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New York Times files lawsuit seeking info on targeted killings

By Jesse Solomon, CNN
December 22, 2011 -- Updated 0011 GMT (0811 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The newspaper seeks the government's justification for targeted killings
  • It wants the use of targeted killings to be part of a public discussion, its attorney says
  • The Justice Department has not responded to a Freedom of Information Act request, it says

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The New York Times has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice charging that the government failed to release information under the Freedom of Information Act on records surrounding questions of the legality of targeted killing, especially as it relates to American citizens.

The lawsuit revolves around the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in September in Yemen.

The United States regarded al-Awlaki as a terrorist who posed a direct threat to American homeland security. Western intelligence officials believed al-Awlaki was a senior leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the world's most active al Qaeda affiliates.

Though considered a major blow to al Qaeda, al-Awlaki's death re-energized a national debate over the legal and moral quandaries of a government deliberately killing one of its own citizens.

"Given questions surrounding the legality of the practice under both U.S. and international law, notable legal scholars, human rights activists, and current and former government officials have called for the government to disclose its legal analysis justifying the use of targeted lethal force, especially as it applies to American Citizens," the lawsuit contends.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, names New York Times reporters Charlie Savage and Scott Shane as plaintiffs along with the newspaper.

David E. McCraw, assistant general counsel for the New York Times, said the paper wants to promote a public discussion.

"From our standpoint, we lay out the case that this is an important public issue. We're not interested in any sensitive operational details" McCraw said. "This is about the legal arguments made within the justice department and within the government used to legally justify the killings."

The lawsuit refers to published reports in Newsweek, the Washington Post and the New York Times referencing at least one legal memo detailing the "legal analysis justifying the government's use of targeted killing."

According to the lawsuit, the New York Times filed Freedom of Information Act requests in June 2010 seeking the material. To date, the Times suits says, the Department of Justice has refused to release any memo or portions of memos, "claiming them to be properly classified and privileged and, in respect to certain memoranda, has declined to say whether they in fact exist."

When reached by e-mail, a Justice Department spokeswoman responded, "Sorry, don't have any comment."

CNN's Jim Barnett contributed to this report.

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