The Senate Is Done Investigating Torture. Will Drone Killings Be Next?

“Obviously, we don’t interrogate prisoners anymore,” says one Republican. “Now all we do is kill them.”

A Yemeni boy walks past a mural depicting a U.S. drone and reading on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa. 
National Journal
Dec. 11, 2014, 5:17 p.m.

In the af­ter­math of the re­lease of the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee’s tor­ture re­port fo­cused on Bush-era tech­niques, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s own coun­terter­ror­ism prac­tices are com­ing un­der in­creased scru­tiny.

Grue­some de­tails of forced rectal feed­ings without med­ic­al ne­ces­sity, wa­ter­board­ing, and sleep depriva­tion were chron­icled in the re­port’s ex­ec­ut­ive sum­mary, dredging up harsh prac­tices em­ployed dur­ing the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. But on Cap­it­ol Hill, Re­pub­lic­ans charge that the Cent­ral In­tel­li­gence Agency’s ap­proach to coun­terter­ror­ism has not grown more hu­mane—it’s merely shif­ted.

“Ob­vi­ously, we don’t in­ter­rog­ate pris­on­ers any­more,” says Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who chaired the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. “Now all we do is kill them.”

Pres­id­ent Obama’s tar­geted killing pro­gram has been one of the more con­found­ing stra­tegic­al de­cisions of his pres­id­ency. For lib­er­al sup­port­ers who voted to elect a con­sti­tu­tion­al-law pro­fess­or in 2008 and a can­did­ate who had cam­paigned against harsh in­ter­rog­a­tion prac­tices like wa­ter­board­ing, it would have been hard to ima­gine that just years later they’d see a pres­id­ent who keeps a “kill list” of sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists.

As Re­pub­lic­ans pre­pare to take lead­er­ship over the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, the pan­el’s over­sight work will shift from spend­ing con­sid­er­able re­sources to en­sure the re­lease of the back­wards-look­ing tor­ture re­port to a com­mit­tee that in­com­ing Chair­man Richard Burr, R-N.C., said will de­liv­er over­sight in “real time.”

“We are not go­ing to be look­ing back at a dec­ade try­ing to dredge up things,” Burr said about his fu­ture on the com­mit­tee, just be­fore Fein­stein re­leased her re­port.

Mem­bers of Con­gress are di­vided over wheth­er the pres­id­ent’s highly se­cret­ive drone-strikes pro­gram needs more con­gres­sion­al scru­tiny. Some cri­ti­cize the pro­gram’s leg­al ra­tionale, while oth­ers have con­cerns about killing com­batants who may have valu­able in­form­a­tion.

“I was not sat­is­fied with the leg­al ana­lys­is that I read in the clas­si­fied doc­u­ment by the De­part­ment of Justice,” says Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is on the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. “To me, when an Amer­ic­an is in­volved, it raises very dif­fer­ent ques­tions then when we are strik­ing a for­eign ter­ror­ist.” An­war al-Aw­laki, an Amer­ic­an cit­izen who had worked with al-Qaida, was killed in a 2011 drone strike un­der leg­al au­thor­ity the ad­min­is­tra­tion de­rived from the 2001 Au­thor­iz­a­tion for Use of Mil­it­ary Force.

De­tails about how drones are used to kill ter­ror­ists re­main un­known, a fact lead­ers on Cap­it­ol Hill har­bor con­cerns about. Sen. Bob Cork­er, R-Tenn., who is in line to be the next Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions chair­man, said it’s an area ripe for over­sight.

“I have al­ways wondered why there isn’t more con­cerns about how that is car­ried out, but I don’t think any­one would want to do that as re­tri­bu­tion,” for the tor­ture re­port’s re­lease, Cork­er said. “I think people genu­inely want our coun­try to be se­cure, but at the same time it is pretty amaz­ing that those kinds of de­cisions are made amongst such a small group of people.”

In re­cent years, Obama and his al­lies have fiercely de­fen­ded the drone pro­gram, but its ef­fi­ciency and its re­por­ted propensity to in­cur ci­vil­ian cas­u­al­ties re­main shrouded in secrecy.

Dur­ing a press con­fer­ence Thursday, CIA Dir­ect­or John Bren­nan said that drones had “done tre­mend­ous work to keep this coun­try safe.”

The drone-strikes pro­gram, which began un­der the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion but was ex­pan­ded wildly un­der Obama, still re­mains clas­si­fied. The Bur­eau of In­vest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism re­leased stat­ist­ics in May es­tim­at­ing that between 2004 and 2014, the CIA had con­duc­ted 405 strikes in Pakistan alone, which led to the deaths of between 2,400 and 3,888 people, 416 to 959 of whom were con­sidered ci­vil­ians.

The U.S. has also con­duc­ted drone strikes in Ye­men and Somalia, but the num­ber of strikes there ap­pear to have been on a much smal­ler scale. In Ye­men, for ex­ample, the Bur­eau of In­vest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism re­por­ted the num­ber of drone strikes was some­where between 72 and 84. In Somalia, the num­ber was es­tim­ated to be less than 10.

Con­gress has long been home to frus­tra­tions over the pro­gram’s secrecy, and some­times they’ve spilled in­to pub­lic view. In Feb­ru­ary 2013, John Bren­nan’s nom­in­a­tion to be­come CIA dir­ect­or was en­dangered by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­fus­al to turn over the full scope of leg­al memos to the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee chron­ic­ling the ra­tionale for killing sus­pec­ted Amer­ic­an ter­ror­ists abroad. In or­der to get Bren­nan through, some leg­al opin­ions were provided to the com­mit­tee.

Be­fore Bren­nan was con­firmed, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., de­livered a 13-hour fili­buster to get as­sur­ances from the Justice De­part­ment that Amer­ic­ans could not be killed with a drone on U.S. soil.

Today, most Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans on the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee say they are con­fid­ent the CIA is provid­ing them with the in­form­a­tion they need to place checks and bal­ances on Obama’s drone pro­gram.

“I think we have had much more trans­par­ent in­form­a­tion,” Sen. Mar­tin Hein­rich, D-N.M., who serves on the com­mit­tee, said about what the CIA has provided to Con­gress about its tar­geted killing pro­gram.

“We know a lot,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, who serves on the com­mit­tee. “I can tell you we do a good job.”

Sen. Carl Lev­in, the chair­man of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, which over­sees the Pentagon branch of the drone pro­gram, said he’s also com­fort­able with the amount of in­form­a­tion the mil­it­ary turns over to him.

But the con­tra­dic­tion lies in the fact that, while many mem­bers are sat­is­fied with over­sight on the drone pro­gram, they still ques­tion Bren­nan’s abil­ity to be forth­com­ing with Con­gress.

“I have con­cerns about Bren­nan, but not be­cause of how they have man­aged,” Hein­rich said. “My con­cerns have been his res­ist­ance to con­gres­sion­al over­sight.”

After a long slog to re­lease the 500-page tor­ture re­port’s ex­ec­ut­ive sum­mary, which was fraught with con­ten­tious ar­gu­ments over re­dac­tions and rev­el­a­tions that the CIA was spy­ing on Sen­ate com­puters, out­go­ing Sen. Mark Ud­all, D-Colo., called again for Bren­nan’s resig­na­tion and ac­cused him of ly­ing re­peatedly to mem­bers of Con­gress.

Civil-liber­ties ad­voc­ates have a dif­fi­cult time squar­ing how In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee mem­bers can be so con­fid­ent they are get­ting the in­form­a­tion they need to hold an agency ac­count­able when they ad­mit they have been misled be­fore by its dir­ect­or.

“We could be go­ing down the same road all over again, but with killing in­stead of tor­tur­ing,” says Chris An­ders, seni­or leg­al coun­sel at the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on. “The kinds of people that were in­volved in the hor­rors of this tor­ture re­port are still around. It is hard to be­lieve they have be­come bet­ter man­agers or more care­ful about re­main­ing with­in the law in sub­sequent years.”

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