CIA Loses Drone Strike FOIA Appeal

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) seeking information about drone strikes.  The CIA filed a so-called “Glomar response,” refusing to confirm or deny the existence of material responsive to the ACLU’s request.  The ACLU then sued, and the district court granted summary judgment to the CIA.   Today, however, in ACLU v. CIA, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit reversed, rejecting the CIA’s justification of its Glomar response. As the court explained:

The CIA has proffered no reason to believe that disclosing whether it has any documents at all about drone strikes will reveal whether the Agency itself — as opposed to some other U.S. entity such as the Defense Department — operates drones. There is no doubt, however, that such disclosure would reveal whether the Agency “at least has an intelligence interest in drone strikes.” . . . The question before us, then, is whether it is “logical or plausible,” . . . for the CIA to contend that it would reveal something not already officially acknowledged to say that the Agency “at least has an intelligence interest” in such strikes. Given the extent of the official statements on the subject, we conclude that the answer to that question is no. . . .

Given . . . official acknowledgments that the United States has participated in drone strikes, it is neither logical nor plausible for the CIA to maintain that it would reveal anything not already in the public domain to say that the Agency “at least has an intelligence interest” in such strikes. . . . The defendant is, after all, the Central Intelligence Agency. And it strains credulity to suggest that an agency charged with gathering intelligence affecting the national security does not have an “intelligence interest” in drone strikes, even if that agency does not operate the drones itself.

The case now goes back to the district court, which will consider whether the CIA may avail itself of any FOIA exemptions to refuse the ACLU’s information requests.