Justice Department officials took the controversial step yesterday of invoking the government's state secret privilege to try and dismiss a terrorism lawsuit over the "targeted killing" of a U.S. citizen.

Anwar al-Awlaki—the New Mexico-born Muslim cleric who's been linked to al-Qaeda, this spring's failed Times Square bombing, and the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood that left 13 people dead—was placed on the CIA's kill list in April.

In July, the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit to have al-Awlaki removed from the list. They sought an injunction to prevent the killing and an order for the government to disclose the standards under which American citizens are "targeted for death."

Now, the Obama administration is making a seemingly last-ditch effort to block the suit by invoking its state secret privilege, essentially shielding its actions from judicial review on the pretense of protecting national security.

The strategy is controversial not merely because it involves the government-sanctioned assassination of a U.S. citizen (!), but because of its stark ideological contrast to Obama's promises for increased government transparency and openness. (Incidentally, this isn't the first time the Obama administration has asserted the state secrets privilege — earlier this month, it used the same argument to successfully block a case involving a Bush era torture program.)

But if it's any comfort, Obama knows he's stepping in it. The Washington Post says DOJ officials decided to use the state secret argument "reluctantly," and they were "mindful" of the attacks critics levied against George W. Bush on similar issues.

Which doesn't exactly make "waging the fight against terrorism with excessive secrecy and unchecked claims of executive power" okay, exactly. But hey, at least they thought about it long and hard first.

[Photo of Department of Justice in Washington via Wikipedia]