America Trades Torture for Drones

The Senate's report on CIA interrogation closes one dark chapter—and leaves another open.

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

The release Tuesday of the executive summary of a report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which reviews the CIA's detention and interrogation practices between 2001 and 2009, was for all its gruesome detail greeted in some official quarters as a kind of catharsis. "This," said Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement, "marks a coda to a chapter in our history"—a chapter, he went on, that is now "more than five years behind us," since President Obama ended the CIA's detention program during his first week in office. Obama, for his part, acknowledged that "some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values" but expressed hope that "today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong—in the past."

But the end of one dark chapter roughly coincided with the beginning of a new one—one that remains very much open. As far back as 2004, notes Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, the CIA began moving away from capturing and detaining suspected terrorists in favor of killing them via drone strikes. (Both the CIA and the Pentagon have drone programs, but the CIA conducts the majority of strikes.) It was a decision, Zenko wrote last year, citing reporting from The New York Times's Mark Mazetti, spurred in large part by the CIA's own 2004 investigation into the agency's abuse of detainees. A report from the CIA's inspector general had raised the possibility that the CIA's interrogation techniques violated the UN Convention Against Torture, and that individual officers might be liable for criminal prosecution. That torture report from 10 years ago, in Mazetti's words, "was perhaps the single most important reason for the C.I.A.’s shift from capturing to killing terrorism suspects."

That shift was already underway by the time Obama assumed office, vowing to end the use of torture and overhaul U.S. detention of foreign terrorism suspects more generally, in part by closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. (With the transfer of six Guantanamo detainees to Uruguay this past weekend, there are now 136 remaining prisoners at the facility five years later.) But finding a new long-term detention policy for suspected terrorists, as the reporter Daniel Klaidman detailed in his book Kill or Capture, involved a "knot of national security, legal, and political challenges [that] made it one of the most insoluble problems in [Obama's] war on terror." In the resulting policy vacuum, Klaidman wrote, "the inability to detain terror suspects was creating perverse incentives that favored killing or releasing suspected terrorists over capturing them."

Though the U.S. drone war started under Bush about a decade ago, Obama has ramped it up considerably in his half-decade in office. He has authorized over nine times as many strikes as his predecessor, Zenko told me in an email. Estimates of the precise number of fatalities in those operations range widely; Zenko's own tally, based on reporting from non-governmental research organizations, puts the rough death toll at around 3,500 people. These include an unknown number of civilian casualties believed by independent researchers to number at least in the hundreds; the Obama administration reportedly counts "all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants," which produces lower estimates of civilian casualties. Tuesday's report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, meanwhile, lists 119 terror suspects known to have been detained by the CIA, of whom "at least 39 were subject to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques." Twenty-six of the total number of detainees, the report continues, should not have been detained in the first place.

But despite the vast disparity in the numbers of people abused through the CIA's detention program versus killed by drones, there has been no official accounting of the latter program on par with the torture report released this week. "[T]hose normally interested in upholding human rights ideals and promoting transparency (generally Democrats) simply will not investigate their own," Zenko explained. "And as I've pointed out in every public opinion poll ... Americans are more comfortable killing suspected terrorists than torturing them."

In his statement on the report's release, Obama managed to find a silver lining, contending that "one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better." But that willingness may only go so far. As Zenko wrote in a blog post today, if 119 CIA detainees "deserve a public accounting, then don’t the 3,500 who have been killed deserve this as well?"  ​