Federal judge tosses suit seeking info on CIA’s use of drones

Monday, September 12, 2011

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Sept. 9 dismissed a lawsuit that sought government information about the reported use of unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists.

The CIA turned down a Freedom of Information Act request from the American Civil Liberties Union. The spy agency refused to admit or deny that it had any relevant records and said that merely confirming the existence of material would reveal classified information.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer rejected the ACLU’s argument that former CIA Director Leon Panetta had officially acknowledged the agency’s use of drones.

The news media for years has detailed the use of drone aircraft in operations targeting suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In arguing for disclosure, the ACLU cited Panetta’s answer after a 2009 speech to a question from an audience member who said the president’s strategy in Pakistan was “drone strikes.” Without using the two words himself, Panetta responded: “I think it does suffice to say that these operations have been very effective because they have been very precise.”

Contrary to the ACLU’s argument, the judge ruled, “these comments by Director Panetta did not officially disclose the CIA’s involvement in the drone strike program. Director Panetta spoke generally of his knowledge of ‘covert and secret operations’ in Pakistan and his assessment that those operations had been precise with minimal collateral damage.”

The ACLU also cited a Washington Post story in 2010, based on an interview with Panetta, which said that relentless attacks against al-Qaida in the Pakistan tribal region appeared to have driven Osama bin laden and other top leaders deeper into hiding.

The newspaper story, said the judge, “appeared to speak to the joint efforts of the military and non-military agencies of the U.S. government … . Director Panetta merely admitted that the CIA’s operations in Pakistan, left undefined, were the most aggressive ever undertaken by the CIA.”

In refusing to confirm or deny the existence of material, the government was invoking a Cold War-era legal defense known as the Glomar doctrine. Embodied in a 1976 federal appeals court ruling, the defense allowed the spy agency to refuse to confirm or deny its ties to a submarine retrieval ship, the Glomar Explorer. The ship, built by industrialist Howard Hughes, was used in an attempt to raise a sunken Soviet submarine.

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