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Will drone warfare one day be branded ‘a stain on our values’?

Critics of US counterterrorism tactics say drone program deserves same scrutiny as torture under Bush administration

The release of the long-awaited CIA torture report was met with praise by many lawmakers, Barack Obama’s administration and national security watchdogs for providing an unvarnished, often graphic accounting of the illegal procedures performed on detainees during George W. Bush’s administration.

"It shows the CIA's actions a decade ago are a stain on our values and our history," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. "The release of this 500-page summary cannot remove that stain, but it can and does say to our people and the world that America is big enough to admit when it's wrong and confident enough to learn from its mistakes."  

Whereas practices like waterboarding and forced rectal exams have been banned for years, critics of the nation’s security tactics warn that new abuses have emerged that deserve an equal public airing.

They argue that the Obama administration’s accelerated use of the drone program, which strikes suspected terrorists from the sky under legal rationale that critics charge is thin, may not be any more moral or humane than subjecting them to brutal interrogations.

“The drone program presents a new dimension in torture and abuse,” said Alka Pradhan, a lawyer for Reprieve, a human rights organization that represents drone victims. “I am grateful for Sen. Feinsten and to her staff who wrote this behemoth of a report for doing this, but I don’t think there’s particular bravery in issuing a report years after the practice has ended.”

Pradhan said that the Obama administration can hardly claim moral superiority over the Bush administration; it has mostly fended off criticisms of its national security approach by cloaking its targeted killing program in secrecy.

Because the administration refuses to provide an official tally of civilians and suspected militants killed in drone strikes, most estimates are based on information compiled by local press reports. According to a conservative estimate by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, approximately 2,700 people have died in drone strikes since they began in 2002 in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, including approximately 480 civilians.

Investigations by NBC News and McClatchy found that the government does not always know which targets are being hit in the strikes and that the people who the government said pose an imminent threat to the United States include dozens of low-level insurgents.

Asked in a press briefing Wednesday if the White House had the moral authority to condemn torture given its ramped up use of drones, with the attendant civilian casualties, press secretary Josh Earnest said there are safeguards in place to prevent abuse.

"There is significant care taken and there are significant checks and balances that are included in the system to ensure that any counterterrorism action taken by the United States of America does not put at risk innocent lives," he said. 

In May 2013, Obama defended the program in a speech as both effective and legal but also noted that he was issuing new standards to narrow its scope and increase transparency. The new policy guidance the president issued remains classified. 

"To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.  For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it," he said. "And that’s why, over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists — insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability."

Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the Liberty and National Security program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said there’s no reason to believe that the assurances provided by U.S. officials about the nation’s surveillance or drone program are any sounder than the failed checks on the torture program.

“One of the take-homes from the report, aside from what was done, is that we were assured throughout that this torture program was carefully controlled and supervised and managed, and even the administration that was doing this recognized it would be illegal without these careful controls,” she said. “That was all just completely illusory. These vaunted controls … were just not there.”

The torture report illustrates “how badly broken our intelligence oversight is,” Goitein said, and that has implications for the controversial tactics being employed today.

“We just don’t get rigorous, contemporaneous oversight on intelligence programs,” she said. 

Former officials under the Bush administration have also drawn parallels between torture and current tactics. 

John McLaughlin, a former deputy CIA director, noted in an interview on NPR Tuesday that if the public were given as much information about drone strikes as torture, there would be a similar public outcry. 

“There will be things in this report that will be disturbing graphically, but I suspect if you had a similarly graphic description of what happens when innocents are killed in a drone strike, you would be equally disturbed by what you read,” he said. 

John Yoo, the former Justice Department official who drafted the Bush administration’s legal rationale for torture, has argued that, Obama is sidestepping difficult questions about detaining terrorism suspects by simply assassinating them.

“Rather than capture terrorists — which produces the most valuable intelligence on Al-Qaeda — Mr. Obama has relied almost exclusively on drone attacks, and he has thereby been able to dodge difficult questions over detention,” Yoo wrote in The Wall Street Journal in February 2013. “But those deaths from the sky violate personal liberty far more than the waterboarding of three Al-Qaeda leaders ever did.”

Pradhan said that the detention and treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay and the techniques used to force-feed those on hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention should be cause for alarm for anyone who is troubled by the grisly findings of the torture report.

“It’s just continued indignities and continued treatment that really rises to the level of degradation and inhumane abuse,” she said.

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