Whistle-blower Leaks Disturbing Details of the U.S.’s Drone Wars

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Photo: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA

The Intercept — two of whose editors, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, were the first to bring Edward Snowden’s disclosures to public attention — has a new whistle-blower. (Poitras’s 2014 documentary about Snowden, Citizenfour, reveals the existence of a second leaker, though the Intercept declined to say whether this is the same person.) The anonymous source, identified as a member of the intelligence community, has provided the site with a cache of secret documents related to the United States’ drone program in the Middle East and Africa.

On Thursday, the site published “The Drone Papers,” an eight-part look into how the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command go about targeting and killing people via unmanned aircraft. As the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill writes, the White House “has offered assurances that such operations are a more precise alternative to boots on the ground and are authorized only when an ‘imminent’ threat is present and there is ‘near certainty’ that the intended target will be eliminated.” However, “The Drone Papers” shows that the intelligence-gathering methods used to identify and track targets — which rely heavily on metadata collected from phone and computer communications — are often flawed:

It requires an enormous amount of faith in the technology that you’re using,” the source said. “There’s countless instances where I’ve come across intelligence that was faulty.” This, he said, is a primary factor in the killing of civilians. “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 investigation indicates that American drone strikes frequently kill civilians. (One document says that during a five-month period of an operation conducted in Afghanistan, “nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.”) Further, the military is able to obscure civilian deaths by labeling every person killed in a strike an “‘enemy killed in action’ … even if they were not the intended targets of the strike.” “The Drone Papers” also describes how the U.S.’s use of drones spread from the declared war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq to the murkier spaces of Yemen and Somalia.

It’s a very slick, efficient way to conduct the war, without having to have the massive ground invasion mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan,” said the source. “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.” Read the whole thing here.