The men’s lawyers and Reprieve, a human rights group in Britain that filed the lawsuit, hope that it will force the government to not only to clarify the men’s status, but to divulge information about a highly secretive program that has killed many militants, including Anwar al-Awlaki, an American cleric who died in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
American officials argue that covert drone strikes are an effective tool against terrorism that have removed key threats from the battlefield in places like Yemen, Somalia and Syria. Critics say the program allows the government to kill people outside of any legal process to determine their innocence or guilt.
“Under three presidents now the U.S. government has had a policy of putting people, including U.S. citizens, on kill lists based on secret evidence and still largely secret criteria without meaningful oversight even after the fact,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which was not involved in the case.
The men’s lawyer, Jeffrey D. Robinson, said that they should be given the right to contest their inclusion on any list that could get them killed. “Before the state applies its power in force to lead to my death, give me an opportunity to show that you got the wrong person,” said Mr. Robinson, a senior counsel in the Washington office of Lewis Baach.
The case revolves around the suspicion that the men’s association with members of Al Qaeda and other militant groups in the course of their reporting has led to their classification as terrorists.
Mr. Abdul Kareem said he believed that he was on the list because he had nearly been killed in airstrikes five times in the last year, at least one of them from a drone, according to court papers. According to Clive Stafford Smith, the Founder of Reprieve, Mr. Abdul Kareem was also informed by a Turkish intelligence official that the United States was seeking to kill him.
Mr. Zaidan, who has both Pakistani and Syrian citizenship, thinks he is on the list based on documents from the National Security Agency leaked by Edward J. Snowden and published by The Intercept.
The documents appear to be slides from a presentation about a technology that uses metadata from cellphones to identify couriers for Al Qaeda. One slide contained a picture of Mr. Zaidan, alleging that he is a member of Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to being an employee of Al Jazeera. It also showed that he had an identification number in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, the lowest level of the government’s terrorism watch list.
After the information was published, Mr. Zaidan, fearing for his life, fled Pakistan for Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based, according to the lawsuit.
The case, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, names 12 defendants all believed to be involved in the United States’ covert drone program. They include Mr. Trump, the heads of the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Homeland Security, and the departments of Justice and Defense.
The government has 60 days to respond, and could argue that the court lacks jurisdiction to rule on such matters.
The C.I.A. declined to comment and the National Security Agency did not respond to a request for comment. But officials familiar with the government’s procedures for targeting suspected terrorists expressed skepticism about the men’s claims that they are on the kill list.
Under a 2013 document called the Presidential Policy Guidance, issued under President Barack Obama but still in effect, only people judged to pose a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons” can be targeted outside a conventional war zone. In addition, the rules say that targeted killing should take place only if capture is “infeasible,” which usually means the target is in a lawless area where arrest would be impossible or hazardous.
Mr. Zaidan’s inclusion in the so-called TIDE database would get him additional attention if he tried to fly to the United States. But by itself, it would not come close to meeting the standard necessary to put him on a kill list, according to government officials and outside experts, who requested anonymity to discuss a secret operation. His presence in Qatar, where he could easily be arrested, would also protect him against targeted killing, the experts added.
As for Mr. Kareem, his status as an American citizen would mean any decision to target him would require an additional legal review by the Justice Department, as occurred in the case of Mr. Awlaki.
Mr. Awlaki’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki, went to court twice to challenge the government’s actions in the case of his son: first, to demand that he be removed from the kill list, and second, after his death, to demand that the government release more of the evidence against him. Both lawsuits were dismissed, so the issues they raised were never fully adjudicated.