[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] heard arguments Thursday on whether to grant a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [5 USC § 552] request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] to obtain information from the CIA [official website] on its use of unmanned Predator drones [JURIST news archive]. The CIA argued that the US government has never officially acknowledged [AP report] the use of unmanned drone strikes for killings and that it cannot reveal the number or nature of the strikes without giving up confidential information protected under the FOIA. This issue of whether the government has publicly acknowledged the use of drone strikes is critical to the case. Under the FOIA, once the government has publicly acknowledged a fact, it may not refuse to confirm that fact in court. The ACLU stated [press release] that “the court should put an end to the government’s double game of selectively disclosing information about the program in public while obstinately refusing to confirm or deny the very existence of the program in federal court.” The ACLU pointed to several statements from the Obama administration that it claims are an acknowledgement of the use of drones, but the CIA argued that none of the statements is conclusive. For its part, the court appeared to be skeptical of the CIA’s arguments. The ACLU has also expressed concern over reports of drone strikes being used to carry out targeted killings of US citizens. The ACLU initially filed [JURIST report] its FOIA request in March 2010.
Unmanned drone strikes have been a contentious legal issue, especially their use in Pakistan. In August UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism Ben Emmerson said that the US government must allow an independent investigation [JURIST report] of the legality of its drone strike policy. In July the Pakistan Ambassador to the US called on the CIA to stop using drone strikes [JURIST report]. Earlier that month US lawmakers expressed concern over the use of drones within the US [JURIST report] at a hearing in the US House Committee on Homeland Security [official website]. Also in July the Center for Constitutional Rights [advocacy website] and the ACLU filed a suit [JURIST report] challenging the US government’s targeted killing of three US citizens in drone strikes. Commentators have suggested that the CIA’s claim that there have been zero civilian casualties due to drone strikes needs to be seriously examined [JURIST op-ed].