CIA torture report: America did terrible things, but the truly shocking thing is that it’s still doing them

Senator Dianne Feinstein has helped expose torture – but has supported use of drones

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The Independent Online

Senator Dianne Feinstein deserves a sainthood for stewarding her panel’s five-year probe into CIA torturing, and resisting all pressure to have her final report – or part of it – buried. Arguably, so too does President Barack Obama for sticking with her, even while not throwing too many stones of his own.  

Yet, there are legitimate questions about the report. Its authority is weakened by its partisan DNA; Republicans withdrew their support early on. At no point did its authors interview anyone at the CIA. Even if we accept they were economical with the truth, it’s not credible that Ms Feinstein and her peers didn’t have a decent idea of what was going on. Yet we had to wait until now to hear from them.

None of this takes away from the obvious: that terrible things were done in the name of national security that no country could be proud of, least of all one that preaches respect for human rights and decency to the rest of the world. America lost its way after 9/11. The White House, backed by Congress – including Ms Feinstein – decided anything was allowable if it might stop a repeat attack. The National Security Agency (NSA) was allowed to snoop at will. Iraq was invaded. Detainees were dumped naked in dungeons.

And America is still at it. The reforms of the NSA that were promised after the Edward Snowden leaks have gone nowhere. The black site jails have been emptied, but Guantanamo Bay has not. Above all, the US continues to rain down death and destruction in Pakistan and Yemen (and to a lesser extent Somalia) from its drones. And who is operating most of them?  The CIA.


Launched by George W Bush in 2002, the drone campaign has grown mightily under the watch of President Obama. Things get fuzzy when the CIA or the White House are asked awkward questions about the extra-judicial killings that the drones commit. Are they really so accurate that only a fraction of the victims are civilians? How are you assessing that accuracy and counting the collateral dead?

Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests that the CIA-operated drones have killed 3,500 people since 2002.  Add in drone attacks conducted by the Pentagon, and the US has dispatched 3,674 people, among them 473 civilians. These are non-battlefield killings carried out in secret. Does the US even know who is being obliterated half the time?

It would be nice to think that the CIA has a handle on this. But in its official response to the torture report it admitted that it “needs to develop the structure, expertise, and methodologies required to more objectively and systematically evaluate the effectiveness of our covert actions”. We can therefore deduce it is equally clueless about how accurate drone strikes have been, or whether they serve any good purpose or merely provide additional recruitment ammunition to America’s enemies, including Isis.

The Pentagon has shown itself to be equally casual in assessing the consequences of its drone attacks.  When in February its spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, was asked about civilian deaths after a drone strike on a wedding party in Yemen, he directed the reporter to the Yemeni government. But he added: “There were some pretty bad folks that were killed in that operation.” Pretty bad folks?

In May last year, Mr Obama promised reforms to “rein in” the use of drones and transfer more operating responsibility from the CIA to the Pentagon.  According to Mr Zenko, almost none have been enacted.

Isn’t it possible that five years from now, say, Americans will again be throwing their hands up in horror reading a new Senate report into new atrocities carried out in their name?  But this time they will have been committed not in darkened dungeons but from the skies. It will be about the destruction and death wreaked by drones with no real accountability.  And among those in the dock will be the CIA again.

But so too will be St Dianne, who as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee since early 2009 has been unstinting in her support of the programme. As well as the Pentagon and, yes, Mr Obama.