Leaking the Drone War

A courageous new whistleblower has revealed the terrible extent of President Obama's drone program.

"Drone Shadow" installation in England. James Bridle

For fourteen years, America has relied on drone warfare as a key method for carrying out the so-called “war on terror.” But aside from occasional news stories about another botched bombing that killed civilians instead of the intended targets, little information has ever been made available about the inner workings of the drone warfare program.

Until now.

Last week, the Intercept website published a series of articles titled “The Drone Papers,” based on a trove of leaked documents from an unnamed whistleblower who is reportedly a member of the intelligence community and worked on the programs described in the files. As journalist Jeremy Scahill, one of the lead authors, explained:

The series is intended to serve as a long-overdue public examination of the methods and outcomes of America’s assassination program . . .

The public has a right to see these documents not only to engage in an informed debate about the future of US wars, both overt and covert, but also to understand the circumstances under which the US government arrogates to itself the right to sentence individuals to death without the established checks and balances of arrest, trial, and appeal.

While drone warfare was used under George W. Bush, it has arguably become the chief weapon of the “war on terror” under Barack Obama — used to hunt down and kill those deemed to be terrorist threats around the globe.

The Obama administration has long claimed that drone strikes are effective at killing terrorists who otherwise would be nearly impossible to capture and are used only when there is a near-certainty that innocent civilians will not be harmed. Yet as Scahill writes in the lead article, “The Assassination Complex,” the White House failed to release any standards and procedures governing the use of drone strikes for the first decade of their use.

The vague guidelines that finally were released in May 2013 — more than halfway through Obama’s presidency — provided a rationale for, essentially, extrajudicial assassinations outside of “an area of active hostilities” if a target presented a “continuing, imminent threat to US persons.” But what process is used to determine whether someone is a “continuing, imminent threat” has never been publicly detailed. Instead, notes Scahill, “The implicit message on drone strikes from the Obama administration has been one of trust, but don’t verify.”

The Documents

The documents obtained by the Intercept — which focus on the US drone program between 2011 and 2013 — show that the Obama administration’s claims about drone warfare are a fabrication.

One set of briefing slides to which the Intercept gained access included an assessment of “Operation Haymaker,” an effort to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan from January 2012 to February 2013. According to the documents, an astonishing 90 percent of those killed weren’t intended targets. The US military killed thirty-five of its direct intended targets with air strikes, but 219 other individuals died in the attacks — and all were labeled “enemy killed in action.”

Additionally, “The Drone Papers” show that at one point in 2012, Obama approved twenty people for assassination in Yemen and Somalia — yet more than two hundred were killed by drones in those countries that year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

In other words, the reality is a far cry from the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, who said in 2013: “The only people that we fire a drone at are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest level after a great deal of vetting that takes a long period of time. We don’t just fire a drone at somebody and think they’re a terrorist.”

The Intercept reports suggest that because of a preference for assassination rather than capture and a reliance on certain types of intelligence, like that obtained from cell phones, drones are in fact frequently used against those that the US assumes to be terrorists, but who aren’t. As the unnamed source for the leaked documents told the Intercept:

The military is easily capable of adapting to change, but they don’t like to stop anything they feel is making their lives easier, or is to their benefit. And this certainly is, in their eyes, a very quick, clean way of doing things. It’s a very slick, efficient way to conduct the war, without having to have the massive ground invasion mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But at this point, they have become so addicted to this machine, to this way of doing business, that it seems like it’s going to become harder and harder to pull them away from it the longer they’re allowed to continue operating in this way.

“The Drone Papers” also show how President Obama chooses and authorizes those who are targets for drone strikes. Pulling together information from terrorist watch lists and the intelligence and military communities, analysts reportedly create a dossier of a potential target known as a “baseball card.” But as Scahill writes:

The system for creating baseball cards and targeting packages, according to the source, depends largely on intelligence intercepts and a multi-layered system of fallible, human interpretation. “It isn’t a surefire method,” [the source] said. “You’re relying on the fact that you do have all these very powerful machines, capable of collecting extraordinary amounts of data and information,” which can lead personnel involved in targeted killings to believe they have “godlike powers.”

In another article titled “The Kill Chain,” Cora Currier notes that for a drone strike to be approved, in theory, a target must not only be a member of al-Qaeda or an associated group, but must be determined to present a significant, imminent threat to the US and cannot be captured.

Once a target is approved for a strike, there is a sixty-day window in which to carry out the strike — an odd timeline for a supposedly “imminent” threat. “If you have approval over a months-long period, that sends the signal of a presumption that someone is always targetable, regardless of whether they are actually participating in hostilities,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, told the Intercept.

Supposedly, a strike is only allowed when there is “near certainty” that civilians will not be injured or killed. The number of non-targets acknowledged to be killed clearly contradicts that — if the US counted these victims as civilians. But those killed by drone strikes who weren’t the intended targets are classified as enemy combatants — unless and until evidence emerges to prove otherwise.

Currier’s report adds: “The [2013 Pentagon] study does not contain an overall count of strikes or deaths, but it does note that ‘relatively few high-level terrorists meet criteria for targeting’ and states that at the end of June 2012, there were sixteen authorized targets in Yemen and only four in Somalia.”

Yet Currier points out that in 2011 and 2012, there were “at least fifty-four US drone strikes and other attacks reported in Yemen, killing a minimum of 293 people, including 55 civilians, according to figures compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In Somalia, there were at least three attacks, resulting in the deaths of at minimum six people.”

She concludes that “there were multiple well-reported, high-profile incidents in which reported JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] strikes killed the wrong people” during the period of the study. These include the killing of sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and his two cousins in a drone strike just two weeks after his father, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a similar strike.

As the anonymous source told the Intercept:

This outrageous explosion of watch-listing — 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. We’re allowing this to happen. And by “we,” I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it.

The Targets

Despite the perception that drone strikes are effective and efficient, another Intercept report focuses on Pentagon documents that detail “critical shortfalls” in both the technology and intelligence which the US uses for its drone warfare.

Particularly in Yemen and Somalia, drones that target remote areas can spend up to half of their time in the air in transit, as opposed to conducting surveillance — leading to lapses in surveillance before a strike, which increases the chances of “unintended” casualties.

Meanwhile, as Currier and Peter Maass write, relying on intelligence from local sources is a dubious proposition:

[S]ecurity forces in host nations like Yemen and Somalia are profoundly unreliable and have been linked to a wide variety of abuses, including the torture of prisoners.

A report last year by retired Gen. John Abizaid and former Defense Department official Rosa Brooks noted that the “enormous uncertainties” of drone warfare are “multiplied further when the United States relies on intelligence and other targeting information provided by a host nation government: How can we be sure we are not being drawn into a civil war or being used to target the domestic political enemies of the host state leadership?”

“The Drone Papers” show that the US relies overwhelmingly on monitoring electronic communications like cell phones to discover and ultimately locate targets for drone attack. The target is then confirmed, often using video from surveillance aircraft “to build near-certainty via identification of distinguishing physical characteristics.”

The problem, as Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency from July 2012 to August 2014, told the Intercept, is that “SIGINT [Signals intelligence from electronic sources like computers and cell phones] is an easy system to fool, and that’s why it has to be validated by other INTs [intelligence sources] — like HUMINT [human intelligence]. You have to ensure that the person is actually there at that location, because what you really intercepted was the phone.”

This is another reason why drone strikes inevitably produce civilian casualties. Joe Pace, an attorney for the legal charity Reprieve, represents Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni man whose nephew and brother-in-law were killed in a 2012 drone attack on the village of Khashamir. Explaining the way the Obama administration lied to the public about drone warfare, Pace told Common Dreams, “We were told that the drone program was ‘safe’ and ‘effective. When we raised concerns with the administration that it was anything but, we were told, ‘Trust us.’”

These leaked reports confirming the staggering inaccuracy of the US drone program may be news to the American people who have been lied to by this administration, but there’s nothing revelatory for [Jaber] or the millions who live under constant threat of US drone strikes. He and countless others have witnessed their loved ones literally blown to pieces based on a toxic combination of garbage intelligence and US indifference to foreign lives.

As the anonymous source explained to the Intercept:

It’s stunning the number of instances when I’ve come across intelligence that was faulty, when sources of information used to finish targets were misattributed to people. And it isn’t until several months or years later that you realize that the entire time you thought you were going after this target, it was his mother’s phone the whole time. Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association — it’s a phenomenal gamble.

The Public

With Obama’s announcement last week that he is halting troop withdrawals from Afghanistan after the Taliban’s capture of the city of Kunduz, thousands of US troops will be kept in the country through the end of Obama’s term in 2017 — indefinitely extending the American role in a war that has already lasted the better part of fourteen years. It’s a sure bet that the Obama administration will continue to escalate the drone war, seeing it as an easy way to prosecute the war on terror around the globe without having to put more American boots on the ground.

That’s why the whistleblower who leaked the drone war documents — and the team at the Intercept who have reported on them — should be applauded for giving us insight into the actual workings of the US military machine and the horror and death it causes around the globe.

It will be up to the public in the coming weeks and months to demand that the source of “The Drone Papers” is not targeted by the government like Chelsea Manning, the soldier who leaked the “Collateral Murder” and WikiLeaks documents and is now serving a thirty-five-year prison sentence in a military brig, and Edward Snowden, the contractor who leaked NSA documents and was forced to flee to avoid persecution.

As Daniel Ellsberg, targeted by the US government after leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, told the Guardian about the source of the drone leaks:

I hope they stay anonymous. Nothing at all would be gained by their suffering the fate of exile like Snowden, or isolation or imprisonment like Chelsea. Or the life sentences that I faced, or that others have faced.

It comes down to this. Hundreds could have done what I did, literally. And should have. Hundreds of people could and should have done what Edward Snowden did. And hundreds of people could and should have done what Chelsea Manning did. They did the right thing. The others were wrong to keep those secrets.

As whistleblower Edward Snowden wrote on Twitter following the release of “The Drone Papers”: “In an astonishing act of civil courage, one American just shattered an unspeakable lie. When we look back on today, we will find the most important national security story of the year.”