/ Cory Doctorow / 6 am Fri, Oct 16 2015
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  • Snowden for drones: The Intercept's expose on US drone attacks, revealed by a new leaker

    Snowden for drones: The Intercept's expose on US drone attacks, revealed by a new leaker

    The Drone Papers is The Intercept's collection of eight blockbuster articles analyzing a leaked 2013 Pentagon study that evaluated the US drone assassination campaigns in Yemen and Somalia. The documents come from a US intelligence source who said, "This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong."


    The Obama presidency has been the assassination presidency, in which America's longstanding policy of not using assassination as a tactic has been effective repealed, cloaked in the misleading term "targeted killing."

    "Targeted killing" is a particularly galling euphemism. According to the Pentagon's own figures, "almost 9 out of 10 people killed in these strikes were not the intended targets." But these deaths are usually classified as "enemy killed in action" (EKIA), with little or no evidence to support the idea that the dead were anything but innocent bystanders.

    Over a five-month period, U.S. forces used drones and other aircraft to kill 155 people in northeastern Afghanistan. They achieved 19 jackpots. Along the way, they killed at least 136 other people, all of whom were classified as EKIA, or enemies killed in action.

    Note the “%” column. It is the number of jackpots (JPs) divided by the number of operations. A 70 percent success rate. But it ignores well over a hundred other people killed along the way.

    This means that almost 9 out of 10 people killed in these strikes were not the intended targets.

    Drones are not the "surgical" killing tool they're billed as. Piloted aircraft kill far fewer bystanders than drones, possibly due to "the limited point of view of the drone’s camera" called "soda straw effect."

    But this is exacerbated by the intelligence failures in the drone assassination program. Since around 2011, the CIA has run the US drone program, thanks to its victory in a vicious, years-long turf-war with the Pentagon:

    As Yemen’s status began to rise to the top of U.S. counterterrorism priorities, the long-simmering turf war between the Pentagon and the CIA flared up. In 2011, the CIA began using a newly constructed drone base in Saudi Arabia, giving it easier access to targets in Yemen than the military’s bases in East Africa. There were parallel, and competing, target lists and infighting over who should run the drone war in Yemen. At times, this drama played out on the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post — with leaks coming from both sides in an effort to influence policy. The CIA’s backers in Congress argued that the agency showed more “patience and discretion” in its drone strikes, while some prominent military advocates portrayed the agency as ill-equipped to conduct military-style operations and less accountable to Congress.

    The CIA is traditionally a HUMINT (human intelligence) agency, in the business of sending out operatives with putty noses and Lawrence of Arabia robes to figure out what was going on on the ground. But its drone program is run by SIGINT (signals intelligence), which is characterized as an inferior kind of intelligence even by the drone program's overseers.

    The documents state bluntly that SIGINT is an inferior form of intelligence. Yet signals accounted for more than half the intelligence collected on targets, with much of it coming from foreign partners. The rest originated with human intelligence, primarily obtained by the CIA. “These sources,” the study notes, “are neither as timely nor as focused as tactical intelligence” from interrogations or seized materials.

    Making matters worse, the documents refer to “poor” and “limited” capabilities for collecting SIGINT, implying a double bind in which kill operations were reliant on sparse amounts of inferior intelligence.

    The disparity with other areas of operation was stark, as a chart contrasting cell data makes clear: In Afghanistan there were 8,900 cell data reports each month, versus 50 for Yemen and 160 for Somalia. Despite that, another chart shows SIGINT comprised more than half the data sources that went into developing targets in Somalia and Yemen in 2012.

    The assassination program actually interferes with HUMINT, since dead targets can't be interrogated, meaning that the lather-rinse-repeat of drone killings makes them less and less accurate over time:

    Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an overreliance on signals intelligence, an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and — due to a preference for assassination rather than capture — an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects. They also highlight the futility of the war in Afghanistan by showing how the U.S. has poured vast resources into killing local insurgents, in the process exacerbating the very threat the U.S. is seeking to confront.

    But that hasn't stopped the drone killings. Year after year, the missions mount, and so do the killings, despite the misleading use of "kill/capture" to describe the program:

    When Obama took office, there had been only one U.S. drone strike in Yemen — in November 2002. By 2012, there was a drone strike reported in Yemen every six days. As of August 2015, more than 490 people had been killed in drone strikes in Yemen alone.

    “The drone campaign right now really is only about killing. When you hear the phrase ‘capture/kill,’ capture is actuallhg
    The Americans considered the consequences of taking Munib’s life, including media coverage, possible political fallout, and potential “population blowback.” In all three categories, it was determined that negative repercussions were “unlikely,” and that Munib’s death would “decrease attacks on” coalition and Afghan forces. Going through with the operation, the request asserted, would require a signals intelligence “correlation,” followed by a full motion video lock, visual identification within 24 hours of the strike, and a “low” probability of collateral damage. Two maps were featured in the document intended to seal Munib’s fate, one of which included coordinates of his last known location. In the bottom right hand corner of the document was a bar, numbered one to 10, and fading in color from red to green. It was titled “Confidence Level.” A red triangle sat between the numbers nine and 10.

    The Drone Papers are technical and difficult, but they're important, maybe the most important thing you'll read today. The Intercept has done outstanding work in figuring out what they mean and expressing it in terms that laypeople can understand.

    THE DRONE PAPERS [The Intercept]

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