Leaked Documents Reveal New Details About the U.S.'s Lethal Drone Programs

Intercept drone papers
The Intercept obtained a cache of documents leaked to them by an unnamed member of the intelligence community. The Intercept

A cache of leaked, classified slides, published as part of a series of articles by The Intercept on Thursday, sheds new light on the U.S. military's covert, lethal drone operations in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen between 2011 and 2013. The documents, which an anonymous intelligence source leaked to the website, show, among other things, how the U.S. decides who to target, how insiders view the program's shortcomings and how the government conceals unintended deaths.

"The public has a right to see these documents not only to engage in an informed debate about the future of U.S. wars...," The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill wrote. "But also to understand the circumstances under which the U.S. government arrogates to itself the right to sentence individuals to death without the established checks and balances of arrest, trial, and appeal."

The Pentagon declined to comment to Newsweek, while the White House and Special Operations Command did not respond in time for publication. All three declined to comment to The Intercept.

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The report comes at a time when the Pentagon reportedly intends to increase the number of drone flights over the next four years and provide the military with more surveillance, intelligence collection and striking power.

One leaked document, details the approval process for drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia, which is more complicated than the process in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some cases, takes years. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and other intelligence agencies first choose a target and compile a "baseball card" data about him or her ranging from the person's relationships to life patterns, all gleaned from extensive surveillance. This information is then passed along to the military entity in charge of the region, then to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed by the secretary of defense. From there, a circle of top advisers on the National Security Council and their deputies, take a look. Finally, the intelligence lands on the president's desk.

If the president approves a target, he gives the military a 60-day window to kill the person in question. While it has been widely reported that President Obama approves each name on the kill list, he does not approve each strike, the slides suggest.

In May 2013, with mounting concern that U.S. drone strikes were killing civilians, the White House released new policy guidelines for using lethal force in counterterrorism operations. The guidelines state, among other things, that the U.S. "is not to use lethal force when it is feasible to capture a terrorist suspect." The slides, however, make no mention of capture options, which the Intercept says highlights their rarity. "The drone campaign right now really is only about killing," Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and now an outspoken critic of the Obama administration, told the website. "We don't capture people anymore." The leaked slides indicate that this trend makes it harder to gather intelligence, whereas capturing suspects and interrogating them could lead to new information.

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The documents also recommend increased cooperation with foreign intelligence services to capture targets. But relying on intelligence from a foreign partners is potentially problematic. The reason: The governments of those nations sometimes have different interests than the U.S. In 2011, for instance, a U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal, "we think we got played," after a drone strike killed a local governor. Yemeni officials failed to disclose that he was at a gathering of Al-Qaeda figures, U.S. officials said. Yemen disputed the report.

Without putting troops on the ground, or risking the safety of those who may already be there, the documents show JSOC overwhelmingly relies on electronic communication surveillance to gather intelligence, though Flynn says doing so is inferior to gathering intel from human sources. "I could get on the telephone from somewhere in Somalia, and I know I'm a high-value target, and say in some coded language, 'The wedding is about to occur in the next 24 hours,'" Flynn told The Intercept. "That could put all of Europe and the United States on a high-level alert, and it may be just total bullshit."

When monitoring a device for GPS location purposes, for instance, the military can face a slew of complications. "It's stunning the number of instances when selectors are misattributed to certain people," the source of the documents told The Intercept. "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 leaked documents also appear to show contradictions between stated and actual U.S. policy on civilian deaths. Explaining the new May guidelines, President Obama said in a speech the U.S. would only use a drone to kill "terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people" and when there is "near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured." The leaked documents, however, only say that the U.S. requires there to be a low collateral damage environment for a strike to be approved. A National Security Council spokesperson would not explain to The Intercept the discrepancies between the Obama administration's stated policies and the leaked documents, other than saying "those guidelines remain in effect today." The NSC did not respond to a request for comment from Newsweek.

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The lack of explanation is worrisome, the source told the Intercept. Indeed, the leaked documents detail how a special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan, which website says was once described as a potential model for the future of American warfare, killed many more people than intended. Between January 2012 and February 2013, the documents say that drone strikes killed 200 people, but only 35 were targets. During one five-month period, the documents say that nearly 9 out of 10 casualties were killed due to their proximity to the intended targets. With far less intelligence available in Yemen and Somalia, The Intercept suggests the numbers may be much worse in those countries.

The leaked documents also show how the Obama administration is able to conceal civilian deaths by labeling unidentified casualties as "enemies." Unless evidence emerges after their deaths to dispute that label, the designation remains, lowering the civilian death count. "Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association," the source told The Intercept. When "a drone strike kills more than one person, there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate."

When explaining his motivation for leaking the documents to The Intercept, the source said he felt morally compelled to do so. "This outrageous explosion of watchlisting—of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers...assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield—it was, from the very first instance, wrong."

"The military...[has]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."