(CN) - The CIA cannot deny the existence of records on targeted drone strikes while making public statements about the program, the D.C. Circuit ruled Friday, noting that the agency "now appears to have recognized the indefensibility of its position."
"The President of the United States has himself publicly acknowledged that the United States uses drone strikes against al Qaeda," Chief Judge Merrick Garland wrote for the three-judge panel in Washington, D.C.
The decision overturns a federal judge's ruling for the agency after it refused to confirm or deny the existence of such records in response to a records request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU argued that the agency could no longer deny the records' existence when top U.S. officials - including President Barack Obama, newly appointed CIA Director John Brennan and his predecessor, Leon Panetta - have spoken publicly about the use of drones to carry out targeted killings.
The agency conceded that the United States' involvement in the drone strike program has been officially acknowledged, but insisted secrecy was necessary to cloak whether the CIA itself was involved in such strikes.
The D.C. Circuit remained unconvinced.
"Given these official acknowledgments that the United States has participated in drone strikes, it is neither logical nor plausible for the CIA to maintain that it would reveal anything not already in the public domain to say that the agency 'at least has an intelligence interest' in such strikes," Garland wrote.
"The defendant is, after all, the Central Intelligence Agency." (Original emphasis.) "And it strains credulity to suggest that an agency charged with gathering intelligence affecting the national security does not have an 'intelligence interest' in drone strikes, even if that agency does not operate the drones itself."
Brennan, in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, talked about "draw[ing] on the full range of our intelligence capacities," according to the ruling.
"Needless to say, by statutory definition the Central Intelligence Agency is part of the 'full range' of the nation's 'intelligence capabilities,'" Garland wrote.
"[A]s it is now clear that the agency does have an interest in drone strikes, it beggars belief that it does not also have documents relating to the subject," the panel added.
"Indeed, the CIA itself now appears to have recognized the indefensibility of its position," Garland wrote.
Shortly after denying the existence of the records requested by the ACLU, the CIA filed pleadings in a case in Manhattan Federal Court which acknowledged that they agency possessed documents about targeted killings.
The agency then sought a remand in the ACLU case, stating that the New York filing "officially acknowledges the CIA's possession of some records that could potentially be responsive to plaintiffs' FOIA requests in this case as well."
The CIA hinted that it might abandon its initial denial "in favor of something less absolute, if only slightly less," the ruling states.
"This is an important victory," ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement. "It requires the government to retire the absurd claim that the CIA's interest in the targeted killing program is a secret, and it will make it more difficult for the government to deflect questions about the program's scope and legal basis. It also means that the CIA will have to explain what records it is withholding, and on what grounds it is withholding them."
The D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded, saying it's now up to the district court to determine if the contents of those records are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.