The CIA lack of accountability for civilian harm

A Yemeni boy walks near a graffiti depicting a child writing “why did you kill my family” under a U.S. drone A Yemeni boy walks near a graffiti depicting a child writing “why did you kill my family” under a U.S. drone © Mohammed Huwais

 This article is a presentation of CIVIC’s report on the lack of civil harm accountability in the CIA’s counter-terrorism operations

Two decades after 9/11, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is still regularly using the special powers granted to it by the 2001 Congressional Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to carry out the ‘Global War on Terror’. These powers continue to allow the use of lethal force in operations which, to ensure fast and flexible action, are classified as outside of the jurisdiction and oversight of Congress and the American courts.

The report “Exception(s) to the Rule(s). Civilian Harm Oversight and Accountability in the Shadow Wars” by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) highlights the costs of counter-terrorism efforts by organisations such as the CIA and the Army's special departments in the never-ending war on terror. CIVIC points out that the lack of mechanisms to ensure accountability and oversight of drone strikes and the employment of paramilitary forces results in countless civilian casualties and human rights violations. In particular, the report focuses on how the secrecy and lack of accountability lead to the extensive use of these practices in a system of 'parallel' authorities that is increasingly divorced from the rules governing and limiting civilian harm and the use of force.

The US Presidency's response to 9/11 profoundly changed the paradigm of counter-terrorism. From a transnational crime issue, counter-terrorism became a war against an enemy without geographical or temporal boundaries. The CIA, thus, became the dominant player in the use of lethal force - not without controversy given its actions during the Cold War. The systematic use of armed drones grew exponentially because of their greater precision and the non-existent danger of American casualties. Moreover, it trained and managed the local paramilitary forces. Over the years, however, the increasing number of civilian casualties has proved the actual accuracy of drones to be lower than claimed, showing how paramilitary groups have perpetuated, with training and weapons supplied by the US, multiple human rights violations, kidnappings and extrajudicial killings.

The secrecy and lack of accountability eventually left the Presidency without any justification when faced with increasing pressure from the public, Congress and organs of the executive branch itself.  On the one hand, the first reforms came in 2016 with Obama transferring some of the competencies for these programmes under the Department of Defence to prevent ‘our intelligence agencies being a paramilitary organization’. The well-established statutes and criteria of the military, unlike the CIA (whose reporting and investigation standards are absent or concealed to the public), require greater transparency and accountability for collateral damage and human rights violations in and outside of war scenarios. On the other hand, Obama increased the use of drones tenfold during his term in office. Moreover, the Trump administration did not show any particular concern for the para-militaristic behaviour of the CIA and, in fact, no longer required the authorisation of the White House to proceed with lethal operations.

As a result, it is currently impossible for Congress to verify the compliance of the operations with the norms it has approved, since, aside from the CIA and a few high-ranking figures, there are no channels for reporting or viewing civilian harm. It is, thus, difficult for government and congressional officials to understand whether the funds allocated are used only for the stated purposes or for war crimes. This system not only fails to deter collateral damage to civilians but also makes it impossible to assess the extent to which these operations undermine the legitimacy of the US worldwide by engaging the country in hostilities without congressional knowledge while jeopardizing the safety of the armed forces.

CIVIC encourages not only the withdrawal of the legal apparatuses enabling these operations but also greater scrutiny of the CIA's work. The report recommends to the executive to strengthen the authorisation systems for the use of force and to extend the responsibility of the Departments to the paramilitary corps they support to ensure the compliance under international and humanitarian law. It is also suggested to transfer all programmes under the Department of Defence, to allow an adequate evaluation and monitoring criteria as well as to avoid 'forum shopping' - i.e. the White House choosing whom to entrust a mission to based on the desired level of transparency. The Congress is advised to extinguish funds for non-transparent operations and to introduce a broader definition of civilian protection as well as a requirement for more transparent reporting. Finally, a mechanism to allow civilians to report discrepancies and damage suffered by both CIA and paramilitary bodies is encouraged.


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Author: Matteo Consiglio; Editor: Margherita Curti


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