WASHINGTON — Two civil liberties groups went to court Tuesday to challenge a requirement that they get a government license before mounting a legal attack on the decision to put alleged terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki on a CIA target list.
The treasury secretary categorized al-Awlaki as a specially designated global terrorist last month. That made it illegal for lawyers to provide representation for al-Awlaki's benefit without obtaining the license.
The requirement is delaying efforts by al-Awlaki's father to retain the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union to sue over the constitutionality of the Obama administration program that placed al-Awlaki on a CIA list of alleged terrorists to be killed or captured.
Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the U.S. government is creating obstacles to putting the targeted killings program before the courts.
"We don't believe we should have to play 'Mother may I' with the government," ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said of the attorney licensing requirement.
An American citizen and radical Muslim cleric thought to be hiding in Yemen, al-Awlaki is believed to have helped inspire recent attacks in the U.S., including the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings, the fizzled Times Square bombing attempt and the failed Christmas Day bombing of a jetliner approaching Detroit.
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control, or OFAC, added al-Awlaki to its terrorism blacklist July 16, months after his name was added to the CIA target list.
Once on the blacklist, any bank accounts found in the United States belonging to al-Awlaki are frozen, Americans are forbidden from doing business with him and he is banned from traveling to the U.S.
At a press briefing, Romero said the timing of imposing the attorney license requirement "raised our eyebrows" because it took place several weeks after the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU spoke with al-Awlaki's father and staff from the two groups went to Yemen.
Asked whether the Obama administration might invoke the state secrets privilege to stop any lawsuit about the targeted killings program, Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's national security project, said that the government had made no secret of the program.
Jaffer said he doesn't think the government can discuss it publicly, "and then declare it a state secret."
The groups filed their challenge to the Treasury's ruling in U.S. District Court here. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler declined to comment.
It is "significantly misleading" to say that OFAC regulations prohibit lawyers from giving free representation to people on the terrorist list unless the government gives them permission, said Adam Szubin, OFAC's director.
The Treasury Department has long had in place a general license that broadly authorizes the provision of free legal services to or on behalf of designated persons such as Anwar al-Awlaki, without any requirement that the individual contact OFAC or apply to OFAC for a license, 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," Szubin said in a statement.
According to the lawsuit by the ACLU and CCR, unless the government grants the ACLU and CCR a specific license, OFAC's regulations make it a criminal offense for attorneys to file a lawsuit on behalf of al-Awlaki's father, Nasser al-Awlaki.