Still Secret: Second Circuit Keeps More Drone Memos From the Public

Secret law has been anathema to our democracy since its Founding, but a federal appeals court just gave us more of it.

Almost two centuries ago, James Madison wrote that “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” The members of Congress surely had Madison’s wisdom in mind when they enacted the Freedom of Information Act — a statute that, in the Supreme Court’s words, “represents a strong congressional aversion to secret agency law.” And it seems likely that, on his first day in office, President Obama was thinking of both Madison and the FOIA-enacting Congress when he issued a presidential directive signaling a new beginning for open government that linked transparency, and FOIA in particular, to “the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.”

We might forgive the citizenry’s confusion, though, in attempting to square those principles with the decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, published yesterday, holding that the government may continue to keep secret nine legal memoranda by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel analyzing the legality of targeted killings carried out by the US government. It was just more than a year ago that the same panel of the same court ordered the government to disclose key portions of a July 2010 OLC memorandum that authorized the targeted killing of an American citizen in Yemen. At the time, the court’s opinion seemed to promise at least a partial solution to a problem straight (as the district court in the same case put it) from Alice in Wonderland: that

[a] thicket of laws and precedents … effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for its conclusion a secret.

Yesterday’s opinion retreats from that promise by keeping much of the government’s law of the targeted killing program secret. (In this and two other cases, the ACLU continues to seek more than 100 other legal memoranda authored by various agencies concerning targeted killing.) It does so in two ways that warrant attention.

First, the court suggests that OLC merely gives advice to executive branch agencies, and that OLC’s legal memoranda do not establish the “working law” of the government because agencies might not “adopt” the memoranda’s legal analysis as their own. This argument is legally flawed and, moreover, it flies in the face of the public evidence concerning how the executive branch treats opinions issued by OLC. In an OLC memorandum published, ironically or not, the same day (July 16, 2010) and over the same signature (David Barron’s) as the targeted killing memorandum released at the Second Circuit’s behest last year, the OLC explains that its “central function” is to provide “controlling legal advice to Executive Branch officials.” And not even two weeks ago, the acting head of the OLC told the public that even informally drafted legal advice emanating from his office is “binding by custom and practice in the executive branch,” that “[i]t’s the official view of the office, and that “[p]eople are supposed to and do follow it.”

But that’s not what the government told the Second Circuit, and it’s not what the Second Circuit has now suggested is the law.

Second, the Second Circuit’s new opinion endorses the continued official secrecy over any discussion of a document that has supplied a purported legal basis for the targeted killing program since almost immediately after the September 11 attacks. The document — a September 17, 2001 “Memorandum of Notification” — is not much of a secret. The government publicly identified it in litigation with the ACLU eight years ago; the Senate Intelligence Committee cited it numerous times in its recent torture report; and the press frequently makes reference to it. Not only that, but the Central Intelligence Agency’s former top lawyer, John Rizzo, freely discussed it in his recent memoir.

According to Rizzo, the September 17 MON is “the most comprehensive, most ambitious, most aggressive, and most risky” legal authorization of the last decade and a half — which is saying something. Rizzo explains that the MON authorizes targeted killings of suspected terrorists by the CIA, and in his new book, Power Wars, Charlie Savage reports that the MON is the original source of the controversial (and legally novel) “continuing and imminent threat” standard the government uses to govern the lethal targeting of individuals outside of recognized battlefields. The MON is also likely to have authorized an end run around the assassination “ban” in Executive Order 12333 — a legal maneuver that is discussed in, but almost entirely redacted from, an earlier OLC analysis of targeted killing.

In yesterday’s opinion, the Second Circuit upheld the government’s withholding of a 2002 OLC memorandum that “concerns Executive Order 12333,” which almost certainly analyzes the effect of the September 17 MON, as well as of five other memoranda that “discuss another document that remains entitled to protection.” If indeed that “document” is the MON, it would seem to be yet another case of what the DC Circuit pointedly criticized, in a 2013 opinion, as the granting of judicial “imprimatur to a fiction of deniability that no reasonable person would regard as plausible.”

In that case, the DC Circuit went on to quote Justice Frankfurter: “‘There comes a point where … Court[s] should not be ignorant as judges of what [they] know as men’ and women.” Last year, the Second Circuit took that admonishment to heart when it published the July 2010 OLC memorandum. Unfortunately, yesterday, rather than once again opening the country’s eyes to the law our government is applying behind closed doors, the Second Circuit closed its own. 

About the Author(s)

Brett Max Kaufman

Staff Attorney in the ACLU's Center for Democracy Follow him on Twitter (@brettmaxkaufman).