CIA Role in U.S. Drone Strikes Scrutinized by Appeals Court

The Central Intelligence Agency should be ordered to say whether it has documents explaining the use of unmanned drones to kill individuals in Pakistan and Yemen, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union told a federal appeals court in Washington.

The ACLU, in arguments today in Washington, said the CIA’s refusal to confirm or deny that it has records on the drone program is unlawful because President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have publicly acknowledged the program’s existence in public interviews.

“We think it’s clear -- and the government now acknowledges -- that there is a drone program run by the U.S. government,” Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU lawyer told a three-judge panel today. “The hard question is what is the CIA’s role and whether the CIA is actively using drones to carry out targeted killings.”

The dispute involves a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU seeking records on the legal basis for using unmanned aerial vehicles to kill human targets, the number of strikes, the selection of targets, whether the program involves cooperation with foreign countries, the determination of possible civilian casualties and the evaluation of completed strikes.

Public Statements

ACLU sued the CIA after the agency cited a national security exemption to the disclosure law and said it wouldn’t confirm or deny whether any records exist. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the agency never made an official statement that it was involved in a drone program.

The three judges questioned Stuart Delery, head of the Justice Department’s civil division, over whether public statements about the use of drones by Panetta, the former CIA chief, and other government officials in speeches and the media eliminates the security exemption reasoning.

“How would acknowledging that the CIA has documents on drones -- how would that disclose something that would harm national interests,” U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland asked.

Stating that the CIA has documents relating to ACLU’s request doesn’t mean the agency would be required to make that information public, Garland said.

Delery, who told the court that the CIA does have some drone records, described the public statements made by government officials as ambiguous.

“It’s not sufficient to constitute precise official confirmation that the court’s test requires,” Delery said.

The case is American Civil Liberties Union v. Central Intelligence Agency, 11-5320, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Washington).

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