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.”

What We're Following See More »
CONCERNED ABOUT A PUBLIC SPECTACLE
Mueller Agrees to Testify, but Only in Private
53 minutes ago
THE LATEST
COULDN'T NAVIGATE BREXIT
Theresa May Officially Resigns
54 minutes ago
THE LATEST
FEDERAL JUDGE WON'T BLOCK SUBPOENA OF BANK RECORDS
Trump Loses in Court Again
1 days ago
THE LATEST
SAYS HE CAN'T DO IT WHILE INVESTIGATIONS CONTINUE
Trump Pulls the Plug on Infrastructure
1 days ago
THE LATEST
ADMINISTRATION IS 0-FOR-1 ON STONEWALLING THIS WEEK
Parties Go to Court Today Over Trump Banking Records
2 days ago
THE LATEST
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login