Air Force file photo

After Torture, Will the Senate Begin Investigating Drone Killings?

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

 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 providedto 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."

This article appears in the December 12, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.