Trying to quash the ACLU’s records suit, the spy agency said it could neither confirm nor deny whether it had drone records because of security concerns.
The ACLU, which sued under the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, countered government officials had already acknowledged the drone program in public statements from 2009 to 2012.
The question became whether the statements by Obama, former CIA Director Leon Panetta and former counterterrorism adviser Brennan, now CIA chief, amounted to an official acknowledgment.
Garland ruled that they did, writing, “The president of the United States has himself publicly acknowledged that the United States uses drone strikes against al Qaeda.”
However, if the case follows the pattern of similar suits, the ACLU is likely a long way from getting any records. Its suit now heads back to a trial court, where the CIA could invoke other defenses against the records request.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, said the ruling would make it more difficult for the government to deflect questions about drones.
“The public surely has a right to know who the government is killing, and why, and in which countries, and on whose orders,” Jaffer said in a statement.
(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller and Vicki Allen)