The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) will have to rethink how to turn away information requests regarding the agency’s suspected use of drone aircraft to bomb targets overseas thanks to a court ruling issued Friday.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held in a 3-0 vote on Friday that the CIA must reveal whether it has any “involvement” or “interest” in the U.S. drone program, saying its refrain that the agency cannot acknowledge the program’s existence is undermined by officials’ public statements.
Those public statements came from President Barack Obama, newly-minted CIA director John Brennan and former CIA Director Leon Panetta, all of whom have confirmed that some agency of the U.S. government uses drone aircraft to drop bombs. Brennan in particular has even confirmed in public comments that the nation’s intelligence agencies are consulted about drone strikes.
The agency was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010 after it continued to deny the program’s existence even after it was confirmed by public officials. That lawsuit was rebuffed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after the CIA argued that no public official has disclosed whether the agency even has an “interest” in the program, so the ACLU appealed.
“Given these official acknowledgments that the United States has participated in drone strikes, it is neither logical nor plausible for the CIA to maintain that it would reveal anything not already in the public domain to say that the Agency ‘at least has an intelligence interest’ in such strikes,” the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling (PDF) explains. “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.”
The court added that it is “implausible that the CIA does not possess a single document on the subject of drone strikes,” calling the agency’s position “untenable,” and therefore overturned.
While the ruling does not put the ACLU any closer to the Obama administration’s closely held memos on the legal justifications for drone warfare in countries the U.S. has not declared war against, it does clear a key roadblock that’s prevented transparency advocates from obtaining information from the CIA.
“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,” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in an advisory. “It also means that the CIA will have to explain what records it is withholding, and on what grounds it is withholding them.”
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