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CIA admits it has drone documents, but refuses to publish them

CIA admits it has drone documents, but refuses to publish them

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Drone MQ-9 Reaper (Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson)
Drone MQ-9 Reaper (Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson)

The US Central Intelligence Agency has finally come forward and admitted it does have documents about US drone strikes, but says it can't share them with the public because doing so would pose a massive security risk to the country. As the CIA stated in a document filed in federal district court in Washington, DC last week (and made public today): "The details of those records, including the number and nature of responsive documents, remain currently and properly classified facts exempt from disclosure."

The agency also spells out what would happen were it to reveal the documents, which many transparency advocates have sought:

Official CIA disclosure of such details would reveal sensitive national security information concerning intelligence activities, intelligence sources and methods, and the foreign activities of the United States. It would provide important insights into the CIA’s activities to terrorist organizations, foreign intelligence services, or other hostile groups, and could affect the foreign relations of the United States.

The CIA cites several exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (1 and 3) as reasons why it should not be legally forced to turn over these documents, despite the fact that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit back in 2010 to get them.

Still, the fact that the CIA is finally admitting it even has any documents about drones whatsoever is progress from the stance it's taken previously, which is to refuse to confirm or deny the existence of these materials. In fact, the only reason the CIA is opening about the fact that it has any drone records at all now is thanks to a federal court ruling back in March that said the agency should, at the very least, be forced to declare whether or not it has documents about drones.

"Official CIA disclosure of such details would reveal sensitive national security information."

The CIA says it complied with that court order as best as it could without revealing classified information. The agency points to President Obama's big drone speech back in May and a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder, in which both officials admitted that US drone strikes were used to kill four US citizens abroad, though only one of those killed — Al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki — was the target. The CIA says the fact that both Obama and Holder admitted to a drone strike is evidence that the Obama administration is lifting the veil on drone secrecy per the ACLU's request, albeit slightly. But the agency says that's all the public is going to hear about drones from its side. "Notwithstanding these additional official disclosures, it remains the case that no authorized executive branch official has disclosed the precise nature of the CIA’s involvement in the use of targeted lethal force," the court filing states.

Whether the DC district court decides that this is enough to satisfy the legal requirements for responding to the ACLU remains to be seen. But for those looking for increased transparency surrounding the use of drones for targeted killings, the disclosures are cold comfort indeed.

Update: ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer, the lawyer who represented the ACLU in court, provided the following statement to The Verge in response to the CIA's brief:

This is a remarkable brief, not least because it was filed on the same day that President Obama emphasized his commitment to transparency around counterterrorism policy. Three years after we filed our FOIA request for basic records about the targeted killing program, and even after the D.C. Circuit issued a unanimous decision holding that the CIA's claim of categorical secrecy was illegitimate, the CIA has yet even to identify any documents responsive to our request, let alone describe them, enumerate them, or explain why they're being withheld.

Jaffer is also referencing President Obama's speech on NSA surveillance reforms from last week, which didn't address drones.