Rick Bowmer / AP file, 2012

Imam Mohamed Sheikh Abdirahman Kariye, who is one of 15 men who say their rights were violated because they are on the U.S. government's no-fly list, leaves the United Sates Court of Appeals following oral arguments on the ACLU No Fly List challenge, in Portland, Ore. A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. government violated the rights of 13 people on its no-fly list by depriving them of their constitutional right to travel and gave them no adequate way to challenge their placement on the list.

Editorial: Too much secrecy in war on terror

Published: Saturday, Jun. 28, 2014 - 12:00 am

Sometimes, it’s difficult to fathom that America’s war on terror is nearly 13 years old. What is also hard to believe is how little we still know about what is being done to protect us.

Just consider two developments this week you easily could have missed.

On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department finally declassified the legal memo used by President Barack Obama to justify a 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed an American citizen who had become an al-Qaida leader. Then on Tuesday, a federal judge in Portland ruled that the government doesn’t give people an adequate way to try to get off its secret no-fly list.

That list is a key counterterrorism tool at home, while targeted killings using unmanned drones are a major weapon abroad.

Four Americans have been killed by drones, but only one on purpose – Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric who was born in New Mexico. The newly released legal memo parroted the administration’s public argument that al-Awlaki could be targeted without violating U.S. or international law because he was a senior member of a terrorist group that posed a continuing threat and because he could not reasonably be captured.

The 16-page memo – or at least the portions that weren’t blacked out – was only released after a federal appeals court ruling in favor of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times in February 2012.

And it didn’t clear up key concerns surrounding the drone war: What is the definition of a continuing terrorist threat? What criteria are used to target someone? Which officials get to decide?

There are also many unanswered questions about the no-fly list, which contains the names of thousands of people who are barred from flying at U.S. airports, and is shared with 22 countries.

Thirteen Muslim Americans, including four veterans, who believe they’re wrongly on the list sued the administration in 2010. In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Anna Brown agreed with them that there’s no real path to challenge placement on the list or to correct erroneous information. She said the Department of Homeland Security needs to find a way to tell those on the list the unclassified information used to place them there, plus the nature and extent of classified information, why they are a threat to national security and how they can respond.

Being put on the list, she noted, turns routine travel into an “odyssey” and can lead to detention and interrogation by foreign authorities. “For many, international travel is a necessary aspect of liberties sacred to members of a free society,” she added.

While it is encouraging that some federal judges are forcing the government to justify its actions, it shouldn’t always require lengthy, costly court fights to get information that isn’t going to put national security at risk.

After all, access to information is one of the freedoms the war on terror is supposed to safeguard, right?

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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