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A federal appeals court has rejected an effort by the CIA to deny it has any documents about a U.S. drone program that has killed terrorists overseas, ruling that the agency is stretching the law too far and asking judges "to give their imprimatur to a fiction of deniability that no reasonable person would regard as plausible."
The ruling by a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit cites several public speeches by prominent American officials about the U.S. use of weaponized drones, including a 2009 talk by then-CIA director Leon Panetta, a Google+ web chat by President Obama last year and a 2012 speech by the president's new CIA chief, John Brennan.
The case began with a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union nearly three years ago. It asked for 10 categories of information regarding drones. That request was flatly denied by CIA officials, who argued that confirming the existence of such records could in effect be revealing classified information.
So, the ACLU took the CIA to court. ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer called Friday's decision "an important victory."
Jaffer added that: "It requires the government to retire the absurd claim that the CIA's involvement 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. It also means that the CIA will have to explain what records it is withholding, and on what grounds it is withholding them."
The court says the CIA may have to prepare a list of all the drone materials and fight it out in a lower court over whether they should be turned over. The agency still has other legal defenses under the Freedom of Information Act.
The court ruling comes as members of Congress from both political parties press the White House to release more information about its program for targeting terrorism suspects, including American citizens who have been killed without charge or trial. Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul highlighted the issue in a nearly 13 hour Senate filibuster earlier this month. And Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he voted against the president's new choice to lead the CIA because of the White House refusal to share legal justification for drone strikes.
The momentum built Friday with an op-ed in The Washington Post by prominent Democrat John Podesta, a chief of staff at the White House during the Clinton administration. Podesta wrote that President Obama is "ignoring the system of checks and balances that has governed our country from the earliest days" and, regarding the legal memos, he said, "give them up, Mr. President."
A spokeswoman says the Justice Department is "reviewing" the ruling written by Judge Merrick Garland and joined by Judges David Tatel and Thomas Griffith.