U.S. court pressures Obama for drone policy details
By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge twice considered by President Barack Obama for the U.S. Supreme Court has rebuked his administration over the secrecy surrounding a program of aerial drone strikes abroad, adding to pressure Obama already faced from fellow Democrats.
A ruling on Friday from Judge Merrick Garland in Washington, D.C., capped a week of mounting calls for the release of more information.
The administration defends the attacks as essential to the fight against al Qaeda and other militants in such countries as Pakistan and Yemen. The strikes have at times killed civilians who were not targets, ignited local anger and frayed diplomatic ties.
A Democratic senator confronted Obama about his drone program during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, the newspaper Politico reported, and on Wednesday a lawyer who led Obama's 2008 presidential transition wrote an opinion piece accusing the administration of wrongly withholding drone-related legal opinions.
Writing for himself and two other judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Garland criticized the CIA for refusing in a lawsuit even to acknowledge the existence of its drone program. He called the CIA's legal reasoning indefensible and a fiction.
"'There comes a point where... courts should not be ignorant as judges of what (they) know as men' and women," Garland wrote, quoting a 1949 U.S. Supreme Court opinion.
"We are at that point with respect to the question of whether the CIA has any documents regarding the subject of drone strikes," he wrote.
The ruling revived a lawsuit in which the American Civil Liberties Union is asking for records from the CIA. Obama administration lawyers have opposed the suit.
The White House and the CIA did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday. Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said, "The department is reviewing the decision."
Attorney General Eric Holder said in March 6 congressional testimony that Obama would soon reveal more about the legal rationale for drone strikes.
"We have talked about a need for greater transparency," said Holder, the chief U.S. law enforcement official.
Democrats outside the administration show growing impatience with the secrecy. West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, a former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, urged Obama to be more open during the president's meeting with Senate Democrats on Tuesday, Politico reported.
John Podesta, a Democratic insider who oversaw Obama's 2008 transition, wrote in The Washington Post on Wednesday that Obama "is ignoring the system of checks and balances that has governed our country from its earliest days."
Last week, two Democratic senators voiced similar ideas in voting against confirming John Brennan as Obama's CIA director.
HIGH COURT CANDIDATE
Garland, 60, was a high-level Justice Department official when President Bill Clinton appointed him a judge.
He was on Obama's list of candidates for the U.S. Supreme Court when vacancies arose in 2009 and 2010. Obama chose others, but Garland remains a frequently cited judge on the influential appeals court in Washington.
Trying to quash the ACLU's records suit, the spy agency said it could neither confirm nor deny whether it had drone records because of security concerns.
The ACLU, which sued under the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, countered government officials had already acknowledged the drone program in public statements from 2009 to 2012.
The question became whether the statements by Obama, former CIA Director Leon Panetta and former counterterrorism adviser Brennan, now CIA chief, amounted to an official acknowledgment.
Garland ruled that they did, writing, "The president of the United States has himself publicly acknowledged that the United States uses drone strikes against al Qaeda."
However, if the case follows the pattern of similar suits, the ACLU is likely a long way from getting any records. Its suit now heads back to a trial court, where the CIA could invoke other defenses against the records request.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, said the ruling would make it more difficult for the government to deflect questions about drones.
"The public surely has a right to know who the government is killing, and why, and in which countries, and on whose orders," Jaffer said in a statement.
(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller and Vicki Allen)
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