In the official view of the Obama administration, it’s totally possible that the drone that killed Anwar al-Awlaki was owned and operated by the Yemen government.
As absurd as it might sound, that’s the possibility the Justice Department is using as one of its justifications for withholding documents related to the targeted killing of U.S. citizens and individuals alleged affiliated with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The justification comes in a briefing filed just before a midnight deadline in response to a lawsuit filed by The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the government, that alleges they improperly withheld documents in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.
The federal government argues that it has never officially acknowledged the existence of a drone program, claiming that recent public nods by high-ranking administration officials to a targeted killing program do not amount to disclosure about particular operations.
“For example, whether or not the United States government conducted the particular operations that led to the deaths of Anwar al-Aulaki and the other individuals named in the FOIA requests remains classified,” the government writes.
“Likewise, whether or not the CIA has the authority to be, or is in fact, directly involved in targeted lethal operations remains classified. And that is so notwithstanding the unsourced, unofficial statements and media reports that plaintiffs have identified. None of those statements or reports constitutes an official disclosure that could vitiate agencies’ ability to safeguard the classified and other statutorily protected information at issue here, and none eliminates the national security harms that could result from disclosure of such information,” they claim.
The government also argues that when President Barack Obama said the killing of al-Awlaki was “a tribute to our intelligence community,” he wasn’t specifically saying that the intelligence community had played a role. They say Obama’s statement on Sept. 30 “neither confirmed nor denied that the United States engaged in a targeted lethal operation” against him.
Read the full 48-page filing here.