Does the CIA Even Know Who Its Drones Are Killing?

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During the Bush era, the agency helped imprison scores of innocents. In the Obama era, it decides who to blow up.


Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said that the War on Terror detainees who made it to the prison at Guantanamo Bay were "the worst of the worst." At the time, many Americans believed him. Hadn't the detainees been captured by the military or the CIA, or evaluated by experienced American interrogators before being transferred there? We now know that many of the 779 detainees who wound up at Gitmo were innocent.

"Of the 212 Afghans at the base, almost half were, in the assessments of the US forces, either entirely innocent, mere Taliban conscripts, or had been transferred to Guantánamo with no reason for doing so on file," The Guardian reported earlier this year. Said the Telegraph, "Guantanamo Bay has been used to incarcerate dozens of terrorists who have admitted plotting terrifying attacks against the West -- while imprisoning more than 150 totally innocent people, top-secret files disclose."  

President Obama doesn't send suspected terrorists to Guantanamo Bay. Instead, he kills them with drones.

Those drones are operated by the same military and CIA that sent hundreds of innocents to prison. The targets killed by the drones aren't subject to waterboarding. They're blown up from afar. The Obama Administration doesn't torture -- it just quietly kills.

How exactly does it decide who to kill? That's a secret.

Who has it killed?

We don't know -- but not because the information is classified.

The CIA doesn't know either, most of the time. Says the Wall Street Journal, after interviewing what it calls "high level officials," there are two kinds of drone strikes: "Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren't always known. The bulk of CIA's drone strikes are signature strikes. The second type of drone strike, known as a 'personality' strike, targets known terrorist leaders and has faced less internal scrutiny." So the Obama Administration is killing people in Pakistan. And the Obama Administration doesn't know who they are. It's sure that they're very bad people. It's just that no one knows their names.

Many Americans can't believe their government would kill innocents in drone strikes. But hundreds of innocents were imprisoned in Guantanamo despite being interrogated first. Domestically, the Innocence Project estimates that there are tens of thousands of innocent citizens in U.S. prisons, despite a system that guarantees due process, a right to counsel, and a standard of "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Then we send pilot-less airplanes to a foreign country, receive images taken from high altitudes, and a CIA employee decides whether to fire or not. And many Americans still can't believe that their government would kill innocents in drone strikes.

This is a moral failure -- and a political one too.

President Obama's defenders say that he'd have closed Guantanamo Bay if not for a recalcitrant Congress. True or not, the fact remains that his drone policy doesn't just indefinitely detain people without charges, it outright kills them. Bush has been rightly castigated for failing to provide enough oversight to prevent accused terrorists from being abused. What does Obama do to prevent accused terrorists from being killed? "Mr. Obama was an early convert to drones," the Wall Street Journal reports. "The CIA has had freedom to decide who to target and when to strike. The White House usually is notified immediately after signature strikes take place, not beforehand, a senior U.S. official said." Gitmo innocents wasted years of their lives behind bars. Innocent victims of the drone strikes are dead forevermore.

Yet most Democrats who opposed Guantanamo Bay, a facility that is still open, will back Obama, sans even a primary challenge from the civil libertarian wing of the party, and the Republicans, who once campaigned on the idea of a humble foreign policy, won't so much as criticize Obama for his drone war, preferring to portray him as soft on Islamist terrorists.

Our system of government was designed so that, in order for the government to kill lots of foreigners, the Congress had to declare war. Today agents of the government wage a partly classified, undeclared drone war administered by our spy agency, which is accountable to the president only after it scores a kill. Is the Nobel Peace Prize committee still happy with its choice? Is this to go on for four more years? Here are the newest changes to the program: "The State Department won greater sway in strike decisions; Pakistani leaders got advance notice about more operations; and the CIA agreed to suspend operations when Pakistani officials visit the U.S."

Is that enough?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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