A New York court threw out Wednesday a freedom of information request from the American Civil Liberties Union seeking guidance on the grounds for the killing of three US citizens in Yemen in 2011.
The trio -- including Al-Qaeda allied preacher Anwar al-Awlaqi -- perished at the sharp end of controversial US drone strikes, triggering a row over the American government's legal grounds for killing them.
The ACLU had sought official records about the targeted killing of the three men. But the Southern District of New York court said much of the freedom of information request had been "overbroad," and was rightly withheld.
The men's families have filed a civil suit against top US officials, arguing that the killings "violated fundamental rights afforded to all US citizens, including the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law."
But the refusal of the freedom of information request -- seeking disclosure of documents from the US Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, which provided justification for Awlaqi's killing -- is a major blow for the ACLU.
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The rights group said in a statement that it would appeal the New York court's decision as it "denies the public access to crucial information about the government's extrajudicial killing of US citizens."
The ruling "effectively green-lights" the government's "practice of making selective and self-serving disclosures," said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director.
"The public has a right to know more about the circumstances in which the government believes it can lawfully kill people, including US citizens, who are far from any battlefield and have never been charged with a crime," he added.
US President Barack Obama said the killing of Awlaqi, whose son also died in the drone strike, was justified as the suspect was actively plotting deadly attacks against Americans as a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Awlaqi -- a forceful and somewhat charismatic preacher fluent in Arabic and English -- was seen as a particularly effective global recruiter.
US officials believe Awlaqi played a significant role in the attempt to bring down a US airliner over Detroit by an assailant with explosives sewn into his underwear on December 25, 2009.
He was also believed to have coordinated the thwarted 2010 plot to blow up cargo aircraft bound for the United States and had called for attacks against US and Arab governments.