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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Drone strikes are highly controversial, though the Obama administration says they are legal and essential to America's security. The administration says drones have killed more than a dozen al-Qaida leaders around the world. But when civil liberties groups wanted more information about the targeted killings, the government turned them down. Tomorrow, the two sides will square off in front of a federal appeals court in Washington. NPR's Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Over the past 10 years, the U.S. government has used drones to carry out lethal strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It's a centerpiece of the Obama administration's counterterrorism policy. But when the American Civil Liberties Union asked some questions about the use of drones two years ago, the CIA said it could neither confirm nor deny it had any relevant information. So lawyer Jameel Jaffer sued for the records under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

JAMEEL JAFFER: It shouldn't be the case that a program under which the administration is killing suspected terrorists without presenting evidence in any court, killing Americans without presenting evidence to any court, that the only information we have about the program is the information that the administration wants us to have.

JOHNSON: Over the past few years, a half dozen government officials have given speeches or answered questions about the deadly strikes. Here's President Obama in January on a live video chat sponsored by Google Plus.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to make sure that people understand, actually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties. That for the most part they have been very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaida and their affiliates.

JOHNSON: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the former director of the CIA, told a Los Angeles audience in May 2009...

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Because these are covert and secret operations, I can't go into particulars. I think it does suffice to say that these operations have been very effective.

JOHNSON: Last year, a federal judge in Washington sided with the intelligence community. Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled the CIA had never officially disclosed the agency's role in drone strikes. The judge said making the CIA hand over materials could jeopardize sources and methods. The right call, says Ben Powell, former top lawyer for the intelligence community.

BEN POWELL: There is not a I think what the judge referred to as a cat out of the bag doctrine, meaning that the fact that officials may have generally alluded to activities or capabilities does not mean they've officially acknowledged the existence of the detailed records that the ACLU is seeking.

JOHNSON: The ACLU appealed that decision, because Jaffer says.

JAFFER: It's true that in some statements they don't use the word CIA and in other statements they don't use the word drone, but no reasonable person could listen to these statements, individually and certainly not collectively, and come away with the impression that the CIA had done anything other than confirm the existence of a program under which the CIA uses drones to carry out targeted killing.

JOHNSON: Government lawyers didn't want to comment on the pending case. But former Congresswoman Jane Harman told an audience at the Wilson Center this year...

JANE HARMAN: The fact that the U.S. conducts targeted strikes using drones has always been something that I, as a public official, danced around because I knew it had not been officially acknowledged.

JOHNSON: Harman gave the administration credit for trying to explain the checks and balances for the drone program. But that's little comfort to the ACLU. Jaffer points out the Democratic Party ran a video at its political convention in Charlotte, praising Mr. Obama for killing suspected terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, an American who died in a drone strike in Yemen last year.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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