from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Why Did the CIA Stop Torturing and Start Killing?

April 7, 2013

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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.