A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the Central Intelligence Agency can no longer deny the existence of its drone program overseas, citing the fact that the program is widely acknowledged by the government.
The decision is a reversal of one made by a Washington, D.C. District Court judge that asserted that the CIA was "not required to confirm or deny that it has any [drone records]" in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland wrote in his opinion that the fact that President Obama and John Brennan had publicly acknowledged that the "United States uses drone strikes against al Qaeda" made it not logical for the CIA to refrain from confirming that it has an interest in carrying out drone strikes. He also wrote that it is "not plausible that the Agency does not have any documents relating to drones."
ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer, who argued the case, called the decision an "important victory."
"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," he said in a statement. "It also means that the CIA will have to explain what records it is withholding, and on what grounds it is withholding them."
The CIA's drone program was one of the United States' worst-kept secrets and has been widely discussed in Congress and in the media. According to some estimates, there have been more than 350 drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Northern Africa since 2004. The strikes have reportedly killed as many as 3,000 people—both suspected terrorists and civilians.
Jaffer said he hopes the decision will "encourage the Obama administration to fundamentally reconsider the secrecy surrounding the targeted killing program.
"The public surely has a right to know who the government is killing, and why, and in which countries, and on whose orders," he said. "The Obama administration, which has repeatedly acknowledged the importance of government transparency, should give the public the information it needs in order to fully evaluate the wisdom and lawfulness of the government's policies."