Insisting that the United States is still “a nation of laws,” a federal judge in Washington, D.C., Friday sharply challenged the Obama administration’s claim that the president’s decision to target Americans overseas for killing by drone strikes may not be subject to judicial review.

“Are you saying that a U.S. citizen targeted by the United States in a foreign country has no constitutional rights?” Judge Rosemary M. Collyer asked Brian Hauck, a deputy assistant attorney general at a hearing in U.S. District Court. “How broadly are you asserting the right of the United States to target an American citizen? Where is the limit to this?”

The hearing was on a suit filed by Nasser al-Awlaki, father and grandfather of a man and his teenage son killed in separate drone strikes in Yemen, and Sara Khan, mother of drone-strike victim Samir Khan, a North Carolina man who was also killed in Yemen. Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric reputed to be a top al-Qaeda operative, was killed, along with Khan when a drone-fired missile struck the vehicle in which they were traveling in Yemen on September 30, 2011. Anwar’s son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed in another drone attack two weeks later. The elder Awlaki was the only one of the three who was deliberately targeted, according to U.S. officials. His son was killed by a strike intended for a terrorist who was not present, officials said. Both Awlakis, though residing in Yemen at the time, were U.S. citizens, having been born in the United States.

Though the names on the president’s “kill list” of suspected terrorists remain a government secret, Anwar al-Awlaki had been rumored to be a target for months before the fatal strike, carried out by Joint Special Operations Command under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency. Nasser al-Awlaki, a former government official in Yemen who was educated in the United States as a Fulbright scholar, sought with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights to halt the planned killing of his son, challenging in federal court the Obama administration’s authority to execute a U.S. citizen, absent any legal proceedings, for alleged terrorist activities.

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