The Intercept — a website launched by First Look Media with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill in the wake of the Snowden revelations last year — was founded to promote official transparency and accountability. This fall, it scored maybe its biggest scoop since then: a cache of secret documents that expose the operations of the Obama administration’s drone wars.
In a dramatic expansion of a program first launched under the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration has been conducting airstrikes on alleged terrorists in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond. It’s part of a bid to run up the body count in the “war on terror” without committing ground troops or attracting media scrutiny.
These strikes, however, have proven controversial, both for their rising (if opaque) civilian toll and for enshrining a policy of killing people — with seemingly little oversight — in countries with whom the U.S. is not at war. “Drones are a tool,” writes Scahill. “The policy is assassination.”
Details about the drone war and reliable death tolls are difficult to come across. But The Intercept was able to sift through some detailed classified documents provided by an anonymous source who was reportedly close to the program. The source revealed the documents on the grounds that the public has the right to “understand the process by which people are placed on kill lists.”
The Intercept’s extensive series on The Drone Papers deserves to be read in full. But here are five main takeaways and excerpts from the series.
- The Obama administration absolutely loves drones.
Targeted assassination is “the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” said Dennis Blair, Obama’s former director of national intelligence, to the New York Times.
The Obama administration has been merciless in its use of drones. Glenn Carle, a former senior CIA officer, told The Intercept, “If there are people who we, in our best efforts, assess to be trying to kill us, we can make their life as short as possible. And we do it.”
The numbers are stark, particularly in the early years of the Obama administration. When Obama took office, for instance, only one U.S. drone strike had occurred in Yemen. By 2012, there was a drone strike reported every six days. And from 2011 to 2012, drone strikes in Afghanistan increased by 72 percent.
Efforts to scale up drone technology have been heavily funded. The Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force, an entity of the Department of Defense, was established in 2008 to study the intelligence and surveillance needs of war fighters. By 2012 it was a multibillion dollar advocacy department working to purchase new surveillance technologies. The task force claimed it would help increase the number of successful capture operations, though the drone war is much more reputed for killing targets than capturing them.
- The chain of command for drone strikes leads back to the president.
“Ultimately I’m responsible for the process,” Obama conceded back in 2012. Each target — though not each individual strike — is approved by him. Before then, the approval process goes through a chain of command, dubbed the kill chain, consisting of authority figures across a range of offices.
According to the Intercept, there are two parts to the process of approving an attack: Step one, “Developing a target to Authorization of a target,’” and step two, “Authorizing to Actioning.”
Members of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) work with intelligence agencies to build a profile for the target — usually an individual person. This profile consists of information about an individual’s pattern of life, characteristics, location, and affiliation with other people of interest. From JSOC, the case works its way to the command in charge of the region and then to the joint chiefs of staff, and eventually to the secretary of defense. The target is then examined by a small group of advisers known as the Principals Committee of the National Security Council and their seconds in command, the Deputies Committee. Then, the president. Once the target is approved, JSOC moves to step two and proceeds to take the necessary measures to conduct strikes.
While some people targeted for assassination are specific and evaluated over a longer period of time, other strikes may be conducted on otherwise unknown targets identified simply on account of their behavior. These are known as signature strikes, and they’re extremely controversial.
In Yemen, for example, the Obama administration approved strikes on people it couldn’t even identify, calling the hits “TADS” — or “terror attack disruption strikes.” The CIA has also conducted airstrikes in Pakistan with more lax requirements for the president’s direct approval before launching. So lax, in fact, that the president waved the requirement for targets to present an “imminent” threat.
- The government relies heavily on insufficient intelligence when identifying targets.
The military uses a specific method when targeting individuals and conducting airstrikes known as “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze” — or as the military refers to it, F3EA. The steps to find, fix, and finish are used to locate and order an airstrike on a target. “Exploit and analyze” are the next steps and are meant to gather intelligence and materials that provide leads for the cycle to start over.
The implementation of steps “exploit and analyze,” however, is rare, and this creates intelligence dead ends. Relying purely on deadly strikes leaves intelligence agencies without any concrete information about targets and suspects. As a result, the U.S. heavily relies on foreign intelligence and information provided by host nations. There’s no one to capture suspects, ask questions, search through remains, or check surviving electronics.
Information sharing with foreign intelligence may be subject to inconsistencies or inaccuracies and may falsely put the U.S. and European governments on high alert. Ironically, technology developed for “intelligence” is then barely used for that purpose at all. Instead of developing more precise targets and locations based on evidence, airstrikes are almost fired blind.
In addition, intelligence committees and the U.S. military depend on monitoring electronic forms of communication as a way of discovering and identifying targets. SIGINT, or Signal Intelligence — information gathered from cell phones or SIM cards, among other sources — has proven to be an inferior form of intelligence, yet is still used as the basis for kill operations.
- Accurate numbers for civilian deaths are difficult to find because the government labels nearly all casualties “enemies killed in action.”
In May 2013, the White House released a set of rules for drone strikes. The requirements for a strike to occur are vague, but they do stipulate that a strike can only be conducted if there is “near certainty that the terrorist target is present” and that there is “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”
The documents provided to The Intercept, however, describe the rules a little differently.
It was found that there must be a “low CDE,” or collateral damage environment, implying that a low estimate of innocent civilian deaths or injuries is preferred. But the “near certainty” standard is applied only to targets, not civilians. Therefore, the raw number of civilian deaths that result from these strikes is often concealed by identifying the majority of people killed as EKIA — enemies killed in action — even if the victims are never actually identified.
Intended targets that are located and successfully attacked, on the other hand, are called “jackpots.” But they constitute just a tiny minority of the people killed.
Over a five-month period in northeastern Afghanistan, for example, strikes killed 155 people. Operators achieved 19 jackpots and labeled the other 136 as EKIA. And during Haymaker — a mission to destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda forces hidden in the Hindu Kush along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan — airstrikes killed 219 people over a 14-month period from 2012 to 2013. These strikes resulted in only 35 jackpots.
- The policy isn’t just killing terrorists. It’s creating them.
“The drone campaign right now really is only about killing,” Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told The Intercept. “When you hear the phrase ‘capture/kill,’ capture is actually a misnomer. … We don’t capture people anymore.” He adds, “Our entire Middle East policy seems to be based on firing drones.”
Our counterterrorism efforts, in other words, have been reduced to showering remote communities with missiles — which sounds a lot like fighting terrorism with terrorism. We’re killing people almost indiscriminately and providing otherwise non-threatening members of society a reason to fight back. You cannot fight terrorism with terrorism, as four former drone pilots recently warned in the wake of the Paris attacks. They suggested that ISIS is using the program as a recruiting tool.
And what about in the heartland of the drone program? According to a report from the U.S. Institute for Peace on the Hindu Kush valley, “The al Qaeda presence there now is larger than when U.S. counterterrorism forces arrived in 2002.”