By Jacob Chamberlain
March 16, 2013
The American Civil Liberties Union claimed a small victory against the CIA on Friday, following a federal court ruling that determined the CIA cannot deny its “intelligence interest” in the targeted killing program or continue its argument that the program’s literal existence remains a secret protected by national security claims.
The unanimous ruling by a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said it was neither “logical nor plausible” for President Obama and other top officials to brag about the drone program publicly one day, but subsequently allow the CIA to refuse acknowledgement of the programs existence.
The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents on the secretive drone program, but has been repeatedly rebuffed with claims of “national security.”
“This is an important victory. It requires the government to retire the absurd claim that the CIA’s interest in the targeted killing program is a secret, and it will make it more difficult for the government to deflect questions about the program’s scope and legal basis,” said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer, who argued the case before a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Appeals Court in September.
The decision, he said, “means that the CIA will have to explain what records it is withholding, and on what grounds it is withholding them.”
The FOIA request in question, filed by the ACLU in January of 2010, inquires after documents showing “when, where, and against whom U.S. drone strikes can be authorized, and how and whether the U.S. ensures compliance with international law restricting extrajudicial killings.”
The CIA had refused to release such information, saying that security concerns prevented it from even acknowledging the existence of drone records.
However, the court ruling on Friday determined that this was an inadequate excuse because government officials, including President Barack Obama, have clearly acknowledged the drone program exists on multiple occasions.
As Jaffer argues, “The public surely has a right to know who the government is killing, and why, and in which countries, and on whose orders.”
“It is hard to see how the CIA Director could have made his Agency’s knowledge of—and therefore ‘interest’ in—drone strikes any clearer,” the ruling states. “And given these statements by the Director, the President, and the President’s counterterrorism advisor, the Agency’s declaration that ‘no authorized CIA or Executive Branch official has disclosed whether or not the CIA … has an interest in drone strikes,’ … is at this point neither logical nor plausible.”
The decision reverses a previous lower court ruling and now the case will return to a lower court where the CIA is expected to present additional legal arguments to block the disclosure.
Jaffer, however, appeared confident that today’s decision could aid in the fight for governmental transparency in an otherwise shadowy drone program:
We hope that this ruling will encourage the Obama administration to fundamentally reconsider the secrecy surrounding the targeted killing program. The program has already been responsible for the deaths of more than 4,000 people in an unknown number of countries. […]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.