The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) are suing Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner over the government's decision to put radical Muslim cleric Anwar Awlaki on a hit list and freeze his U.S. assets.
Awlaki, a U.S. citizen now living in Yemen, has been linked to the Fort Hood shootings, the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest 253 and the failed car bombing of Times Square. He is on a U.S. intelligence hit list, and has already survived at least one cruise missile strike. In July, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) formally labeled Awlaki a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" so that it could freeze his assets.
Last month Awlaki's father Nasser Al-Awlaki asked the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights to challenge the government's placement of his son on a list of U.S. citizens who can be assassinated by U.S. forces and intelligence services for ties to terrorism.
However, when an individual has been designated a terrorist by OFAC, it is illegal for anyone to represent that person legally, and thus contest the designation or the freezing of assets, unless OFAC grants special permission. The suit filed today in U.S. District Court in Washington challenges the legal restrictions put in place as part of OFAC's terrorist designation.
"Unless the government grants the ACLU and CCR a specific license," notes the suit, "OFAC's regulations make it a criminal offense for ACLU and CCR attorneys to file a lawsuit on Mr. Awlaki's father's behalf seeking to protect the constitutional rights of his U.S. citizen son. In other words, under the regulations at issue in this case, the same government that is seeking to kill Anwar al-Awlaki has prohibited attorneys from contesting the legality of the government's decision to use lethal force against him."
The suit said that OFAC's restrictions are "particularly severe" since "they prevent designed individuals . . . from vindicating their rights in court without the express permission of the U.S. government."
"We've been concerned about the OFAC scheme for many, many months." ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said on a conference call with reporters.
Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico but has lived in Yemen since 2004, has become a prominent member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Accused Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan exchanged emails with him prior to the massacre at the Texas Army base, and convicted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad said he was "inspired" by Awlaki. Intelligence sources also say accused "Underwear Bomber" Umar Abdulmutallab was allegedly in touch with Awlaki.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration formally placed Awlaki on a list for assassination by US intelligence and special operations forces in the US military, US officials told ABC News. In February former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said the intelligence community had the authority to target American citizens for assassination if they present a direct terrorist threat to the United States.
In December, according to U.S. officials, Awlaki was at a meeting with leaders of the terror group when the U.S. knowingly launched a cruise missile strike to eliminate the terror leaders. Several people were killed but Awlaki survived.
"President Obama is claiming the power to act as judge, jury and executioner while suspending any semblance of due process," said Vince Warren, the Executive Director of CCR.
Adam Szubin, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control, told ABC News that the ACLU's contention that OFAC regulations prohibit lawyers from representing people on the terrorist list "is significantly misleading."
"The Treasury Department has long had in place a general license that broadly authorizes the provision of pro bono legal services to or on behalf of designated persons like [Awlaki]," said Szubin. "To the extent that the particular legal services that the ACLU wishes to provide in this instance do not fall into any of the broad categories that are generally licensed, OFAC will work with the ACLU to ensure that the legal services can be delivered."
During his daily press briefing Tuesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs deflected questions about Awlaki's status. "There's a process in place that I'm not at liberty to discuss," he said.
Gibbs, however, noted that Awlaki is not like other American citizens who happen to be out of the country. "Anwar al-Awlaki has in videos cast his lot with Al Qaida and its extremist allies," said Gibbs. "Anwar al-Awlaki is acting as a regional commander for Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Let's not take a tourist who might visit Italy overseas and equate him with somebody who has on countless times in video pledged to uphold and support the violent and murderous theories of al Qaeda."