In yet another surprising 'loss' for the current administration, RT reports a three-judge 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a previous ruling that would have allowed the federal government to keep the rationale behind drone killings classified. The US Department of Justice must turn over important details from a key "White Paper" which the government has used to justify targeted killings across the Middle East. While the document was no secret (with parts leaked before Brennan's swearing in as CIA chief last year), the judges ruled that "whatever protection the legal analysis might once have had has been lost be virtue of public statements of public officials and official disclosure of the DOJ White Paper." As the ACLU stated, "This is a resounding rejection of the government’s effort to use secrecy, and selective disclosure, as a means of manipulating public opinion about the targeted killing program."
As RT reports, The New York Times – two reporters in particular, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane – fought for the release of a Justice Department “White Paper” that contains a detailed explanation of why the controversial killings were legal.
Included in the so-called White Paper are details on the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who intelligence officials have said joined Al-Qaeda and became the terrorist organization’s de facto propagandist.
The existence of the Justice Department’s White Paper has been no secret, and has been the subject of extensive debate for years. Parts of the memo were leaked before John Brennan was sworn in as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency in March of last year, with lawmakers staging a filibuster that delayed Brennan’s ceremony by 13 hours.
Savage, Shane, the Times’ legal team, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in an attempt to learn more about Awlaki’s death. The appeals court ruled in their favor, declaring that the Obama administration had undermined its claim that the document could not be made public because of national security concerns, because a number of public officials had spoken publicly about US drone activity.
“Whatever protection the legal analysis might once have had has been lost be virtue of public statements of public officials and official disclosure of the DOJ White Paper,” Circuit Judge Jon Newman wrote, as quoted by Reuters.
The decision went on to say that any claim that military plans, intelligence activity, or essential foreign relationships would be damaged is no longer valid.
The decision did not include any timeline about when the White Paper will actually be released. The Justice Department can still appeal for a ruling either from the full appeals court or the US Supreme Court.
Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, told the Times that the decision is a clear “rebuff to the administration’s secrecy policy.”
Yet the 2nd Circuit was careful to note that the plaintiffs were not challenging the legality of the drone program with their FOIA request, only the secrecy surrounding it. Jameel Jaffer, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, was jubilant when speaking to the Times.
“This is a resounding rejection of the government’s effort to use secrecy, and selective disclosure, as a means of manipulating public opinion about the targeted killing program,” he said. “The government can’t pretend that everything about its targeted killing program is a classified secret while senior officials selectively disclose information meant to paint the program in the most favorable light.”