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A federal court ruled Friday the CIA can no longer refuse to confirm or deny whether it has records related to drone strikes, in a blow to the government's secrecy over the bombing campaign.
The Court of Appeals for Washington DC said the government's stance was no longer credible as President Barack Obama and a senior adviser had publicly acknowledged the drone attacks on Al-Qaeda suspects abroad.
The Central Intelligence Agency had argued it did not have to cooperate with a freedom of information request from the American Civil Liberties Union rights group, saying that merely admitting whether it had documents on drone strikes could jeopardize US security interests.
A CIA official, Mary Cole, the information review officer for the spy agency's national clandestine service, insisted in a filing to the court that "the existence or nonexistence of CIA records responsive to this request ...is a currently and properly classified fact, the disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security."
But the three-judge panel concluded the CIA's stance was "not justified," opening the way for more court battles over the issue.
Citing public statements from Obama and John Brennan, former counter-terrorism adviser and now CIA director, the court said "it is neither logical nor plausible for the CIA to maintain that it would reveal anything not already in the public domain" to admit that it has an interest in the drone campaign.
The ACLU hailed the decision as a "victory" for their effort demanding the US government lift the cloak of secrecy around the drone bombing raids, which began under George W. Bush's presidency but have increased dramatically since Obama took office in 2009.
"We hope that this ruling will encourage the Obama administration to fundamentally reconsider the secrecy surrounding the targeted killing program," Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director, said.
"The public surely has a right to know who the government is killing, and why, and in which countries, and on whose orders.
Human rights groups and many foreign governments view the drone attacks as a breach of international law and a reckless tactic that claims the lives of civilians who happen to be in the area when a bombing raid takes place.
Obama has promised to be more transparent about the strikes by unmanned robotic aircraft but some lawmakers from his own party and rights advocates say he has so far failed to live up to that promise.
"I think that we have to be judicious in how we use drones," Obama said in an online chat in January.