CIA Must End Silence on Drone Targeted Killings, Appeals Court Says
A federal appeals court reinstated a lawsuit seeking Central Intelligence Agency documents outlining its drone targeted killing program, ruling Friday that the agency’s refusal to acknowledge the program and whether records exist about it contradicts public statements by top government officials, including President Barack Obama.
The case concerns a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit (.pdf) brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in which the CIA has been refusing to confirm or deny the covert military use of drones to kill suspected terrorists overseas, despite Obama’s and even a former CIA director’s admission of the agency’s targeted killing program.
“The President of the United States has himself publicly acknowledged that the United States uses drone strikes against al-Qaeda,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled.
The development came a week after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) undertook a 13-hour, old-fashioned filibuster to highlight his disdain for the drone-targeted killing program while tentatively blocking the confirmation of John Brennan as the CIA’s director.
The use of drones to shoot missiles from afar at vehicles and buildings that the nation’s intelligence agencies believe are being used by suspected terrorists began under the Bush administration and was widened by Obama to allow the targeting of American citizens. Drone strikes by the Pentagon and the CIA have sparked backlashes from foreign governments and populations, as the strikes often kill civilians, including women and children.
With Friday’s decision, the ACLU’s case returns to a federal court, where a district judge had sided with the agency’s so-called “Glomar” response which allowed the CIA to neither confirm nor deny the existence of responsive records because doing so would expose national security secrets. The FOIA litigation dates to 2010, when the ACLU sued in federal court seeking records concerning the legal basis for carrying out targeted drone killings; any restrictions on those who may be targeted; any civilian casualties; any geographic limits on the program; the number of targeted killings that the agency has carried out; and the training, supervision, oversight, or discipline of drone operators.
Last year, the same appeals court upheld the National Security Agency’s decision, citing Glomar, to withhold from the public documents confirming or denying any relationship it has with Google concerning encryption or cybersecurity.
The ACLU hailed Friday’s decision, and estimated that U.S. drone strikes have killed some 4,000 people across the globe.
“We hope that this ruling will encourage the Obama administration to fundamentally reconsider the secrecy surrounding the targeted killing program,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director. “The program has already been responsible for the deaths of more than 4,000 people in an unknown number of countries. The public surely has a right to know who the government is killing, and why, and in which countries, and on whose orders. The Obama administration, which has repeatedly acknowledged the importance of government transparency, should give the public the information it needs in order to fully evaluate the wisdom and lawfulness of the government’s policies.”
Still, Friday’s decision does not mean the ACLU would win the release of documents. The CIA is likely to now acknowledge documents on the program, but decline to divulge them on an assertion they threaten to expose classified material.
In 2011, Obama acknowledged particular CIA drone strikes at a Joint Chiefs of Staff ceremony. Within hours of the CIA drone strike that killed U.S. citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in Yemen, the president publicly lauded the move as “another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates” and then acknowledged the U.S. government’s role, stating that “this success is a tribute to our intelligence community.”