ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Cancel

Drone Documents: Why The Government Won’t Release Them

The government has rebuffed attempts by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times to obtain documents related to drone strikes and targeted killing. We lay out their argument.

A crew chief with the 432d Aircraft Maintenance Squadron performs a pre-flight inspection on an MQ-9 Reaper at Creech Air Force Base in June 2008. (Steve Huckvale/U.S. Air Force)

The covert U.S. effort to strike terrorist leaders using drones has moved further out of the shadows this year — targeted killing has been mentioned by President Obama and defended in speeches by Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. The White House recently declassified the fact that it is conducting military operations in Yemen and Somalia.

But for all the talk, the administration says it hasn't officially confirmed particular strikes or the CIA's involvement.

Over the past year, the American Civil Liberties Union and reporters at The New York Times have filed several requests under the Freedom of Information Act seeking information about the CIA's drone program and the legal justification for attacks that killed terrorists and U.S. citizens. The government answered with a Glomar response — neither verifying nor denying that it has such documents.

So both the Times and the ACLU sued, claiming that there is widespread acknowledgement by government officials of drones and targeted killing, as well as the CIA's involvement.

Last week, the Justice Department submitted a motion in a federal court in New York seeking to dismiss the lawsuits. The government's argument, it turns out, mostly reiterates its Glomar response.

Any public statements by the administration, the motion states, were carefully phrased to avoid discussing specific operations and don't constitute official acknowledgement of targeted killing or the drone program. This includes Obama's statements on the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar Al Awlaki — "the President plainly did not acknowledge whether the United States was responsible for his death" — and Holder and Brennan's speeches this spring, which, according to the motion, address only the "potential targeting" of U.S. citizens, but not specific operations.

However, the motion says the CIA can now acknowledge that it has some documents related to "the use of targeted lethal force" against U.S. citizens — including, namely, the public speeches given by Holder and Brennan this spring:

The motion cites some existing legal analysis related to targeted killing and those public speeches:

But it says the government can't reveal more about the documents — neither their names nor how many there are:

Because whether or not the U.S. was involved in specific targeted killings, or whether the CIA is involved in targeted killing — at all — remains classified:

Similarly, the motion says that to acknowledge any number of records on drones would reveal whether the CIA possesses drones:

Finally, the government's brief adds that a few of the documents sought by the FOIA requests could be identified but are protected under executive privilege — because they involve internal deliberations in the Office of Legal Counsel, or are related to preparations for public statements by administration officials or meetings with the president.

The ACLU's deputy legal director said that the organization is preparing its opposition brief. A federal appeals court will hear arguments in September in another of the ACLU's FOIA lawsuits over the CIA's drone program.

Funny, every time I raise a point about privacy, I’m told that, if I’m not doing anything wrong, I shouldn’t have anything to hide.

I think it’s safe to say that this is just the beginning.  When drones start rolling out domestically, I’d expect them to be neither confirmed nor denied, as well.

Hopefully, you’ll be covering the lawsuits when they come up.  The more people watching, the harder it’ll be for them to get away with this sort of nonsense.

No, John, that’s not likely. A lot of us ARE watching, including you, and they’re STILL able to “get away” with it. Watching does nothing. Merely “watching” has allowed them to get as far as they have today. They will continue to do what they do while we “watch,” as long as we only watch.

A solution is to start replacing government office holders with people like you and I. You care about your privacy, and by extension, you care about others privacy too. I bet if we elected someone like you to high office, the gubmint’s invasion of privacy mindset would hit some brick walls real fast. (If we elected somebody like me, I know it would.)

We’re common men, and as far as I know, neither of us are running for office. So the best thing then is to elect a common man, like us, who IS running for office. A man like Scott Rupert, who runs for Ohio’s U.S. Senate. He’s a grassroots independent constitutional small business owner, and he’s taking on the political machinery of Ohio by running on $20 donations. Men like Scott change things. And it’s time to change government. See http://ScottRupert.com for details.

Vernon Huffman

June 25, 2012, 6:29 p.m.

Hate to rain on your parade, Mac, but replacing federal government office holders has gotten to be a pretty difficult prospect. The leaders of both mainstream political parties have bought into the national security state so far that they will actively undermine members of their own party who ask tough questions about state secrets. Nearly every state in the union has very high standards for anybody running outside the two main parties.

It looks to me like best shot we have is through radical localization. To the extent that we can establish relatively self sufficient democratic communities and maintain communication between them, we may be able to starve the beast by refusing to provide foot soldiers or resources.

On Fox today: Said 1000’s drones are to be released over America within 5 years. Concerns real are Hackers that could stear these drones into a real aircraft to crash or surveil anything or anyone. This is big concern. Obviously cyber security & hackers is a big concern.
FedEx employee said they would love to commercially send their packages by Drone.

I cannot recall the cost generally of various drones, but it is a huge connection between Government & the builders of these that won’t stop I am sure.  I have read they already in Use in states by the usa to check out farmers and lands etc. In use by certain state/local Police Forces in some states surveilling places and people.  We were concerned about Google Maps looking into our backyards & our home address’s, now it is Unmanned Drones!  That is a lot of Spying for kicks by locals or curiosity or suspicion.  Next thing is actual killing of a Suspect without charges or trial.  As Obama said once about International Drone killings, No Prisoners, less in Gitmo!!!  Cold and callous.

Definately needs to hit MEDIA CONSISTENLY as too many people have been convinced it is a good thing out of country to kill a terroist!
Such propaganda that we have to dispel.

To those who think replacing an elected official is sufficient to change a pervasive system’s machinations, think again. It, like “watching” is often of little value in itself.

Food for thought: Sit down with a copy of Lincoln Steffens’ autobiography. The grandfather of “muckraking” journalism, he spent a lot of ink covering police graft in American cities during the late 1800s. One big takeaway was that replacing one elected official (say, a bureaucrat) with another (a businessman) rarely if ever yielded the type of systemic change citizens were hoping for when they “threw the bum out.”

And yet, here we are again. And again. And again.

Won’t release - simply because that toy isn’t being used to fight growths of bacterial -type of criminals inside own boundaries. Drones will be a great tool for good governence of a virtual (should there be) one peaceful government for the entire world led by USA and totally free of ugly, secret manipulation of old British laws under control of some filthy rich businessmen and black-crow-dressed greedy law-professionals (nepotistically selected by hereditary, meaningless, vogue celebrities, UK trained experts in the jargons of now stinky, useless old books of ancient laws) that do not make any positive contribution to the benefit of current humans of a different kind of bright, new world.
(*78 pages of Crown Document in http://WWW.shahislam.com explains more)

Obama is making Nixon look like a straight shooter. Nixon only arranged burglaries, not murders.

actually- they are using drones domestically -

John - that statement is known as a thought-ending cliche in debating parlance. It is only used and accepted by gullible idiots.

Kallol Bhattacherjee

June 26, 2012, 8:27 a.m.

Regarding the use of drones in domestic scene, I would say that by refusing to come clean on the use of these gadgets, Obama administration has surpassed earlier violators of civil rights in the US. Already, countries across the world are keen to use drones in their domestic sphere to counter what they call “law and order” problems and If the US starts even contemplating drones at home to spy (and target) on its citizens from the sky, quite a few governments in the rest of the world, including the liberal democracies, that have little tolerance for dissent and disagreement, will literally crowd our skies with drones and curb individual freedom. Many of these countries are held back in their actions by the US examples. And if the Big Brother commits this horror, then the rest of the Small Brothers can not be held back. In India, for example, we have been hearing that drones will be used to spy on insurgents and terrorists who hide in forests of Central India. But can anyone clarify, where does the forest end and the city begins? Many cities in India, have large tracts of greenery just outside their borders. Some have huge forest tracts in their midst.Will drones be deployed under the pretext of catching thieves who might be hiding in the greenery around and in the big cities (Which obviously be used to spy on the entire city)?
I think after getting away with its reckless use of drones in foreign territories, the US government has become emboldened with individual liberty. This is a great fall. How can the first Black President of the US allow this to happen? But such are the ironies of history.
Take for example, the US speaks for the protection of the dissidents in China, Myanmar and rights of Homosexuals in Africa and elsewhere. But what about protecting the rights of dissidents in the West? What about being tolerant to someone like Julian Assange? I read a comment above that the American electorate is watching the deteriorating condition of individual liberty in their country. I would say, the rest of the world is also watching the behaviour of the US administration in protecting its own citizens and upholding values of liberal tolerance upon which it was founded. I hope the American people are watching how their state has shifted far from these ideals and changing leaders in a presidential election does not mean anything. We need, all over the world, including in the US and India, tough public discussion about if we are in the process of destroying our valued ideals in the garb of protecting ourselves from our enemies (some real and many imagined). I would say, eternal vigilance will have to be coupled with immediate public engagement, if liberty has to survive.

Vernon Huffman

June 26, 2012, 9:56 a.m.

I wonder how long it will be before somebody figures out how to build a noise generator that will scramble messages to & from drones…

Government cover ups are exactly why Wikileaks is the most important media organisation in the world. Here’s hoping they get their hands on the REAL figures and documents, and expose them to the world.

Robin Tutmille

June 26, 2012, 3:09 p.m.

Read Naomi Wolf’s little-noticed 2007 book “The End of America” and compare her 10 steps toward a Fascist state with what you see happening in the last 10 years.

Information is power.

We live is a society where legitimate government power is very intentionally and very specifically limited, by our Constitution.

The main purpose and biggest value of the Right to Privacy is NOT to protect the guilty, it is to limit the power of government. As such, it protects ALL, the guilty and the innocent alike, from the over-reach of government.

If the innocent are to be protected from an overly powerful government, empowered by the exponentially increasing ability to gather, store, and process information, just because they can, then the Right to Privacy must be guaranteed to all, and the government must be required to obtain warrants, based on reasonable suspicion, as attested to in writing, witnessed and signed under penalty of perjury.

Sometimes it is best to keep thing Quite We dont get anywhere by telling everone befor we take Action Wake up!

Mac, “we” aren’t a “we,” unfortunately.  Consider the number of people who would like to keep the governments out of their lives for whatever reason.  That’s a pretty big number, right?  But how often do you and I speak up about it to the people in power?  And how often do we do so in an organized fashion?

Now compare that number with the number of Americans who are, say, gay or Jewish or environmentalists.  They’ve made all sorts of headway and nobody in government dares speak out against them, even when they have an overt hatred of the group.

When I say “we,” I don’t mean the dozen of us who wander around commenting on interesting stories.  I mean getting the story out to where it can’t be ignored, and where it’ll piss off the man on the street who never sees this on CNN.

And Jake, that was lightly sarcastic, in that they use the line on us, but then try to cover up everything they do.  And my recollection of propositional logic from high school tells me that, if you believe, “if youre not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to hide,” then you also must believe the contrapositive, “if you have anything to hide, you must be doing something wrong.”

And since the government tells us they believe the former, and they’re hiding things, we can deduce something relatively straightforward about their behavior…

Vernon Huffman

June 27, 2012, 1:16 p.m.

Secrecy in government is antithetical to democracy. The security state is not enhancing anyone’s security. Wars have been used to exploit for centuries, but it is past time for humanity to outgrow these pointless exercises. The same expense of energy for the common good would create better lives for all of us.

Militarism is founded in zero sum thinking. Bullies have brutalized others to extract more than their fair share. But we are an interdependent species. There is no way for a portion of the body to luxuriate in paradise while the remainder suffers in hell. We are challenged to envision the route to a world that works for all.

I’m with Vern..Question, could a Cessna with a real shotgun riding shotgun bring down one of these “low & slow”‘s? Just askin’, HK

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Drone War

The Drone War

ProPublica is covering the U.S.' expanding – and often secret – targeted killing program.

Get Updates

Stay on top of what we’re working on by subscribing to our email digest.

optional