In one of the most shocking intelligence leaks since Edward Snowden revealed himself to the world in 2013 The Intercept has published "The Drone Papers," an in-depth examination of the U.S. government's post-9/11 drone assassination program using classified information provided by a whistleblower. It's a huge exposé that pulls back the curtain hiding the machinery of drone warfare and reveals the hard calculus that goes into killing at a distance.
In "The Assassination Complex," part one of the nine-part investigation, The Intercept editor Jeremy Scahill explained the anonymous leaker's motivations for the data dump:
The source said he decided to provide these documents to The Intercept because he believes the public has a right to understand the process by which people are placed on kill lists and ultimately assassinated on orders from the highest echelons of the U.S. government. “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 source said.
Scahill added that when considered together, these top-secret documents showed this 14-year-long campaign has been hampered by "an over-reliance 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."
Scahill concludes the documents underscore the "futility" of U.S. actions in Afghanistan, ultimately enhancing "the very threat the U.S. is seeking to confront." The publication of the documents, which comes in the aftermath of a controversial bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan and President Obama's reversal of the army's withdrawal from the region, threats to undermine the entire drone apparatus that's been the linchpin of Obama's foreign policy doctrine.
The whole report is an incredibly a deep dive, and what follows are some of the key revelations.
U.S. drones have caused many collateral deaths. The Intercept reported the leaked documents show that between January of 2012 and February, 2013, American special ops drone airstrikes took in excess of 200 lives, but a mere "35 were the intended targets." In one five-month span alone, documents showed "nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets." The Intercept's source said that "anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association."
The military dubs anonymous victims of drone strikes "enemies killed in action" or EKIA. They remain EKIAs in the eyes of the U.S. unless some posthumous proof comes out proving "the males killed were not terrorists or 'unlawful enemy combatants,'" reported The Intercept. This means that innocent civilians indiscriminately killed in drone strikes are classified as combatants after the fact to make their blanket assassination legal in the eyes of government officials.
President Obama authorizes the targets, but doesn't know their details. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) sends requests for the president's authorization. He gives it, and a two month window opens to complete the kill. The strikes are supposed to occur only in environments where additional damage might be minimal, but the standards for this are vague. The Intercept noted that a CIA drone strike which killed two western hostages in January, 2015 reportedly occurred "despite 'near certainty,' after 'near continuous surveillance,' had concluded the hostages weren't at the location.
Geography matters. Drone strikes happen faster in places like Iraq than they do in locations such as Somalia. The differences are between what the U.S. had declared a war zone and locations that are treated like war zones but haven't been officially declared as such. Approvals happen faster in declared zones like Afghanistan, but bureaucracy can slow strikes in undeclared Yemen. Strikes anywhere in northern Africa are also tough because of great distances between targets and drone bases.
The secret documents are at odds with White House statements regarding targets. The Intercept notes that White House policy states "lethal force will be launched only against targets who pose a 'continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.'" The leak has revealed the standard is basically to drone-strike anyone presenting "a threat to U.S. interest or personnel."
Like the many documents made public by infamous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, The Intercept's publication presents a detailed, fascinating and shocking look at the inner workings of a great war machine.
The source for this intelligence bombshell, whom Wired called a "second Snowden" remains anonymous for the moment. Given the White House's hard line against Snowden, he's surely looking over his shoulder and wondering how long his anonymity can last.
Photos by United States Air Force