Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Why Did the CIA Stop Torturing and Start Killing?

by Micah Zenko
April 7, 2013

In the New York Times, Mark Mazzetti has an excellent account of how, in 2004, the CIA’s counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan merged from capturing suspected terrorists to killing them with armed drones. The important contribution from Mazzetti’s reporting is that he reveals the extent to which the CIA based its support for this policy shift on a May 2004 report by John Helgerson, the Agency’s inspector general. The semi-redacted report—“Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities, September 2001-October 2003”—is available here. As Mazzetti writes:

The report kicked out the foundation upon which the C.I.A. detention and interrogation program had rested. It was perhaps the single most important reason for the C.I.A.’s shift from capturing to killing terrorism suspects.

Mr. Helgerson raised questions about whether C.I.A. officers might face criminal prosecution for the interrogations carried out in the secret prisons, and he suggested that interrogation methods like waterboarding, sleep deprivation and the exploiting of the phobias of prisoners — like confining them in a small box with live bugs — violated the United Nations Convention Against Torture…

The ground had shifted, and counterterrorism officials began to rethink the strategy for the secret war. Armed drones, and targeted killings in general, offered a new direction. Killing by remote control was the antithesis of the dirty, intimate work of interrogation. Targeted killings were cheered by Republicans and Democrats alike, and using drones flown by pilots who were stationed thousands of miles away made the whole strategy seem risk-free.

Before long the C.I.A. would go from being the long-term jailer of America’s enemies to a military organization that erased them.

It is useful to remember after September 11, 2001, how many suspected terrorists were detained by the United States. As the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism: 2002 report read: “In January, the Government of Pakistan arrested and transferred to US custody nearly 500 suspected al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists.” Beyond Pakistan, in December 2002, George Tenet stated: “Since September 2001, more than 3,000 al-Qaida operatives or associates have been detained in over 100 countries.”

Other than invading Afghanistan and Iraq, this shift from capturing suspected terrorists to killing them was the most important and enduring counterterrorism policy decision made since 9/11. What is remarkable—according to Mazzetti’s reporting—is that this was largely an internal CIA decision. Nobody from the White House, State Department, or Department of Defense is quoted as providing their opinion for how this would impact U.S. foreign policy. Without thinking through the long-term consequences, the CIA used the post-9/11 presidential findings that authorized covert actions against Al Qaeda to decide on its own to kill rather than capture. (I have asked Bush administration officials in the White House in the mid-2000s about this shift from capture to kill, and they claim there was no formal presidential decision, but rather a slow shift in emphasis that this was the preferred way to deal with terror threats.)

Moreover, the CIA made this choice, not because they thought it was the best strategy, but reportedly because they did not think they were capable of detaining and interrogating individuals without also torturing them. And since they could not trust themselves not to torture, in order to avoid potential criminal prosecutions, suspected terrorists would have to be killed instead.

The February study by the Open Society Justice Initiative, Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition, lists “136 named detainees who reportedly were subjected to CIA secret detention and/or extraordinary rendition operations. Although there may be many more individuals who were subjected to these operations, this is the most comprehensive list of these individuals assembled to date.” Of everyone that entered the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, according to a July 2007 Office of Legal Counsel memo, “the CIA has only used enhanced techniques [i.e. torture] with a total of 30.”

Since the entire point of rendering terror suspects to third-countries was to outsource abusive interrogations, let us assume that all 136 suffered from torture. Meanwhile, the United States has killed between 3,500 and 4,700 people in non-battlefield settings, and over eighty-five percent of those individuals were killed by the CIA in Pakistan (and Yemen).

Thus, the CIA has been the lead executive authority for directly killing between 3,000 and 4,000 people, while being responsible for torturing no more than 136. It should go without saying that killing an individual is the most consequential and irreversible act that a state can undertake. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which the United States has been a member state since 1992, the Article VI “inherent right to life” is described as “the supreme right from which no derogation is permitted even in time of public emergency.” Yet, since the transition from killing rather than capturing suspected terrorists Americans have become inured with the normalcy of targeted killings, as public opinion polling demonstrates they are more supportive of killing suspected terrorists than they are of torturing them. The CIA’s decision in 2004 and its massive expansion of lethal covert actions surely reflect this.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Simon

    If the targeted killings are violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is there any legal system/jurisdiction that can prosecute the CIA / US government?

  • Posted by Shah Fayyaz

    What if CIA has torched and is now killing the wrong people. Suspects and targets have been known to be designated by Locals giving coordinates of their private enemy.

  • Posted by Claudia Rizzi

    Does AQ abide by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights?

    Did AQ killed almost 3,000 people on September 11, 2001 “in non-battlefield settings”?

    Are fanatical Muslims who carry out terrorists attacks on civilians from Madrid to Abuja believe in the “inherent right to life” as “the supreme right from which no derogation is permitted even in time of public emergency” ?

    Perhaps, it’s time to shed outdated 20th century conventions on warfare and to redefine the concepts of conflict, enemy and battlefield to match today’s realities.

    Already, violent Islamic militants have changed the parameters of warfare. Not to afford our military and our national security assets the legal instruments to fight back for the sake of outdated ideas about armed conflicts would be as anachronistic as abiding by 18th century’s duel rules.

  • Posted by Claudia Rizzi

    Does AQ abide by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights?

    Did AQ kill almost 3,000 people on September 11, 2001 “in non-battlefield settings”?

    Are fanatical Muslims who carry out terrorists attacks on civilians from Madrid to Abuja believe in the “inherent right to life” as “the supreme right from which no derogation is permitted even in time of public emergency” ?

    Perhaps, it’s time to shed outdated 20th century conventions on warfare and to redefine the concepts of conflict, enemy and battlefield to match today’s realities.

    Already, violent Islamic militants have changed the parameters of warfare. Not to afford our military and our national security assets the legal instruments to fight back for the sake of outdated ideas about armed conflicts would be as anachronistic as abiding by 18th century’s duel rules.

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    Why Did the CIA Stop Torturing and Start Killing?

    Because President Obama told the CIA to close detention facilities, plus interrogations had to be lawful. With a presidential wink and a nod, the new drone surveillance and rocket technology could fill the gap nicely. The 1981 presidential executive order banning assassination was not a problem; the in-house lawyers saw to that. Drawing on two classified legal memoranda, one written for President Bill Clinton in 1998 and one since the attacks of Sept. 11, the Bush administration has concluded that executive orders banning assassination do not prevent the president from lawfully singling out a terrorist for death by covert action.

    Executive Order 13491 – Ensuring Lawful Interrogations
    January 22, 2009

    (b) Interrogation Techniques and Interrogation-Related Treatment. Effective immediately, an individual in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government, or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States, in any armed conflict, shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach, or any treatment related to interrogation, that is not authorized by and listed in Army Field Manual 2–22.3 (Manual). Interrogation techniques, approaches, and treatments described in the Manual shall be implemented strictly in accord with the principles, processes, conditions, and limitations the Manual prescribes.

    Sec. 4. Prohibition of Certain Detention Facilities, and Red Cross Access to Detained Individuals.

    (a) CIA Detention. The CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future. — Barack Obama
    http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=85669&st=&st1=

    Executive Order 12333 – United States Intelligence Activities
    December 4, 1981

    2.11 Prohibition on Assassination. No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination. — Ronald Reagan
    http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=43324&st=&st1=

  • Posted by Aaron Shoup

    Bravo. It’s much more humane to kill someone quickly and painlessly than to torture them. Torture victims consistently wish they had been killed rather than tortured anyway.

  • Posted by Mike Franke

    I think you answered your own question right away. They did it because their hand was forced by the journalist who brought up the question of prosecution for CIA officers’ interrogation tactics. So, naturally, these Type-A guys said, “If you’re going to threaten us, screw you, we’ll just kill them with drones and you can try and put the president in jail.” So congrats again media. Even though you think you’re doing the right thing by bringing the first issue up, that guy actually has blood on his hands in my opinion. I’m not saying the CIA was right. That’s just how they operate.

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