al-Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in Yemen by a U.S. drone in September 2011.
However, much is still unknown about the broader criteria for identifying targets. In October 2012, The Washington Post reported that the White House was developing a new system, known as the disposition matrix, for prioritizing targets. Exactly how the disposition matrix works is still unknown, but subsequent disclosures have revealed that the CIA relies in part on NSA surveillance to uncover new targets.
The ACLU is already pursuing two other lawsuits aimed at forcing disclosures in regards targeted killings. But ACLU national security project director Hina Shamsi said the lawsuit filed Monday had the broadest scope and “updates our earlier requests."
In particular, the ACLU is seeking a full version of the presidential policy guidance (PPG), a set of targeted-killing guidelines that Obama signed in May 2013. The White House has published a fact sheet summarizing the contents of the PPG, but the full text is still secret.
“It appears that the government isn’t abiding by those standards, which we think are too broad anyway,” Shamsi told Al Jazeera, citing recent reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claiming that drone attacks are continuing to cause needless civilian casualties.
Sarah Knuckey, a co-director at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, said the government has yet to reveal under what circumstances the PPG applies to airstrikes.
“We know for sure that it doesn’t apply in Afghanistan, because that is clearly within the context of an armed conflict,” she said. But the question of its applicability in countries like Yemen and Somalia is hazier, she said.
Additionally, the U.S. government has yet to clarify the evidentiary standards for determining who qualifies as associated forces linked to Al-Qaeda and who qualifies as a lawful target in general. Knuckey also said the government has not yet given a definition for who it considers an imminent threat.
“We know the U.S. has an expanded or elongated definition of imminence compared to what international law would define as the term, but we don’t know its content,” Knuckey said.
Shamsi said the lawsuit is about ensuring that the public has sufficient information to debate the merits of the government’s targeted killings. The ACLU is also seeking information regarding any investigations the government may have made into targeted killings after they were carried out.
“The government asserts that it knows that its killings are lawful but it refuses to release factual information, including after-the-fact investigations over whether the killings are legal,” she said.
“If there was a release — redacted, of course — of poststrike investigations into specific strikes, then we could have a debate about whether those strikes were lawful or not, whether the claims of civilian harm were accurate or not,” said Knuckey. “That’s the debate we should be having."
A spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council told Al Jazeera that it does not comment on issues being litigated.