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[Update, August 4: The Treasury Department plans to grant the ACLU and CCR the license they need to sue on Anwar al-Awlaki's behalf, Politico's Josh Gerstein reports. The rights organizations hadn't received anything by midday, they told Mother Jones on Wednesday. | Update 2, 5:21 p.m. August 4: The rights groups have their license, according to a statement they just released.]
Can accused terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki take the US government to court to prevent the Obama administration from assassinating him? He's a US citizen, so theoretically he can sue to protect his constitutional rights. But up until now an obscure anti-terror law has prevented al-Awlaki from obtaining American representation—even though two human rights group are prepared to to sue on his behalf to stop the government from killing him.
In February, Dennis Blair, then the nation's top intelligence official (he resigned in May), admitted that the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) maintains a list of US citizens it is trying to capture or kill. So far, only one person has been identified as potentially on the capture/kill list: al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric who reportedly had ties to both the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber. Al-Awlaki is believed to be at large in Yemen, where he could potentially be killed by a US strike any day.
But like some other Islamic radicals, al-Awlaki has spent time in the US. He was born in New Mexico, attended Colorado State, and spent years leading Islamic congregations in Colorado and Virginia. And despite the government's accusations, al-Awlaki's father, Nasser, has proclaimed his son's innocence to CNN, saying his son is an "all-American boy" who has been "wrongly accused." Al-Awlaki is "not Osama bin Laden," his father says, arguing that the government wants "to make something out of him that he's not." On February 2, CNN reported that Nasser al-Awlaki had written to President Barack Obama urging the White House to reconsider its alleged plans to assassinate his son. "I plead again to you that you respect the American law," he wrote. "If Anwar ever did anything wrong he should be prosecuted according to the principles of American law."
That's presumably why Nasser al-Awlaki retained Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU to file suit on his son's behalf.
But just ten days after the groups agreed to work with Nasser al-Awlaki, the Treasury Department put Anwar al-Awlaki on a list of "specially designated global terrorists," which made it a crime to represent him without a special license from the Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). Unable to proceed with the case, the rights groups put in an urgent request (PDF) for a license, but all they've heard back from the Treasury is that their application was received. The ACLU and CCR were in "third or fourth gear several weeks ago," moving towards suing on Awlaki's behalf, Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, told reporters Tuesday on a conference call. But in the wake of the Treasury's designation, they're back in "neutral," he said. So today the groups sued to force the Treasury grant a license. Now, in effect, the two groups are suing the government for permission to sue the government.