ACLU blocks dismissal of drone lawsuit against Panetta

Lawyers from the ACLU filed a motion on Wednesday to block the case from being thrown out, a day after the leak of a confidential Justice Department white paper justifying the use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists -- even those who happen to be Americans. 

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The lawsuit filed against Panetta by the ACLU last year on behalf of Nasser al-Awlaki, the suspect's father, claims the U.S. drone strike that killed his son was a clear violation of his constitutional rights as an American citizen. 

Al-Awlaki, a radical Islamic cleric who was also a Yemeni citizen, was suspected of being the head of operations for al Qaeda's Yemeni cell, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) at the time of his death in 2011. 

Along with his suspected ties to the al Qaeda faction in Yemen, al-Awlaki was also implicated in the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, and the attempted 2011 Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad. 

Also killed in the drone strike in Yemen was al-Awlaki's 16 year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was also a U.S. citizen. 

The motion, filed in D.C. district court, is only the latest revelation in the ongoing furor surrounding the White House's aggressive use of armed drone strikes in its counterterrorism campaign against al Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups. 

On Monday, NBC News obtained a copy of a Department of Justice (DOJ) white paper that outlined the criteria U.S. military or intelligence officials must follow before they can launch a targeted drone strike against terror suspects, regardless of nationality. 

If a suspect can be proven to pose an imminent threat to U.S. national security, and it is not feasible to capture the individual, a drone strike becomes an option, Justice Department officials wrote.

But a strike must be conducted in line with the international laws of war, officials added. 

U.S. national security officials claim the strikes have decimated the terror group's top leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

But the ACLU and other civil rights groups claim the counterterrorism tactic denies suspects, particularly U.S. citizens, their rights to due process in favor of national security objectives. 

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney claimed the policies guiding the use of armed drones were "fully consistent" with the tenants of the Constitution. 

Targeted drone strikes against suspected terrorists across the globe are sometimes "necessary to mitigate ongoing attacks," Carney explained. "[The strikes] are legal, they are ethical and they are wise," he added. 

Those claims, however, have not stopped irate lawmakers from demanding more information about the controversial use of armed drone strikes. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the chamber's No. 2 Republican, was the latest lawmaker to call upon DOJ to release its official legal findings justifying the use of drone strikes against American terror suspects. 

“The self-described ‘most transparent administration in history’ owes more of an explanation to the American people on why they can be targeted for execution abroad than legal fluff packaged for and deliberately leaked to the media," Cornyn said in a statement on Wednesday. 

He joined Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who also requested information from DOJ on armed drone operations. 

The recent furor over the White House's use of armed drones could also make things difficult for counterterrorism chief John Brennan, who has been pegged to become the new head of CIA. 

Cornyn has already threatened to hold up Brennan's confirmation, which is scheduled for Thursday, over concerns about unauthorized leaks of classified information on U.S. intelligence operations. 

His request for information from the DOJ on drone operations could provide more fodder for the Texas Republican's opposition. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), an outspoken critic of the U.S. drone program, has also hinted publicly that he would consider a filibuster over Brennan's nomination over the possible targeting of American citizens during U.S. counter-terror operations.

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