Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeffrey S. Viano / U.S. Navy / Getty Images

New leak of US intelligence highlights contours of drone program

Documents obtained by The Intercept purport to show how unintended kills, failures are a common feature of drone use

trove of classified U.S. intelligence documents obtained by The Intercept and published on Thursday shed light on the secretive drone program that has become a staple of United States counterterrorism policy since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Among the revelations to emerge from the papers, provided to The Intercept by an anonymous whistleblower in the U.S. intelligence community, are that drone strikes have often been based on thin intelligence, kill a large number of unintended people and refer to people inadvertently killed by strikes as “enemies killed in action” (EKIA), even when their identities were unknown.

While the contours of the drone program covered by the leaks have been reported, the newly released documents — collectively referred to by The Intercept as the Drone Papers — show a hitherto unseen level of detail about the policy from the U.S. intelligence community.

“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,” said The Intercept’s source, on why he decided to leak the documents.

“Baseball cards” refers to how intelligence, military and law enforcement allegedly grouped information about a suspect who would be potentially targeted by a U.S. drone strike.

The documents describe aspects of the U.S. drone program under Barack Obama’s administration from 2011 to 2013, from its hot spots in U.S. war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq to U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia.

George W. Bush’s administration began employing drone strikes after 9/11, and their use was heavily ramped up by Obama, who preferred the purportedly surgical nature of drone strikes against groups fighting the U.S. to what his administration thought were costly ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s never considered: Is what we’re doing going to ensure the safety of our moral integrity? Of not just our moral integrity, but the lives and humanity of the people that are going to have to live with this the most?" the Intercept's source said. 

The leaked documents include one purported slide of an internal Pentagon assessment saying that in five months in Afghanistan, nearly 90 percent of those killed by U.S. airstrikes were not the intended targets.

The document refers to intended targets killed by U.S. strikes as “jackpots” and those who are inadvertently killed as EKIA.

The documents do not suggest that EKIA are necessarily civilians, but it appears to show a process by which unintended targets have nonetheless been referred to wholesale as enemies. The high rates of unintended targets being hit was, according to the leaks, partly a result of shallow intelligence.

The Intercept’s source said that U.S. drone attacks have been extremely reliant on signal intelligence, or what intelligence agencies call sigint, which relies on technological sourcing from communication intercepts, in the absence of on-the-ground human intelligence, or what is referred to as humint.

“It requires an enormous amount of faith in the technology that you’re using,” the source told The Intercept. “There’s countless instances where I’ve come across intelligence that was faulty.”

The Obama administration did not publicly acknowledge the use of the long-reported U.S. drone program until 2013, when the president set out to defend it in a speech at the National Defense University.

“America does not take strikes to punish individuals. We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” Obama said at the time. “And before any strike is taken, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”

Rather than a narrowly tailored, accountable program that primarily kills “terrorists,” the leaked documents reveal a much more broadly conceived program, subject to a Byzantine and bureaucratic system among competing government agencies that has ended up killing many people unintentionally.

But one U.S official told BuzzFeed in an email that the documents in question showed U.S. policy before the president gave his speech and that the documents do not reflect current practice. “It’s clear that these materials are dated (May 2013 appears to be the most recent) and offer only a very narrow snapshot of these operations,” the official wrote.

But civil liberty groups pounced on the revelations, saying they demonstrated a lack of accountability and transparency in national security decisions.

“These eye-opening disclosures make a mockery of U.S. government claims that its lethal force operations are based on reliable intelligence and limited to lawful targets,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is involved in several Freedom of Information Act lawsuits about the legal basis and the targets of America’s drone program.

Naureen Shah, the director of the security with human rights program at Amnesty International USA, said, “These documents raise serious concerns about whether the USA has systematically violated international law, including by classifying unidentified people as ‘combatants’ to justify their killing.”

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