"Drones? We don't even know what they are," says the CIA. Photo: Dept. of Defense
Is the US government's veil of drone secrecy beginning to crumble? There appears to be a rising tide of drone critics in Congress, and now the ACLU scored a big win against the CIA: A federal appeals court ruled today that the CIA's claim for drone secrecy isn't valid. The agency had previously argued that it can neither confirm nor deny whether it is even interested in drones, which the court ruled isn't possible considering the fact that the White House has discussed their use in detail.
It all stems from an FOIA request regarding CIA drone use from the CIA, to which the agency did not produce meaningful documents. According to court documents, the CIA had argued that "it could neither confirm nor deny that it had responsive documents because confirming that it did would reveal that the CIA was either involved in, or interested in, drone strikes (while denying that it did would reveal the opposite)."
The appeals court wasn't having any of that because of the simple fact that the CIA's use of drones, which has been confirmed by the White House and director John Brennan, isn't a secret. According to the AFP, "the court said 'it is neither logical nor plausible for the CIA to maintain that it would reveal anything not already in the public domain' to admit that it has an interest in the drone campaign."
I can't be sure, but it sounds like the three judge appeals panel, which overturned a lower court's decision to uphold the CIA's lack of compliance with the FOIA request, found the CIA's argument kinda funny.
The court cited statements by President Barack Obama, made during a Google+ Hangout in January 2012, statements from then-counterterrorism adviser John Brennan during a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center on April 30, 2012, and remarks made by then-CIA director Leon Panetta at the Pacific Council on International Policy in 2009. These acknowledgments made it implausible for the CIA to maintain “that it would reveal anything not already in the public domain to say that the Agency ‘at least has an intelligence interest’ in such strikes.”
John Brennan, CIA director
“The defendant is, after all, the Central Intelligence Agency,” wrote Chief Judge Merrick Garland, according to the Washington Post. “And it strains credulity to suggest that an agency charged with gathering intelligence affecting the national security does not have an ‘intelligence interest’ in drone strikes, even if that agency does not operate the drones itself.”
Seems kinda obvious, right? But that's the way the drone war works. The government at large is clearly heavily invested in drone technology, and it's no secret; just recently, the UN said US drones have violated Pakistan's sovereignty, which is a massive geopolitical issue on its own. As a whole, the use of drones is the exact opposite of a secret.
But the obfuscation of the issue by the US government is so rampant that the CIA refuses to acknowledge that it's even interested in them. Which, if the agency wasn't, why the hell isn't it?
Drones, as a technology, are a phenomenally massive intelligence concern (and asset). It's kind of insane, really, that even as more light spills on the shadows of drone use, we've got government agencies rushing for the dark to the point that they refuse to even admit that they're doing what any logical person would expect them to. But hey, the CIA has certainly moved the goalposts. Here we are arguing with the CIA in court over whether or not the CIA even has an interest in drones, which means we're still a long way away from finding out what it plans on doing with them.