The ACLU filed suit in federal court yesterday seeking to force the White House to turn over records related to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen assassinated in a drone attack in Yemen last year.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, charged the Justice and Defense departments and the CIA with illegally failing to respond to requests made in October under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It cited public comments made by President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and other officials in arguing that the government cannot credibly claim a secrecy defense.
“The government’s self-serving attitude toward transparency and disclosure is unacceptable,” the ACLU said in a statement. “Officials cannot be allowed to release bits of information about the targeted killing program when they think it will bolster their position, but refuse even to confirm [its] existence” when asked for information “in the service of real transparency and accountability.”
In addition to statements by Obama and Panetta, the lawsuit notes that “media reports about the targeted killing program routinely quote anonymous government officials describing details of the program.”
Just the other day President Barack Obama talked openly about the drone program in a YouTube interview. And Panetta spoke about the Awlaki case on 60 Minutes this past Sunday. Yet when the ACLU tried to FOIA the Office of Legal Counsel document justifying the killing of American citizens, or the evidence used to confirm Awlaki’s role as a terrorist the government has always denied them citing state secrets. The lawsuit cites several other instances where the President or top officials have mentioned the drone program or the killing of Awlaki publicly.
The New York Times has also filed suit seeking the legal memos. The request for the evidentiary basis for the killing of Awlaki, along with his son Abdulrahman and Samir Khan, another US citizen killed in the initial Awlaki strike, is new.
Last week, the Daily Beast reported that the Administration was about to release information about the Awlaki killing, but reportedly the planned speech by Eric Holder will not even mention Awlaki by name. So the Administration keeps playing this game of public comment when it serves them and secrecy when it doesn’t.
As Adam Serwer notes, the ACLU has sued before over information about the drone program and a judge sided with the government in denying disclosure. But the Administration has spoken much more openly in the ensuing months about the program so there’s a chance the ACLU will be successful this time around.