NEW YORK — The U.S. government, citing possible “exceptionally grave harm to national security,” told a federal appeals court it wants to give the public less information about its legal justification for using drones to kill Americans suspected of terrorism overseas.
The Justice Department, Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency made the request in papers submitted late Thursday to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan.
The document outlining the justification was sought through a Freedom of Information request by The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union. In April, a three-judge panel of the court ordered the memo released.
Lawyers for the government said they were not appealing the order but instead were demanding additional redactions to protect national security and to prevent damage to the government’s ability to engage in confidential deliberations and to seek confidential legal advice.
It asked that the full 2nd Circuit consider the request if the three-judge panel turned it down. It also suggested that the request be sent to the lower court for further review of specific changes the government was requesting.
Lawyers for the Times and ACLU said Friday that the government’s continued delays regarding the document are cheating the public of a fully informed and fair debate over the highly classified “targeted-killing” program.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the government’s request was inconsistent with the message that President Barack Obama’s administration was sending to the Senate and the public when it indicated several weeks ago that it would release the document rather than appeal the ruling.
Without the document, “the public debate is distorted and the public is over-reliant on government’s sometimes self-serving characterizations of its policies and their legality,” he said.
David E. McCraw, vice president and assistant general counsel of The New York Times Co., said in an email: “The government raised all these points before and lost. After two and a half years of litigation, it’s time for the delays to stop so the American people can fully participate in the debate on this important issue.”
The FOIA request was made after two drone strikes killed three U.S. citizens. One, in September 2011 in Yemen, killed Anwar Al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader who had been born in the United States, and Samir Khan. The other, in October 2011, killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, al-Awlaki’s teenage son.
Some legal scholars and human rights activists complained that it was illegal for the U.S. to kill American citizens away from the battlefield without a trial.