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Government Can Keep Memos Justifying Drone Strikes Secret, Court Rules

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies in January 2010 over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night.
An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies in January 2010 over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night.

A federal appeals court decision will allow the Obama administration to maintain the secrecy of internal memos regarding drone attacks against suspected terrorists abroad.

The three judge panel unanimously rejected Freedom of Information Act requests brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times.

Last year the same court forced the administration to disclose the contents of a previous secret memo outlining the legal justification for using a drone to attack and kill American-born terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki.

The decision unsealed Tuesday, however, allows ten other Justice Departments documents to remain secret. The difference, the court says, is that administration officials discussed much of the material from the memo in public speeches, and in an unclassified "white paper," while officials had remained largely silent about these 10 memos.

"We emphasize at the outset that the lawfulness of drone strikes is not at issue," Judge Jon O. Newman wrote for the panel. "This appeal, like the prior one, primarily concerns whether documents considering such lawfulness must be disclosed."

ACLU deputy director Jameel Jaffer strongly criticized the ruling, saying that, "In a democracy, there should be no room for 'secret law.' "

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