HomeACLU Asks Court To Force Government To Fight Fairly In FOIA Lawsuit Over Drone Strike Docs

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The ACLU is headed to the Second Circuit Appeals Court, hoping to force the DOJ to be more realistic about the government’s drone strike operations in Pakistan. It’s an FOIA lawsuit, with the ACLU seeking drone documents and being told — in so many black bars — that this publicly-acknowledged program is too secret to disclose.

The ACLU goes into this battle fighting blind:

In August 2016, the government blacked out a court ruling against government secrecy (yes, really), hiding from the public its reasons for why the ruling should remain secret. Then, it also hid its reasons for appealing that ruling to a higher court.

The DOJ argues the Pakistan drone strike program has never been officially acknowledged or disclosed. Going from there, it argues it shouldn’t have to turn over the information the ACLU is requesting. But, as the ACLU points out, there’s plenty of public knowledge about the program’s existence. From the ACLU’s filing [PDF]:

In this case, the government has not made public the subject of its appeal, and it has redacted any reference to the ruling it challenges from the district court’s opinion. But as best as the ACLU can tell, the appeal asks this Court a simple question: Is it a secret that the United States conducts drone strikes in Pakistan? To answer that question, the Court need only read the plain words, spoken in public while in Pakistan, by the United States’ former Secretary of State. Reading those words, the only logical and plausible answer to that question is “no.”

Here’s John Kerry’s statement on the program the DOJ says no one is talking about because it arguably may not officially exist:

This evidence included a statement straight from former Secretary of State John Kerry, made in an August 2013 interview on Pakistani television. When Secretary Kerry was asked by the Pakistani journalist if he envisaged a timeline for ending U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Secretary Kerry responded that he did and that “the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.”

Journalists, activists, human rights advocates, and Pakistani citizens have gathered plenty of data on drone strikes the US may or may not be performing. More than 400 strikes have been reported since 2004. And yet, the government claims nothing can be disclosed — much less discussed openly in court — because it’s a “secret” operation.

In the last courtroom round, the ACLU handed this info to the judge and then watched the government take its paperwork and arguments somewhere the ACLU couldn’t participate.

Nevertheless, in the district court, the government argued that former Secretary of State Kerry’s words did not amount to an official disclosure, and it did so in open court. Once the district court apparently agreed with the ACLU, however, the government took its arguments—and the court’s ruling—behind closed doors. The ruling at issue is hidden behind redactions, as are the government’s arguments on appeal. What’s more, the government now asks this Court to erase the district court’s ruling from the books—perhaps even without deciding whether the information at issue is actually a secret.

The ACLU is now asking the Appeals Court to make this a fairer fight.

The ACLU has endeavored to respond to the government’s arguments as comprehensively as possible. However, almost 60% of the publicly filed version of the government’s opening brief is redacted, and the government has eliminated every reference to the district court ruling that it challenges from its brief and the opinion itself. It is therefore possible that the ACLU misconstrued or failed to identify some of the government’s arguments.

You can’t fight what you can’t see. The government wants the district court’s ruling (in favor of the ACLU) overturned and has left the ACLU with the least-useful 40% of its briefing to work with. Before everything gets considered by the court, the ACLU would at least like a second stab at a brief, possibly with the assistance of some less-redacted documents.

The ACLU seeks to litigate this case fairly, and to be as helpful as possible to the Court in adjudicating it. To that end, the ACLU asked the government to review again the redactions in the district court’s opinion before the government filed its appellate brief so that the parties could meaningfully address the relevant issues on appeal. In response, the government asserted that no further information could be provided. Therefore, if the ACLU did not address a particular issue the Court deems important to the resolution of this case, the ACLU would welcome the opportunity to submit supplemental briefing, with the benefit of the Court’s (rather than solely the government’s) views about what can and cannot be said in open court.

Everything’s so secret no one can look at it (at least no one who doesn’t work for the government) and no one can talk about it (except those who work for the government). The government is using claims of national security to stack the deck in this litigation. Hopefully, the appeals court will realize it can’t hold a fair hearing if one side remains blindfolded.