Portions of a previously classified document detailing the legal justification for killing al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike in 2011 has been ordered to be released.
A three-judge panel ruled Monday that government officials had waived their rights to keep secret the memorandum that included information about the drone strike in Yemen that killed al-Awlaki. The panel said public statements by President Obama’s administration officials and the Justice Department releasing a “white paper” about why targeted killings were legal was enough to declassify key portions of the document.
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“Whatever protection the legal analysis might once have had,” Judge Jon O. Newman wrote for the panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, The New York Times reported, “has been lost by virtue of public statements
of public officials at the highest levels and official disclosure of the DOJ White Paper.”
Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist, said Monday’s ruling that overturns a January 2013 lower court’s decision on the case, was “clearly a rebuff to the administration’s secrecy policy.”
“What makes it particularly significant is that it applies not just to a single document but to a habitual practice of government officials,” Aftergood told The New York Times, “which is to say, 'I’m going to talk about something that’s classified, but I’m not going to give you the underlying records.'"
The ruling was in response to lawsuits filed under the Freedom of Information Act by The New York Times and two of its reporters, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, and by the American Civil Liberties Union.
It’s not known how soon the memorandum at the center of the lawsuits will become public. A Justice Department spokesperson didn’t comment on Monday’s ruling which could be appealed to the full appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
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