from the no-hard-truth-left-unhidden dept
Documents pertaining to the accidental killing of two men by US drone strikes in Yemen can continue to remain unacknowledged by the agencies guiding the strikes.
A federal judge has ruled the CIA and Defense Department (DOD) do not have to confirm or deny whether they have records on the “factual basis for the killing” of either Samir Khan or Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who were killed in two separate drone strikes in September and October of 2011.The heavily-redacted order does contain some good news, however. The presiding judge ordered the Dept. of Defense and the CIA to turn over FOIAed documents to the ACLU that contain "previously acknowledged facts," thus preventing the Dept. of Justice from turning real life into a bizarre fantasy world where previously disclosed information can be treated as though it was still locked up in the agency's "TOP SECRET" digital filing cabinet.
But the obvious downside is this: because the government has been given permission to avoid confirming or denying the existence of the documents the ACLU is seeking, the search for more information on accidental deaths and collateral damage will still consist of issuing speculative FOIA requests, which will then result in more lengthy, expensive litigation.
I'm pretty sure the involved agencies believe they can outlast FOIA requesters, especially if they continue to receive mostly-favorable decisions from judges who place more faith in the government and its assertions about national security than in those who view government secrecy with considerably more skepticism. The problem is that the government has the resources to fight long legal battles. Most FOIA requesters do not.
This decision also further insulates the government from the repercussions of its own actions. By allowing the agencies to neither confirm nor deny the existence of these documents, it gives the government permission to deflect further inquiries into the oversight governing drone strikes -- and what it does when it suspects a strike has killed the wrong people.
If one accepts the government’s claims that Khan and Abdulrahman’s deaths were “accidental,” one at least has to believe the government did some kind of review after the strikes once they recognized two US citizens had been killed. This is what the ACLU suspects.This sort of information is definitely of the "public interest" variety and should be given more heft when weighed against national security concerns. The American public isn't necessarily supportive of this highly-secret program and considering its complete lack of say in the matter, the least it should be given is the opportunity to more closely examine the accountability process.
The ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights have pursued a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the strikes, which killed the three US citizens. And, in this lawsuit, the ACLU has challenged the right of the government to keep information related to their deaths secret.
Instead, the opinion allows the government to redact much of what it can't Glomar into nonexistence with the most abused FOIA exemption: b(5). Nominally for "deliberative process" documents only, the exemption has expanded to cover almost anything the government doesn't want to (immediately) reveal. About the only way to remove a b(5) exemption is through the courts -- an expensive process with low odds of success.