A federal appeals court ruled Monday that CIA secret interrogation methods remain off limits to public release.

Story highlights

The ACLU wanted details of CIA intelligence-gathering methods

A federal appeals court says such details remain off limits to public release

Details would reveal "highly classified, active intelligence activity," the judges said

The plaintiffs could ask the Supreme Court to intervene

CNN  — 

CIA secret interrogation methods – including detention and harsh questioning of suspected terrorists – remain off limits to public release, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The agency was sued eight years ago to provide details of certain communications describing the use of waterboarding and other direct intelligence-gathering methods of foreign terror suspects. A three-judge panel from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled “intelligence methods” are not subject to a Freedom of Information Act request from the lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We give substantial weight to the government’s declarations, which establish that disclosing the redacted portions of the (secret memos) would reveal the existence and scope of a highly classified, active intelligence activity,” said the judges.

The CIA has admitted as part of the lawsuit it destroyed videotaped interrogations of “high-value” terror suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The alleged members of the al Qaeda terror network are being held overseas, including most recently at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba.

The ACLU wanted transcripts of those tapes and a Zubaydah photograph, written summaries, or other information relating to the so-called “waterboarding” of suspected terrorists in U.S. custody. Some civil liberties groups have equated the methods to torture, and have argued that government and military officials should be held publicly accountable.

“Public disclosure of certain government records may not always be in the public interest,” Judge Richard Wesley wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. He said it was both “logical and plausible” for the CIA to control how it conducts intelligence operations, and how it works with foreign intelligence liaison partners.

The judges also dismissed a lower federal court order to release two classified memos from White House attorneys, which discuss the legality of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The issue was whether the material was classified since the memos reportedly dealt not with specific methods, only their legality. The court said it was not its job to conduct a “complex inquiry” into government discussions of its intelligence-gathering.

President Barack Obama has since disavowed the future use of waterboarding, where simulated drowning of immobile prisoners was conducted.

The ACLU, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights and Veterans for Peace – among other groups suing – now have the option of asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. The justices earlier Monday agreed to hear a case from the ACLU over whether a coalition of Americans can go to court and challenge a federal law allowing broad electronic surveillance of suspected foreign terrorists and spies.

The CIA interrogation cases are ACLU v. Department of Justice (10-4289, 10-4290, 10-4647, 10-4668).