Today, we filed a lawsuit seeking to enforce a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Defense Department, the State Department and the Justice Department for information regarding the U.S. government’s use of armed drones to target and kill individuals in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Our request was filed two months ago, and the only response received thus far was from the CIA, which claimed it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any relevant documents.
Since taking office, the Obama administration has greatly increased the use of unmanned drones in targeting suspected terrorists. These drone strikes have not only occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan and, in at least one case, Yemen. The criteria for determining who is a legitimate target are unknown, as are the geographical limits, if any, on where strikes can occur. Perhaps most troublingly, the civilian death toll from drone strikes remains a secret. Estimates of civilian casualties vary greatly, ranging from the dozens to the hundreds.
CIA Director Leon Panetta has publicly acknowledged the existence of the program, calling it the “only game in town.” His boss, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, has further acknowledged that the U.S. operates a targeted killing program, going so far as to state that U.S. citizens can be put on the list of people to be targeted and killed. While the CIA is not named in today’s lawsuit, we will be appealing its non-response to an internal CIA review board.
The ACLU believes that, while the government reserves the right to withhold sensitive intelligence and military information, basic information about this profoundly new way of waging war should be available for public debate. The use of unmanned drones to track and kill specific targeted individuals including U.S. citizens — particularly outside a theater of war — raises legal, political and moral questions that should not be decided behind closed doors.