The Disturbing Truth Behind U.S. Drone Assassinations That the Government Tried to Keep Secret
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The following is an excerpt from the new book The Assassination Complex by Jeremy Scahill & The Intercept Staff (Simon & Schuster, 2016):
From his first days as commander in chief, the drone has been President Barack Obama’s weapon of choice, used by the military and the CIA to hunt down and kill the people his administration has deemed—through secretive processes, without indictment or trial—deserving of execution. There has been intense focus on the technology of remote killing, but that often serves as a surrogate for what should be a broader examination of the state’s power over life and death.
Drones are a tool, not a policy. The policy is assassination. While every president since Gerald Ford has upheld an executive order banning assassinations by U.S. personnel, Congress has avoided legislating the issue or even defining the word “assassination.” This has allowed proponents of the drone wars to rebrand assassinations with more palatable characterizations, such as the term du jour, “targeted killings.”
When the Obama administration has discussed drone strikes publicly, it 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. Those terms, however, appear to have been bluntly redefined to bear almost no resemblance to their commonly understood meanings.
The first drone strike outside of a declared war zone was conducted in 2002, yet it was not until May 2013 that the White House released a set of standards and procedures for conducting such strikes. Those guidelines offered little specificity, asserting that the United States would conduct a lethal strike outside an “area of active hostilities” only if a target represents a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” without providing any sense of the internal process used to determine whether a suspect should be killed without being indicted or tried. The implicit message on drone strikes from the Obama administration has been Trust, but don’t verify.
On October 15, 2015, The Intercept published a cache of secret slides that provide a window into the inner workings of the U.S. military’s kill/capture operations during a key period in the evolution of the drone wars: between 2011 and 2013. The documents, which also outline the internal views of special operations forces on the shortcomings and flaws of the drone program, were provided by a source within the intelligence community who worked on the types of operations and programs described in the slides. We granted the source’s request for anonymity because the materials are classified and because the U.S. government has engaged in aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers. We will refer to this person simply as “the source.”
The source said he decided to disclose these documents 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, was, from the very first instance, wrong.
“We’re allowing this to happen. And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it.”
Among the key revelations uncovered by The Intercept are the following.
How the President Authorizes Targets for Assassination
It has been widely reported that President Obama directly approves high-value targets for inclusion on the kill list. The secret ISR study provides new insight into the kill chain, including a detailed chart stretching from electronic and human intelligence gathering all the way to the president’s desk. In the same month the ISR study was circulated, May 2013, Obama signed the policy guidance on the use of force in counterterrorism operations overseas. A senior administration official, who declined to comment on the classified documents, admitted that “those guidelines remain in effect today.”
U.S. intelligence personnel collect information on potential targets drawn from government watchlists and the work of intelligence, military, and law enforcement agencies. At the time of the ISR study, when someone was destined for the kill list, intelligence analysts created a portrait of the suspect and the threat that person posed, pulling it together “in a condensed format known as a ‘baseball card.’” That information was then bundled with operational information in a “target information folder” to be “staffed up to higher echelons” for action. On average, one slide indicates, it took fifty-eight days for the president to sign off on a target. At that point U.S. forces had sixty days to carry out the strike. The documents include two case studies that are partially based on information detailed on baseball cards.
The system for creating baseball cards and targeting packages, according to the source, depends largely on intelligence intercepts and a multilayered system of fallible, human interpretation. “It isn’t a surefire method,” he said. “You’re relying on the fact that you do have all these very powerful machines, capable of collecting extraordinary amounts of data and information,” which can lead personnel involved in targeted killings to believe they have “godlike powers.”
Assassinations Depend on Unreliable Intelligence and Disrupt Intelligence Gathering
In undeclared war zones the U.S. military has become overly reliant on signals intelligence, or SIGINT, to identify and ultimately hunt down and kill people. The documents acknowledge that using metadata from phones and computers, as well as communications intercepts, is an inferior method of finding and finishing targeted people. They describe SIGINT capabilities on these unconventional battlefields as “poor” and “limited.” Yet such collection, much of it provided by foreign partners, accounted for more than half the intelligence used to track potential kills in Yemen and Somalia.
The source described how members of the special operations community view the people being hunted by the United States for possible death by drone strike: “They have no rights. They have no dignity. They have no humanity to themselves. They’re just a ‘selector’ to an analyst. You eventually get to a point in the target’s life cycle that you are following them, you don’t even refer to them by their actual name.” This practice, he said, contributes to “dehumanizing the people before you’ve even encountered the moral question ‘Is this a legitimate kill or not?’”
Strikes Often Kill Many More Than the Intended Target
The White House and Pentagon boast that the targeted killing program is precise and that numbers of civilian deaths are minimal. However, documents detailing a special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan, Operation Haymaker, show that between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes killed more than two hundred people. Of those, only thirty-five were the intended targets. During one four-and-a-half-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalia, where the United States has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm the people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be much worse.
“Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association,” the source said. “[When] a drone strike kills more than one person, there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate. . . . So it’s a phenomenal gamble.”
The Military Labels Unknown People it Kills “Enemies Killed in Action”
The documents show that the military designated people it killed in targeted strikes as EKIA, “enemy killed in action,” even if they were not the intended targets of the strike. Unless evidence posthumously emerged to prove the males killed were not terrorists or “unlawful enemy combatants,” EKIA remained their designation, according to the source. That process, he said, “is insane. But we’ve made ourselves comfortable with that. The intelligence community, JSOC, the CIA, and everybody that helps support and prop up these programs, they’re comfortable with that idea.” The source described official U.S. government statements minimizing the number of civilian casualties inflicted by drone strikes as “exaggerating at best, if not outright lies.”
From The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program by Jeremy Scahill. Copyright © 2016 by First Look Media Works, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.