The Central Intelligence Agency must publicly declare whether or not it has documents on drone strikes carried out by the US government, and if so, must explain why it can keep those documents hidden from the public, according to a new ruling today by an appeals court in Washington, DC. The ruling, which was made in response to a three-year-old Freedom of Information Act request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, doesn't mean that the CIA will have to turn over any drone documents themselves, but it does force the agency to at least acknowledge that it has intelligence on US drone strikes, which it's been reluctant to do so far in official court filings.

Unanimous ruling

As the three-judge panel for the DC appeals court stated in a unanimous ruling, the CIA's refusal to acknowledge that such documents even exist is contrary to public statements made by government officials, including Leon Panetta when he was CIA director back in 2009. As Panetta said at that time in response to a question about drone strikes at a DC nonprofit: "These operations have been very effective because they have been very precise in terms of the targeting and it involved a minimum of collateral damage."

"It is implausible that the CIA does not possess a single document on the subject of drone strikes."

As the DC court points out: "Given those statements, it is implausible that the CIA does not possess a single document on the subject of drone strikes [...] Those statements are tantamount to an acknowledgment that the CIA has documents on the subject." But the ruling notes that the CIA can still keep them from the public eye, so long as it explains how many documents it has on drone killings and why certain documents should be exempted from the Freedom of Information Act. The CIA can also appeal to the full circuit court or petition the Supreme Court to overturn today's ruling.

"This is an important victory."

Still, the ACLU celebrated the ruling as a chink in the CIA's wall of secrecy around drone strikes. As Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU lawyer in the case said in a statement published on the nonprofit group's website Friday: "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."

The ruling comes at a time when suspected US drone strikes are coming under increased international scrutiny. The UN's top investigator on drone killings, Ben Emmerson, on Friday released a statement calling upon the US to end drone strikes in Pakistan, saying in part, "it involves the use of force on the territory of another State without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty."