According to Intercept, the NSA is using electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method of finding targets for lethal drone strikes. This is horrible, because the tactic is so unreliable that it results in the deaths of people who are totally innocent or completely unidentified.
According to a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA, the agency often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies. Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.
The operator, who agreed to discuss the classified programs only if he could stay anonymous, was a member of the JSOC’s High Value Targeting task force, the group that identifies, captures, and kills terror suspects in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and “elsewhere”.
Corroborating his account are top-secret NSA documents provided by Edward Snowden, and Brandon Bryant, who was a drone sensor operator with the USAF. Bryant has become an outspoken critic of the deadly operations that he was directly involved with in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
One method that the NSA uses: “geolocation” using the SIM card or handset of a suspected terrorist’s cell phone, which enables the CIA and U.S. military to perform night raids and drone strikes to kill or capture the person who has the cell phone.
Although the former JSOC drone operator insists that the technology has been used to take out terrorists and networks of people who helped carry out IED attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he also states that innocent people have “absolutely” been killed as a result of the “geolocation” tactic.
One problem, he says, is that the targets are becoming more aware of the geolocating tactic, and have tried to thwart it using as many as 16 different SIM cards with their identity in the High Value Target System. Others who are unaware of being targeted let friends and family borrow their phone, putting them at risk.
Some of the top Taliban leaders have even purposely and randomly given out SIM cards among their units to elude the trackers.
“They would do things like go to meetings, take all their SIM cards out, put them in a bag, mix them up, and everybody gets a different SIM card when they leave,” the former drone operator says. “That’s how they confuse us.”
So, even when the agency correctly identifies and targets a SIM card belonging to a terror suspect, the phone may actually be carried by someone else, who is then killed in a drone strike. According to the former drone operator, the geolocation cells at the NSA – known as Geo Cell – sometimes carry out strikes without knowing whether the person carrying the phone is actually the intended target of the drone strike.
“Once the bomb lands or a night raid happens, you know that phone is there,” he says. “But we don’t know who’s behind it, who’s holding it. It’s of course assumed that the phone belongs to a human being who is nefarious and considered an ‘unlawful enemy combatant.’ This is where it gets very shady.”
He also says that he personally took part in drone strikes where the identity of the target was known, but other unidentified people nearby were also killed.
“They might have been terrorists,” he says. “Or they could have been family members who have nothing to do with the target’s activities.”
He has come to believe that the whole program is basically “death by unreliable metadata”, since the NSA claims to not be collecting the actual content of the calls (which is not entirely true – new revelations have revealed that the NSA does, in fact, listen to the actual content of the calls in some cases).
“People get hung up that there’s a targeted list of people,” he says. “It’s really like we’re targeting a cell phone. We’re not going after people – we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.”
The Obama administration has said countless times now that the operations kill terrorists with the “utmost precision”.
In his speech at the National Defense University last May, President Obama declared that “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.” He added that, “by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”
But the opposite is true: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks drone strikes, estimates that at least 273 civilians in Pakistan, Yeme, and Somalia have been killed by drone strikes under the Obama administration. A recent study conducted by a U.S. Military advisor found that in just one year in Afghanistan, drones were 10 times more likely to cause civilian casualties than conventional aircraft.
The NSA is not very happy about journalists writing about their Geo Cell program, and Caitlin Hayden (NSC spokesperson) has refused to speak to the press about “the type of operational detail that, in our view, should not be published.”
In describing the drone strike policy, she refused to say whether they are ever ordered without using human intelligence. She emphasized that “our assessments are not based on a single piece of information. We gather and scrutinize information from a variety of sources and methods before we draw conclusions.”
“After any use of targeted lethal force, when there are indications that civilian deaths may have occurred, intelligence analysts draw on a large body of information – including human intelligence, signals intelligence, media reports, and surveillance footage – to help us make informed determinations about whether civilians were in fact killed or injured.”
The government doesn’t seem to apply the same standard of care in picking who to target for assassination. The former drone operator who spoke to Intercept estimates that the overwhelming majority of operations he worked on in Afghanistan relied on SIGINT (signals intelligence), based on the NSA’s phone tracking technology.
“Everything they turned into a kinetic strike or a night raid was almost 90 percent that,” he says. “You could tell, because you’d go back to the mission reports and it will say ‘this mission was triggered by SIGINT,’ which means it was triggered by a geolocation cell.”
Within the NSA, the paper reported, “A motto quickly caught on at Geo Cell: ‘We Track ’Em, You Whack ’Em.’”
However, the article included almost no skepticism about that claim, and no discussion was included at all about how the unreliability of the targeting methods results in killing innocent people.
In fact, as the former drone operator recounts, tracking people using metadata and then killing them by SIM card has inherent flaws.
The NSA “will develop a pattern,” he says, “where they understand that this is what this person’s voice sounds like, this is who his friends are, this is who his commander is, this is who his subordinates are. And they put them into a matrix. But it’s not always correct. There’s a lot of human error in that.”
His account is supported by another insider who was directly involved in the drone program. Brandon Bryant was a “stick monkey” – an operator who controls the “eyes” of the drones while in operation – for 6 years, and by the time he left the USAF in 2011, his squadron had been credited with killing 1, 626 “enemies” in action.
He says he’s coming forward now because the loss of civilian life he believes he and his squadron may have caused torments him mentally and emotionally. Today, he is committed to telling the public about the deadly flaws in the U.S. drone program.
He describes it as “highly compartmentalized”: The operators are taking shots at targets on the ground without having any idea where the intelligence is coming from.
“I don’t know who we worked with,” Bryant says. “We were never privy to that sort of information. If the NSA did work with us, like, I have no clue.”
The NSA geolocation system used by JSOC is known by the code name GILGAMESH. In the program, a special device is attached to the drone. As the drone circles the area, the device locates the SIM card or handset that the military thinks is used by the target.
“We don’t have people on the ground – we don’t have the same forces, informants, or information coming in from those areas – as we do where we have a strong foothold, like we do in Afghanistan. I would say that it’s even more likely that mistakes are made in places such as Yemen or Somalia, and especially Pakistan.”
As of May 2013, President Obama had cleared 16 people in Yemen and 5 in Somalia for targeting in drone strikes. Before a strike is green-lit, he says, there has to be at least two sources of intel. The problem: Both of these sources often involve NSA-supplied data, instead of human intelligence (HUMINT).
As the former operator explains, the process of tracking and killing a targeted individual is known within the military as “F3: Find, Fix, Finish.”
“Since there’s almost zero HUMINT operations in Yemen – at least involving JSOC – every one of their strikes relies on signals and imagery for confirmation: signals being the cell phone lock, which is the ‘find’ and imagery being the ‘unblinking eye’ which is the ‘fix.’” The “finish” is the strike itself.
“JSOC acknowledges that it would be completely helpless without the NSA conducting mass surveillance on an industrial level,” the former drone operator says. “That is what creates those baseball cards you hear about,” featuring potential targets for drone strikes or raids.
When President Obama signs authorizations for “hits”, they remain valid for 60 days. If a target can’t be found within that period of time, it has to be reviewed and renewed. According to the former drone operator, it can take 18 months or even longer to move from intelligence gathering to getting approval to actually carrying out a strike in Yemen.
“What that tells me,” he says, “is that commanders, once given the authorization needed to strike, are more likely to strike when they see an opportunity – even if there’s a high chance of civilians being killed, too – because in their mind they might never get the chance to strike that target again.”
More information can be found here. It’s incredible how technology has destroyed our humanity already, and I wonder how bad it’s going to get before we collectively wake up as a species and stop all of this.
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