A cache of classified documents has revealed the inner workings of US drone operations in Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan, including the mechanism of targeting suspects slated for assassination.
The documents, slides, visuals and analysis have been posted by The Intercept on Thursday as “The Drone Papers.” The cache contains two sets of slides detailing the US military’s drone operations in Somalia and Yemen between 2011 and 2013, by the secret Task Force 48-4.
The documents were provided to The Intercept by a source within the US intelligence community who wished to remain anonymous because of the government’s aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers. He says the American public has the right to know about the process by which people are placed on kill lists and assassinated on orders from US government officials.
After analyzing the leaked documents for months, the eight-part investigation was then published by the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and his colleagues. It explores the ways drones – which “have been President Barack Obama’s weapon of choice, used by the military and the CIA” – have been used in both declared and undeclared war zones.
Saying that “there has been intense focus on the technology of remote killing” among top US officials, the report suggests fatal drone attacks targeting people were launched from bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in Somalia and Yemen – although “undeclared war zones… strikes [there] were justified under tighter restrictions.”
With the first drone strike outside of a declared war zone conducted more than 12 years ago, “it was not until May 2013 that the White House released a set of standards and procedures for conducting such strikes,” the Intercept said. Despite public assurances that such strikes are “more precise” than operations on the ground, the investigation questions the side death toll of such strikes.
“It’s stunning the number of instances when selectors are misattributed to certain people. And it isn’t until several months or years later that you all of a sudden realize that the entire time you thought you were going after this really hot target, you wind up realizing it was his mother’s phone the whole time,” the Intercept cited its source as saying, suggesting that drone killings “depend on unreliable intelligence.”
“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 whistleblower told The Intercept.
Data is most often gathered “from phone and computer communications intercepts,” with cell phones and emails being “the primary tools used by the military to find, fix, and finish its targets.” According to the whistleblower, such methods “require an enormous amount of faith in the technology that you’re using.”
“Faulty intelligence has led to the killing of innocent people, including US citizens, in drone strikes,” the report says.
The strikes also allegedly hurt intelligence gathering. Saying that US drone operations have “a heavy tilt toward lethal strikes,” only one of four targets were captured in the Horn of Africa, with other targets having been eliminated instead. “Kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available,” the report says.
“They also highlight the futility of the war in Afghanistan by showing how the US has poured vast resources into killing local insurgents,” it added.
Additional documents on drone operations in Afghanistan show that the US government has categorized unidentified people killed in drone strikes as enemies, even if they were not the intended targets, thus masking the true extent of civilian casualties.
Most of the assassinations are based on signals intelligence (SIGINT), from telephone metadata to signal intercepts. Faulty intelligence, often provided by local sources, is the primary cause of civilian casualties, says the whistleblower.
The special operations community dehumanizes the people targeted for drone strikes, making it easier to avoid asking moral questions, the source says. “They have no rights. They have no dignity. They have no humanity to themselves. They’re just a ‘selector’ to an analyst.”
Documents describing Operation Haymaker, a special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan, show that US airstrikes killed over 200 people between January 2012 and February 2013, but only 35 were the intended targets. The military designated everyone killed in the strikes as “enemy killed in action (EKIA),” unless evidence later emerged specifically showing the male victims were not terrorists.
“Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association,” the whistleblower said.
Questioning the vague definition of targets given by the White House, with its policy saying that lethal force will be launched only against those who pose a “continuing, imminent threat to US persons,” the documents suggest there a lack of a “specific criterion” to whether a chosen target may present such threat.
“While such a rationale may make sense in the context of a declared war in which US personnel are on the ground in large numbers, such as in Afghanistan, that standard is so vague as to be virtually meaningless in countries like Yemen and Somalia, where very few US personnel operate,” the Intercept wrote.
“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,” the report on the secret documents concluded.
Following the publication, Amnesty International NGO focusing on human rights called for “an immediate independent inquiry into the Obama administration’s drone strikes overseas” to be launched by the Congress.
“These documents raise serious concerns about whether the USA has systematically violated international law, including by classifying unidentified people as ‘combatants’ to justify their killings,” Naureen Shah, director of Security with Human Rights at Amnesty International USA said.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also condemned the alleged shortcomings of the US military program revealed by the Intercept, saying that “the Obama administration’s lethal program desperately needs transparency and accountability because it is undermining the right to life and national security.” It is now trying “to uncover more about who the government has killed and why,” it added.
The United States has carried out many targeted assassinations in Yemen since the drone program was ramped up by the Obama Administration, and has often resulted in public backlash. In December 2013, 12 partygoers were killed and 15 others were wounded in a drone strike at a Wedding reception instead of an Al Qaeda convoy, the intended target. In April 2014, at least three civilians were killed in a series of drone strikes as well as 30 to 55 Al Qaeda militants. In February 2015, a 12-year-old boy was killed in a drone strike due to being listed as a ‘militant.’ He had previously lost his father and brother in a similar attack.
Drone carried out by the US military have killed at least 424 people since assassinations began in that country, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in January. Of those deaths, at least 65 were civilians.