WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Friday rejected the CIA’s claim that it could neither confirm nor deny whether it has an “intelligence interest” in the use of drones, a ruling that could force the agency to disclose limited details about the use of the technology in counterterrorism operations.
The court ruled that a blanket denial is neither “logical nor plausible” after administration officials from the president on down discussed targeted-killing operations.
The decision followed a lower-court ruling that the agency did not have to acknowledge drone operations, nevermind produce any documents about them, in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“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 Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, who argued the case before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
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Under the ruling, the CIA must disclose, at least to a judge, a description of its records on drone strikes. It does not necessarily mean the contents of any of those records will be made public.
The Obama administration has been under pressure from Congress and civil-liberties groups to be more forthcoming about drone operations, including by providing access to some legal opinions written by the Justice Department that justify targeted killings.
The CIA, in urging a district court judge to dismiss the ACLU lawsuit, had argued it should not be required to produce even an index of the relevant documents in its possession because it would harm national security even to confirm or deny whether it had an “interest” in such operations.
A district court judge, Rosemary Collyer, accepted that argument and rejected the ACLU’s case, and the ruling Friday sends the case back to her.
A spokeswoman for the agency, Jennifer Youngblood, said the CIA “does not, as a rule, comment on matters before the courts.”
The agency had argued “it could neither confirm nor deny that it had responsive documents because confirming that it did would reveal that the CIA was either involved in, or interested in, drone strikes (while denying that it did would reveal the opposite),” according to the court.
The appeals-court judges quoted statements by President Obama, CIA Director John Brennan and one of his predecessors, Leon Panetta, on counterterrorism operations. The court said the agency cannot hide behind a claim that drone operations have not been officially acknowledged. And once acknowledged, the CIA could not say it has no interest, the court ruled.
“The defendant is, after all, the Central Intelligence Agency,” Chief Judge Merrick Garland wrote. “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.”
Garland is a former Justice Department official and an appointee of President Clinton who is considered a potential nominee to the Supreme Court should a vacancy arise in Obama’s second term. His opinion was joined by Judge David Tatel, another Clinton appointee, and Judge Thomas Griffith, an appointee of President George W. Bush.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report