In that declaration, Bennett said that in light of speeches made by senior U.S. officials on the subject of killing al-Qaida leaders, the CIA conducted a search for records responsive to the ACLU's request in the New York case.
"Based on that search, it has determined that it can now publicly acknowledge that it possesses records responsive to the ACLU's FOIA request," he said. But he said the spy agency can't provide the number, nature or categorization of those records without disclosing information protected under FOIA exemptions.
Delery said that the question of whether the CIA has documents on drones is "not where we're drawing the line."
ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer said in a telephone interview that the government has "repackaged" the same argument.
"They continue to take the position that they haven't acknowledged the CIA uses drones to carry out targeted killings," he said.
Judges questioned Jaffer on whether a statement made by Panetta was sufficient to tie the CIA to the drone program. The ACLU cited a comment Panetta made in response to question about drones at a public event, in which he said the "operations have been very effective because they have been very precise in terms of the targeting and it involved a minimum of collateral damage."
But Tatel noted that the questioner had asked about the "president's strategy" in using drones, not the CIA's.
Jaffer responded that Panetta was CIA director at the time, and spoke throughout the event about the CIA.
The ACLU's Freedom of Information Act request seeks documents describing the legal basis for using drones as well as ones with information on civilian casualties, among other things.
The use of American drones has provoked anger abroad, particularly in Pakistan, where human rights groups say innocent people have been victims.