Trials & Litigation

US can kill its own citizens without review when state secrets are involved, DOJ lawyer argues

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A U.S. Department of Justice lawyer argued Monday that the United States can kill its own citizens without judicial review when litigation would reveal state secrets.

The argument drew alarm among judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Courthouse News Service reports.

Judge Patricia Millett characterized the DOJ’s argument as giving the government the ability to “unilaterally decide to kill U.S. citizens,” according to coverage of the argument by Courthouse News Service. “Do you appreciate how extraordinary that proposition is?”

The government’s brief in the case supplies details of the lawsuit. The plaintiff, Bilal Abdul Kareem, is a U.S. citizen who works as a journalist in Syria for the “On the Ground Network” news channel, which provides access to the views of rebel fighters. The militants are linked to al-Qaida, according to Courthouse Service.

Kareem alleges that he was narrowly missed by five military strikes that he thinks were carried out by the U.S. military as a result of his inclusion on a kill list. He suggests that he was put on the list because of metadata from electronic devices, and he doesn’t meet the guidelines for inclusion.

The government sought to dismiss the case, invoking the state secrets privilege because Kareem sought discovery on whether he had been targeted, the process the government used to target him, and whether the United States had attempted to kill him. A federal judge agreed with the government.

In its appellate brief, the government argued that Kareem lacked standing because he makes an unsupported assertion about being targeted in a war zone. Even if he had standing, the government argued, the state secrets privilege forecloses litigation of his claim.

DOJ lawyer Bradley Hinshelwood acknowledged during the hearing that a strike against U.S. citizen is a serious undertaking. He said the courts have a role in deciding whether the state secrets privilege is appropriately applied, according to Courthouse News Service.

But Kareem’s lawyer, Tara Jordan Plochocki, argued that the federal government was seeking to expand sovereignty allowed under the state secrets privilege.

“Whether that’s in a parking lot in the United States or abroad in Syria, the government has claimed—for the first time ever in this case—that it has unfettered and unreviewable discretion to kill US citizens at will,” Plochocki said.

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