Court orders CIA to acknowledge drones

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) must acknowledge whether an armed drone program exists, a federal appellate court ruled on Friday.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took the CIA to court after filing a Freedom of Information request about drone strikes overseas. The CIA denied the request, saying it could not release any documents because even acknowledging the existence of the program would harm national security.

“The existence or nonexistence of CIA records responsive to this request is a currently and properly classified fact, the disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security,” the CIA argued to the court, which initially agreed.

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But on Friday, the appellate court overturned the earlier decision, noting that President Obama and other senior intelligence officials have talked openly about drone strikes in recent months, undercutting the CIA’s argument that acknowledging its role in the operation could harm national security.

“The defendant is, after all, the Central Intelligence Agency. And it strains credulity to suggest that an agency charged with gathering intelligence affecting the national security does not have an ‘intelligence interest’ in drone strikes, even if that agency does not operate the drones itself,” Chief Judge Merrick B. Garland wrote.

The ACLU requested documents from the agency detailing “when, where, and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and how and whether the U.S. ensures compliance with international law restricting extrajudicial killings.”

“We hope that this ruling will encourage the Obama administration to fundamentally reconsider the secrecy surrounding the targeted killing program,” said Jameel Jaffer, the lawyer with the ACLU who argued the case. “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,” Jaffer said.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, agencies are allowed to redact information under nine privacy exemptions, including classified information, trade secrets, information that would interfere with an investigation and private information about an individual.