WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court held Friday that the Central Intelligence Agency must disclose, at least to a judge, a description of its records on drone strikes in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The 19-page opinion by Judge Merrick B. Garland rejected an effort by the Obama administration to keep secret any aspect of the C.I.A.’s interest in the use of drone strikes to kill terrorism suspects abroad.
It does not necessarily mean the contents of any of those records will ever be made public, and it stopped short of ordering the government to acknowledge publicly that the C.I.A. actually uses drones to carry out “targeted killings” against specific terrorism suspects or groups of unknown people who appear to be militants in places like tribal Pakistan. The Obama administration continues to treat that fact as a classified secret, though it has been widely reported.
But the ruling was a chink in that stone wall. Judge Garland, citing the C.I.A. role in analyzing intelligence, as well as public remarks by a former director and other top officials about what they asserted was the precision and minimal civilian casualties caused by drone strikes, said it was a step too far to ask the judicial branch to give its “imprimatur to a fiction of deniability that no reasonable person would regard as plausible.”
Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the A.C.L.U. who argued the case before the appeals court in September, called the ruling “an important victory” that “requires the government to retire the absurd claim that the C.I.A.’s interest in the targeted killing program is a secret.”
Pressure has been mounting on the Obama administration to disclose more information to Congress and to the public about its use of drones generally, and its killing of three Americans in Yemen in the fall of 2011, including the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, in particular. Last week, Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, led a nearly 13-hour filibuster before the Brennan vote in which he denounced the administration’s drone policies and the secrecy surrounding its understanding of the scope and limits of its power to kill.