A federal appeals court on Monday ordered the Obama administration to release secret memos that describe its justification for using drones to kill U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism overseas.
The Associated Press reports that the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that the White House must release the documents in redacted form. The case was brought under a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union and two reporters for the New York Times. The reporters had requested, in 2011, any documents in the possession of the Department of Justice that discussed the “targeted killing” program.
Those requests came after a series of drone strikes in Yemen killed three U.S. citizens. Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were both citizens killed with a drone in September 2011. Al-Awlaki was a suspected al-Qaida leader. In October of the same year, a drone killed al-Awlaki’s teenage son, Abdulrahman.
Many argued that it was illegal for the U.S. government to kill citizens away from a battlefield and without a trial.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called the ruling a “positive development.”
"The targeted killing of American citizens by their own government should be one of the most fundamental reasons to ensure checks and balances are in place," Grassley said in a statement according to Fox News. "Up to this point, the Obama administration has been hiding behind a Cliff's Notes version of the justification that gave no legal analysis for the killings."
The Obama administration has fought the release of the memos. In January 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon ruled that she did not have the authority to force the White House to release the documents.
The new opinion, written by 2nd Circuit Judge Jon Newman, did not dispute McMahon’s claim. Instead, the three-judge panel argued that because government officials continued to comment on the subject after McMahon’s ruling, the court could order official disclosure of the documents.
"The government can't pretend that everything about its targeted killing program is a classified secret while senior officials selectively disclose information meant to paint the program in the most favorable light," Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union told the Associated Press in an email.
David E. McCraw of the The New York Times Co. said the decision "reaffirmed a bedrock principle of democracy: The people do not have to accept blindly the government's assurances that it is operating within the bounds of the law. They get to see for themselves the legal justification that the government is working from."