ACLU files lawsuit for information on US Predator program


The American Civil Liberties Union has followed up its Freedom of Information Act request that was filed in January seeking information on the US Predator program. Today, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the the Defense Department, the State Department, and the Justice Department, demanding enforcement of its January request for information on the program. The full press release release from the ACLU is below:

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit today demanding that the government disclose the legal basis for its use of unmanned drones to conduct targeted killings overseas. In particular, the lawsuit asks for information on when, where and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, the number and rate of civilian casualties and other basic information essential for assessing the wisdom and legality of using armed drones to conduct targeted killings.

“The public has a right to know whether the targeted killings being carried out in its name are consistent with international law and with the country’s interests and values,” said Jonathan Manes, a legal fellow with the ACLU National Security Project. “The Obama administration should disclose basic information about the program, including its legal basis and limits, and the civilian casualty toll thus far.”

The CIA and the military have used unmanned drones to target and kill individuals not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in Pakistan and, in at least one case in 2002, Yemen. The technology allows U.S. personnel to observe targeted individuals in real time and launch missiles intended to kill them from control centers located thousands of miles away. Recent reports, including public statements from the director of national intelligence, indicate that U.S. citizens have been placed on the list of targets who can be hunted and killed with drones.

The ACLU made an initial FOIA request for information on the drone program in January. Today’s lawsuit against the Defense Department, the State Department and the Justice Department seeks to enforce that request. None of the three agencies have provided any documents in response to the request, nor have they given any reason for withholding documents. The CIA answered the ACLU’s request by refusing to confirm or deny the existence of any relevant documents. The CIA is not a defendant in today’s lawsuit because the ACLU will first appeal the CIA’s non-response to the Agency Release Panel.

“The government’s use of drones to conduct targeted killings raises complicated questions – not only legal questions, but policy and moral questions as well,” said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project. “These kinds of questions ought to be discussed and debated publicly, not resolved secretly behind closed doors. While the Obama administration may legitimately withhold intelligence information as well as sensitive information about military strategy, it should disclose basic information about the scope of the drone program, the legal basis for the program and the civilian casualties that have resulted from the program.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit seeks, in addition to information about the legal basis for the drone program, information about how the program is overseen and data regarding the number of civilians and non-civilians killed in the strikes. Estimates of civilian casualties provided by anonymous government officials quoted in the press and by various non-governmental analysts differ dramatically, from the dozens to the hundreds, giving an incomplete and inconsistent picture of the human cost of the program.

Attorneys on the case are Manes, Jaffer and Ben Wizner of the ACLU National Security Project and Arthur B. Spitzer of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital.

The ACLU’s complaint can be found here:

The ACLU’s FOIA request can be found here:

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Bill Roggio says:

    This is your warning. Keep the comments civil. Any violations will be deleted without warning.

  • Neo says:


  • NS says:

    I hope that this goes all the way to the Supreme Court so that this request is denied – what ever your politics may be, this CLEARLY falls under the war powers of an executive – these decisions (including how much collateral damage is deemed as acceptable) are not made callously – and the whole bogey of ” international law” does not even apply to a situation where you are primarily acting against non state actors.
    I can understand Afghan/Pakistani lawyers questioning the legality of their Govt allowing US drone strikes -but the ACLU ??
    This is nothing more than faux-moralistic grand standing. And i hope it gets rubbished by the highest court in the land.

  • Max says:

    Why am I not surprised? No good deed goes unpunished, it seems.

  • Richard Marsden says:

    Who is funding the ACLU? And what are the ACLU attempting to achieve and whom for?
    Are they catergorized as friends of the Taliban now?
    Surely these jokers should keep themselves to issues not relating to the War against Terror…But then again where there is a fast buck to be earned, expect a lawyer/attorney to be present or very near!
    ACLU = America Can Lose U.N

  • Bill Baar says:

    I wonder what the alternative is to “targeted killings”….

  • Mike says:

    Bill, I suppose the warning up top is partly directed at me. I’ll refrain from singling out individual commenters in the future, but I think it would be useful for the ACLU haters who read here to remember that ACLU would defend your right to post ignorant comments about them on message boards, just as they defend our collective right to information regarding the actions of our government.
    Let the courts settle the national security implications of making this knowledge public. But also remember the extremely poor job congress has done in recent years overseeing the activities of the US intelligence apparatus, and the legality thereof, and where that’s gotten us.

  • My2cents says:

    The ACLU should be forced to create and publish their strategy for winning the war against terrorists. I doubt they have one.
    The ACLU members and contributors should then be taxed and drafted to supply the manpower and additional funding to impliment their plan. They should also be informed that in the event of additional deaths of Americans, at home or abroad, by terrorists groups that an equal number of family members, chosen at random, will be executed in order to ensure their motivation in bringing the conflict to an end.
    Do not be surprised if there are some sudden changes in attitudes, as the old saying goes “A conservative is a liberal who just got mugged.”

  • Erik says:

    International Human Law (IHL) absolutely applies to non-state actors, and, in the this case, is the strongest legal argument we have for our drone war in Pakistan.
    You can try use the Laws of Armed Conflict if you want, but you run into slight legal problems when you use it in countries that you haven’t declared war on. Thus, previous strikes into places like Yemen and Somalia would be illegal under LOAC, but absolutely permissible under IHL (see the section that talks about a nation’s inherent right to self-defense).
    You can try and argue that the ‘Global War on Terror’ is just that, but it’s false. We face a hybrid threat that requires both military and civil answers. We’re not rolling Bradleys down the streets of Paris, or Prague…that’s what the local police are for. And we should, to the best of our ability, not infringe on another nations sovereignty unless absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they might not help us out later when we really need it.
    So the premise is to work by, with, and through the host nation (because our previous attempt to do everything ourselves ended disastrously) to the utmost of our ability. But, what do you do about places where the host nation doesn’t maintain effective control of large swaths of their countryside? That is where IHL comes in. (see the section that talks about national borders and non-state actors).
    We tried blowing off both world opinion and international law in the pursuit of winning our so-called War on Terror and look where that has gotten us. Not impinging on civil liberties is not being soft on terrorism; it’s called sound tactics.
    We can’t do this alone, and it’s not just America’s problem. We need the help of many nations, but that help only comes if their citizens think we’re worthy of their support. Acting like a despot nation, ignoring allies, flaunting international law is not the way to win the friendships we need.

  • jayc says:

    Perhaps the ACLU should be given a copy of the terrorists who have been “martyred”, the charges and accusations against them, statements from the families of their victims, ect…

  • devildog says:

    When we win this war they can sit in their chairs and debate the “Legality” of tactical warfare till the next one. Till then, let the warfighters fight.

  • Render says:

    I’m quite certain that warning was meant for all of us. Beyond any shadow of a doubt…
    Did the ACLU raise a stink when Bill Clinton fired missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan (August, 1998), at pretty much the exact same target types?

  • SantaClaws says:

    Good luck getting any information when, technically, this program doesn’t even exist.

  • Walter says:

    Perhaps the legal minds here can inform me what standing the ACLU has in this case?

  • A_Skri says:

    The ACLU action may bring more transparency concerning the droning results. This would supply additional information for Mr. Roggio’s updating, via pie charts, graphs, etc., of the droning statistics. More transparency would help to evaluate the efficiency of the droning process. Efficiency is not only measured in ‘insurgent versus civilian’ kills. Enjoy blogging while the Dronemasters choose who lives and who dies.

  • referman says:

    I am confused as to the aclu’s sudden addiction to our drone programs,decicion making and targeting.Would they approve of our spec op’s going in and marking the same target and call in a 500 pounder.Maybe an artillery strike or my fav a B-52 carpet bombing.The alternative is to send in boots on the ground,this would guarantee a fire fight putting civilians,our soldiers and the livestock in the line of fire. Say they do capture the bad guy. Lawyers bring charges against our soldiers,case and point the navy seal team who brought the scumbag in who carried out the civilians tortured and killed in Fallujah.Then hung on the bridge.Has anybody from the aclu gone to these war zones to see what our military soldiers endure just to survive daily.Lawyers I thought did alot of research on their subjects.Some time at a FOB would be at least educational.A drone with a hellfire can stay on station until targets are cleared thru JAG or at best someone who understands the legalities.Taking out high valued targets by drone frees up hundreds of soldiers to carry on missions elsewhere.It cunfuses our enemies,keeps em on the run and their heads down.It creates havock on their command and control process.If every drone strike saves one of our warriors it is acceptable.No disrespect,but the War on Terror is going to be long.Hitting the bad guys where they feel safe will shorten this war.From an old VET

  • Render says:

    “The ACLU action may bring more transparency concerning the droning results.”

  • Tom Curley says:

    Someone should sue the ALCU for their donor list so we know whish people we can 1 boycott. 2 Avoid. 3 not vote for.

  • NS says:

    You are making a mistake by assuming that i am a US citizen – i am Indian.
    We face a hybrid threat that requires both military and civil answers. We’re not rolling Bradleys down the streets of Paris, or Prague…that’s what the local police are for. And we should, to the best of our ability, not infringe on another nations sovereignty unless absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they might not help us out later when we really need it.
    I dont know if you are even nominally aware of what you are talking about, the situation in a country like Pakistan, a so called country like Afghanistan and the geo politics of the region.
    That entire paragraph sounds like that of an arm chair lawyer who is theorizing on what the US should be doing, instead of realizing what is happening on the ground.

  • NS says:

    We tried blowing off both world opinion and international law in the pursuit of winning our so-called War on Terror and look where that has gotten us. Not impinging on civil liberties is not being soft on terrorism; it’s called sound tactics.
    Since when did the ACLU stray away from its self-professed mission to giving advice on “sound tactics” ? I dont think we need lectures on war tactics from lawyers who have never visited any country outside of Europe and are ignorant about anything and everything that relates to AfPak.
    Erik, I have to say your whole post has an Alice in Talibanland feeling to it.
    Oh btw, you would be very happy to know that the current drone attacks which have actually picked up under the current Administration are a prelude to a fast exit for the US and its allies from AfPak.


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