ACLU Targets Obama with New Lawsuit Over Drone Wars, 'Kill List'

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ACLU Targets Obama with New Lawsuit Over Drone Wars, 'Kill List'

'Public should know who the government is killing, and why it’s killing them,' says legal director Jameel Jaffer

President Barack Obama working with senior dtaff on Air Force One in this file image. (Photo: Acclaim Image/Public domain)

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The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a new lawsuit against the Obama administration over continued secrecy surrounding its controversial use of armed drones to carry out lethal strikes and assassinations across the globe.

The Guardian was the first to report news of the fresh lawsuit earlier on Monday. 

According to journalist Spencer Ackerman, who was given advance notice of the suit, the ACLU is seeking disclosure from the White House of legal documents and internal memos relating to Obama's use of drones, with specific attention to how individuals end up on what has become known as the president's "kill list."

"Over the last few years, the US government has used armed drones to kill thousands of people, including hundreds of civilians. The public should know who the government is killing, and why it’s killing them," Jaffer told the Guardian.

The official complaint filed by the ACLU is here and the original FOIA request referenced in the suit is here.

Though the ACLU has filed previous lawsuits and requests for disclosures regarding the administration's drone program—operated largely by the CIA but also the military’s Joint Special Operations Command—the latest effort to obtain legal justification for the program follows continued secrecy and ongoing "stonewalling" by White House lawyers and other agencies.

In a blog post on Monday, ACLU legal fellow Matthew Spurlock explained why the new suit was needed:

The CIA and the military use drones to target suspected "militants," "insurgents," and "terrorists" in at least half a dozen countries. American drone strikes have killed thousands of people abroad, many of them children. The program has engendered pervasive fear and anger against the United States in countries where the attacks frequently occur.

Our government's deliberative and premeditated killings – and the many more civilian deaths from the strikes – raise profound legal and ethical questions that ought to be the subject of public debate. The Obama administration has made numerous promises of greater transparency and oversight on drones. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to make lethal targeting "more transparent to the American people and the world" because "in our democracy, no one should just take my word for it that we're doing things the right way."

But the administration has failed to follow through on these commitments to openness, and it is continuing to withhold basic information­. When it has released anything – or been compelled to by lawsuits – discussion of crucial aspects of the program have been omitted or redacted. This lack of transparency makes the public reliant on the government's self-serving and sometimes false representations about the targeted-killing program.

The new lawsuit, reports Ackerman, describes how numerous agencies under Obama's authority—including the State and Justice Departments, the Pentagon, as well as the CIA—have been stonewalling the ACLU for nearly 18 months.

According to Spurlock, one of the most key aspects of the new lawsuit "is that it covers more recent documents, including the Presidential Policy Guidance under which the targeted killing program likely now operates."

While lawyers for the Obama administration have argued that national security prevents further disclosures and President Obama has said that internal changes have enhanced the safeguards surrounding the selection of targets and the execution of drone strikes, the ACLU argues the level of secrecy around a program of such profound importance is simply unacceptable in a representative democracy.

As Jaffer explained, there is  no "legitimate justification" for the Obama administration to keep secret the number of civilian casualties and the procedures by which individuals, including U.S. citizens, can find themselves on a secret government "kill list."

"The categorical secrecy surrounding the drone program doesn’t serve any legitimate security interest," Jaffer told the Guardian. "It serves only to skew public debate, to obscure the human costs of the program, and to shield decision-makers from accountability."

And as Spurlock concluded, "The government's drone program lives far too deep in the shadows. As long as the government continues its campaign of secret, unacknowledged lethal strikes across the globe, we will fight to subject this policy to the scrutiny and debate it deserves."

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