In a case pitting executive power against the public's right to know what its government does, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling preserving the secrecy of the legal rationale for the killings, such as the death of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.
Ruling for the New York Times, a unanimous three-judge panel said the government waived its right to secrecy by making repeated public statements justifying targeted killings.
These included a Justice Department "white paper," as well as speeches or statements by officials like Attorney General Eric Holder and former Obama administration counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, endorsing the practice.
The Times and two reporters, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, sought the memorandum under the federal Freedom of Information Act, saying it authorized the targeting of al-Awlaki, a cleric who joined al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate and directed many attacks.
"Whatever protection the legal analysis might once have had has been lost by virtue of public statements of public officials at the highest levels and official disclosure of the DOJ White Paper," Circuit Judge Jon Newman wrote for the appeals court panel in New York.
He said it was no longer logical or plausible to argue that disclosing the legal analysis in the memorandum jeopardizes military plans, intelligence activities or foreign relations. The court redacted a portion of the memorandum on intelligence gathering.
It is unclear whether the government will appeal, or when the memorandum might be made public.
The Justice Department had no immediate comment.
David McCraw, a lawyer for the Times, said the newspaper is delighted with the decision, saying it encourages public debate on an important foreign policy and national security issue.
"The court reaffirmed a bedrock principle of democracy: The people do not have to accept blindly the government's assurances that it is operating within the bounds of the law; they get to see for themselves the legal justification that the government is working from," McCraw said in a statement.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Monday's decision largely reversed a January 2013 ruling by U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon in Manhattan.
She ruled for the administration despite skepticism over its antiterrorism program, including whether it could unilaterally authorize killings outside a "hot" field of battle.
"The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me," she wrote.
Civil liberties groups have complained that the drone program, which deploys pilotless aircraft, lets the government kill Americans without constitutionally required due process.
McMahon ruled one month before the Justice Department released the white paper, which set out conditions to be met before lethal force in foreign countries against U.S. citizens could be used.
In a March 5, 2012 speech at Northwestern University, Holder had said it was "entirely lawful" to target people with senior operational roles in al-Qaeda and associated forces.
The Times has said the strategy of targeted killings had first been contemplated by the Bush administration, soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The American Civil Liberties Union supported the Times' appeal of McMahon's ruling. Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the ACLU, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The case is New York Times Co et al v. U.S. Department of Justice et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Nos. 13-422, 13-445.