WASHINGTON — The CIA wants to keep its lethal drones secret, but the Obama administration keeps touting their successes. The resulting conflict could shed more light on some of the dark arts of modern war.
On Thursday, a three-judge appellate panel sounded somewhat sympathetic to American Civil Liberties Union attorneys who seek CIA documents on the use of drones in targeted killings overseas. Until recently, the CIA has refused to admit even the existence of such documents.
"How would the mere acknowledgment that you have documents . . . disclose something that would harm national security interests?" Judge Merrick Garland asked during oral arguments.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Stuart Delery responded that while the CIA now concedes it possesses drone documents, the spy agency does not want to disclose "the number, nature and extent."
Whether it has to will now turn, in part, on whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decides that the Obama administration's repeated on-the-record and anonymous references to successful drone strikes undercut the CIA's ability to keep its records secret.
"The allegation here is that there was a strategy of selective disclosures," Judge Thomas Griffith noted, adding pointedly that the administration has appeared to engage in "widespread and strategic leaking."
The oral arguments Thursday marked the latest effort to force disclosure of potentially gruesome or embarrassing wartime secrets.
Drone strikes have become a signature element of America's war policy in the past 11 years. By public accounts, U.S.-controlled drones have fired missiles at individuals and killed them in half a dozen countries.