Latest Snowden Leak Shows NSA's Involvement In US Drone-Based Assassination Program

from the 'targeted-killing' dept

At this point, both the NSA’s extensive surveillance programs and the CIA’s controversial drone “targeted killing” program (read: assassination program) are known and widely discussed. But the two had not been fully connected until now. There had been some reports from the various reporters who have access to the leaked Snowden documents that the NSA was involved, but the details are finally coming out. The first article comes via Barton Gellman at the Washington Post, detailing the NSA’s extensive involvement in helping the CIA find targets to kill, including Hassan Ghul, who was taken out by a drone strike a year ago.

In the search for targets, the NSA has draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan. In Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might “bed down.”

The e-mail from Ghul’s wife “about her current living conditions” contained enough detail to confirm the coordinates of that household, according to a document summarizing the mission. “This information enabled a capture/kill operation against an individual believed to be Hassan Ghul on October 1,” it said.

The file is part of a collection of records in the Snowden trove that make clear that the drone campaign — often depicted as the CIA’s exclusive domain — relies heavily on the NSA’s ability to vacuum up enormous quantities of e-mail, phone calls and other fragments of signals intelligence, or SIGINT.

The NSA likes to talk about how its focus is on counter-terrorism operations in the form of finding out about potential terrorist activities in order to stop them. It likes to pretend that it isn’t so involved in offensive actions. However, the reporting here suggests a different story altogether. The NSA is a key part of the assassination program.

While it may be a good thing to track down terrorists working to attack the US, the potential that these kinds of programs might also be abused is serious. Once again, what becomes clear is that the NSA will apparently do everything possible to get access to the information it wants:

“But if you wanted huge coverage of the FATA, NSA had 10 times the manpower, 20 times the budget and 100 times the brainpower,” the former intelligence official said, comparing the surveillance resources of the NSA to the smaller capabilities of the agency’s IOC. The two agencies are the largest in the U.S. intelligence community, with budgets last year of $14.7 billion for the CIA and $10.8 billion for the NSA. “We provided the map,” the former official said, “and they just filled in the pieces.”

In broad terms, the NSA relies on increasingly sophisticated versions of online attacks that are well-known among security experts. Many rely on software implants developed by the agency’s Tailored Access Operations division with code-names such as UNITEDRAKE and VALIDATOR. In other cases, the agency runs “man-in-the-middle” attacks in which it positions itself unnoticed midstream between computers communicating with one another, diverting files for real-time alerts and longer-term analysis in data repositories.

Through these and other tactics, the NSA is able to extract vast quantities of digital information, including audio files, imagery and keystroke logs. The operations amount to silent raids on suspected safe houses and often are carried out by experts sitting behind desks thousands of miles from their targets.

The reach of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations division extends far beyond Pakistan. Other documents describe efforts to tunnel into systems used by al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa, each breach exposing other corridors.

It appears that the attacks are quite effective as well:

The operations are so easy, in some cases, that the NSA is able to start downloading data in less time than it takes the targeted machine to boot up. Last year, a user account on a social media Web site provided an instant portal to an al-Qaeda operative’s hard drive. “Within minutes, we successfully exploited the target,” the document said.

Now, to some extent, you can argue that these kinds of activities are the ones we’d expect the NSA to be taking: using systems to break into communications efforts of terrorists to track them down. But, as the report also notes, this main operative who they caught through use of this system, Ghul, was actually in CIA custody for years before they released him… only to then have the NSA go through this big process to re-find him and take him out with a drone.

Oh, and not just take him out… but then use the NSA to find out for sure that he was dead:

Even after Ghul was killed in Mir Ali, the NSA’s role in the drone strike wasn’t done. Although the attack was aimed at “an individual believed to be” the correct target, the outcome wasn’t certain until later when, “through SIGINT, it was confirmed that Hassan Ghul was in fact killed.”

The NSA and its supporters will undoubtedly spin this to show how good it is that the NSA has these kinds of capabilities, allowing them to track down and dispatch terrorists. But it remains concerning how this level of spying and power (all the way down to assassinations) can easily be combined and used in ways that are even more questionable.

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Comments on “Latest Snowden Leak Shows NSA's Involvement In US Drone-Based Assassination Program”

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out_of_the_blue says:

Re: @ AC: did you read: "Ghul, was actually in CIA custody for years before they released him"?

This is the type of surveillance that should be championed as legitimate and necessary.

Really, targeted drones with always dozens of civilian casualties to kill a guy they released? It’s more like “The Running Man”, probably just a test of their tracking. In any case, all drone strikes are illegal assassinations. Sheer tyranny of the most despotic degree. Don’t forget that Obama claims the power to kidnap, strip you of rights, torture, and murder YOU if the whim strikes him. No one’s rights are safe once arbitrary power is seized. We’re supposed to have a gov’t of laws, not of men. Secret branches of gov’t are anti-American.

This is calculated propaganda to convince dolts like you that the basis is legitimate, when it’s absolute barbarism.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: @ AC: did you read: "Ghul, was actually in CIA custody for years before they released him"?

The need for intelligence about terrorist activities and their communications is legitimate. The methods of how that intelligence is collected (mass surveillance vs limited, targeted surveillance) is the point of contention. I agree with you that there are many, many, many actions that use this intelligence made by the US Government that are at best questionable and at worst downright illegal and unconstitutional. These practices demand more transparency, legal justification, and for some, termination.

Let us not lose this opportunity to show what kind of surveillance is acceptable. It’s foolish to say that the NSA shouldn’t have any eavesdropping capability, but it should be extremely limited in scope.

The International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance is a good start.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: @ AC: did you read: "Ghul, was actually in CIA custody for years before they released him"?

Who is Ghul?

Something has always troubled me about these reports. The report comes out “Osama Hansa Terrista” is a terrorist leader responsible for this, that, other. But you have to take it on trust. It’s a not a court examining evidence with cross examinations in an open verifiable court.

Yet here Ghul was in custody and they couldn’t get a conviction? So the court doesn’t say that, the spooks do. I have to trust that the court is wrong and the spook is right.

Or I could simply think it’s convenience.

Why go to court when you can kill people evidence-free AND justify a surveillance budget? Better still you make more terrorists, more busy work to occupy your army.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: @ AC: did you read: "Ghul, was actually in CIA custody for years before they released him"?

see, it ain’t murder when we get a machine to do it…

since machines aren’t corporations, they aren’t people, thus they can’t be charged with murder…

simple logic, donchaknow…

i mean, if we were actually murdering people without due process, then that would be ‘bad’; but we ain’t, so its all good…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Brazenly anonymous says:

Re: Re: @ AC: did you read: "Ghul, was actually in CIA custody for years before they released him"?

This is the type of surveillance that actually works; targeted, individualized surveillance with a specific objective. I, for one will call out this objective, the drone program, as incredibly foolish. Once we’ve positively identified someone who we know is actually involved in a plot (hey NSA, citation needed), the best course of action is to keep watching.

The goal, of course, is to defend against the actual attack by knowing exactly where and when each piece will move. Keeping your eyes on members of the plot without actions that show you’re able to do this makes it easy to grab the attackers at some border without the planners figuring out how you fingered them.

Widespread surveillance, on the other hand, is wasteful and all surveillance should be subject to the strictures of the fourth amendment. Additionally, warrants against US citizens really should have to be served to those they are executed against, even if it is a little after the fact (the situation is a little different here, you set up a sting and take the whole group at once, meaning much shorter time-lines).

Being a member of a group is never sufficient cause to arrest or kill someone. Wars, which are only valid when between two nation-states, are the only exception.

out_of_the_blue says:

"NSA and its supporters will undoubtedly spin this"...

Well, assuming we weren’t all SPUN previously! But in any case, it’s remarkable that stories coming out now begin to spin positive for NSA. It’s almost as though — skip if you’ve read me before — the whole Snowden “leak” is a limited hangout psyop to acquaint the dolts with current level of surveillance and get them ready for the next.

Just consider what’s happened so far: not a dime cut from its budget, not a bit of damage to reputation, not a bit of limiting, let alone any of the known criminals in jail. You sometimes rant that the country is harmed by reluctance to use US businesses now, but you’re assuming that isn’t desirable to NSA and its owners. After all, the US went into illegal wars (on faulty intelligence) that didn’t help its rep, so why do you think NSA concerns itself with best interests of the former US of A? Evidence is entirely otherwise.

Anonymous Coward says:

Here is an idea the government should release the spy metadata so people can confirm that they are doing exactly they say they are doing without compromising operations LoL

How hard would it be to write a xml-schema to automagically change names, locations, dates and operations into something else that could be released to the public?

Now I do admit that this story here doesn’t show the agency doing something that most would object.

Still we don’t know how it was done, we need the spy metadata to look at the relations to make sure of it.

DCX2 says:

Burden of proof

Although the attack was aimed at ?an individual believed to be? the correct target, the outcome wasn?t certain until later

I wonder what burden of proof the NSA must meet before they decide to tell CIA to bomb a target.

Anyone want to bet it’s “51% probability that the correct target is present”? I mean, they only need to be 51% sure the target of eavesdropping is not American, so it would be consistent.

Anonymous Coward says:

Here’s the spin… even of they stop the drone strikes that doesn’t mean they will stop killing people. We should be protesting assassinations in general, whether by drone, hanging, shooting or any other means. RIP aaron swartz, miriam carey, and all those people that ended up dead, arrested, and portrayed as monsters or unstable in the media. The list is longer than anyone should be comfortable with

Pixelation says:


“The e-mail from YOUR wife ?about her current living conditions? contained enough detail to confirm the coordinates of that household, according to a document summarizing the mission. ?This information enabled a capture/kill operation against an individual believed to be YOU on October 1,?

THIS is your future. YOUR representatives are unwilling to consider, fully, what they are creating.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Can someone please explain to me where spying on the entire American population comes into play when killing a terrorist in Pakistan?”

No we cant, as they are not.

Just as masnick can write about patents, copyright, NSA, or his hatred for the US Government, the NSA can do more than one thing too, and do !!!

Clearly, like a police force, they can gather information AND ACT on it too.

Masnick can gather information, and if he chooses he can act on that information. Just because Masnick gathers information that does not restrict him from acting on it.

NSA can gather information (like Mike, or the police) and act on that information as required.

What would be the point of masnick spending his days goggling NSA if he could not act on the information he received from his ‘spying’ ?

Anonymous Coward says:

NSA's Involvement In US Drone-Based Assassination Program

NSA’s Involvement In US Drone-Based Assassination Program

How very misleading Mr Masnick !!!!! Shame..

So which is it please, are the drones based in the US or is the program based in the US ?

Why so obtuse ?

You are implying there are “US Based DONES” used in killing !!!

What military “BASE” are these drones based at on US soil ?

So NSA is involved in Middle east BASED drones controlled by the US.

NOT US-BASED-DRONES, lets face it, that’s a lie..
But I guess that is not inciting enough for you.

Journalists live and die by the accuracy of their statements.. (real ones anyway)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: NSA's Involvement In US Drone-Based Assassination Program

You are implying there are “US Based DONES” used in killing !!!

Reading comp is not your strong suit, darryl. No one said US-based drones. It said “US drone-based assassination program”. In other words it’s an assassination program, using drones, done by the US.

Only you in your dyslexic mind misread it as US-based. Except Mike didn’t say that.

Anonymous Coward says:

“the NSA’s extensive involvement in helping the CIA find targets to kill,”

Exactly what the NSA is designed and tasked to do. The fact they are doing what it is intended for them to do, is a plus for NSA it shows they are effective.

“counter-terrorism” that term does not just mean ‘try to find potential terrorists, it also means dealing with the ones you already know about, this is what the NSA and CIA did, their job !!!!!

Of course they are involved in not only defensive measures as is the CIA and FBI, but also offensive measures. It’s expected, it’s why there are there, it’s what they are there for.

If anything this is a clear confirmation that these services are effective and doing the job intended of them.

So this article leave me wondering why you are so surprised that the NSA does what it’s tasked to do ?

Are you saying that the police force should only be able to try to detect crimes before they happen, and ignore them if they have occurred ?

Or that the Defence force should ONLY be for Defence and never ‘Attack’, but only defend ?

Excuse me, I am just trying to find out what you are raging about ?

Or is it simply your need to include NSA in just about everything you can think off, to make us all numb to the subject ?

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