Leaked Documents Show US Drone Killings Racking Up Collateral Damage, Damaging Future Intelligence Efforts
from the death-from-above dept
The Intercept has just published an incredible article (in five parts) on the United States’ drone-strike programs. Based on documents handed over by yet another leaker, the article contains some very disturbing information about the CIA’s targeted killing activities — including the fact that targeted killings are rarely well-targeted.
To begin with, there’s the problem of distance. The drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia attack targets much further away than those targeted in the Iraq and Afghanistan. Because strikes routinely occur on the outer limits of the Predator drones’ range (up to ~1000km), surveillance is abandoned in favor of attacks. When a drone strike does occur, it usually utilizes multiple drones to ensure the target has been killed (the “Find, Fix and Finish” or “F3” cited in the documents). Because of this, lots of “blinking” occurs (gaps in surveillance coverage) that snowballs into future intel gaps that make other “targeted” strikes even less targeted.
Added to this is the fact that blowing someone up doesn’t leave much for analysts to sort through.
Deadly strikes thus truncate the find, fix, finish cycle without exploitation and analysis — precisely the components that were lacking in the drone campaign waged in East Africa and Yemen. That shortfall points to one of the contradictions at the heart of the drone program in general: Assassinations are intelligence dead ends.
The ISR study shows that after a “kill operation” there is typically nobody on the ground to collect written material or laptops in the target’s house, or the phone on his body, or capture suspects and ask questions. Yet collection of on-the-ground intelligence of that sort — referred to as DOMEX, for “document and media exploitation,” and TIR, for “tactical interrogation report” — is invaluable for identifying future targets.
Stating that 75 percent of operations in the region were strikes, and noting that “kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees and captured material,” the study recommended an expansion of “capture finishes via host-nation partners for more ‘finish-derived’ intelligence.”
The “host-nation partners” are also part of the problem. They have their own needs and desires and aren’t above having the CIA do their dirty work for them.
In 2011, for example, U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal that they had killed a local governor because Yemeni officials didn’t tell them he was present at a gathering of al Qaeda figures. “We think we got played,” one official said.
Even in Afghanistan, where surveillance coverage was better and signals intelligence stronger, drone strikes still resulted in the deaths of several non-targets.
[D]ocuments 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 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.
The US government marginalizes this collateral damage by referring to nearly everyone it kills — targeted or not — as “combatants,” “military-aged males,” or simply “enemies killed in action.” Very rarely has it been forced to confront the reality of its inaccurate attacks.
But the CIA is sold on the program and it has been for years. Drone strikes may cause a lot of collateral damage and are prone to manipulation by local governments, but the US considers this program to be the most “efficient” way to “eliminate” terrorist threats. It has almost completely eradicated an essential component of its counterterrorism efforts, though. Dead men provide no HUMINT. At one time, capturing suspected terrorists used to be part of the equation. That’s no longer the case.
“The drone campaign right now really is only about killing. When you hear the phrase ‘capture/kill,’ capture is actually a misnomer. In the drone strategy that we have, ‘capture’ is a lower case ‘c.’ We don’t capture people anymore,” Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told The Intercept. “Our entire Middle East policy seems to be based on firing drones. That’s what this administration decided to do in its counterterrorism campaign. They’re enamored by the ability of special operations and the CIA to find a guy in the middle of the desert in some shitty little village and drop a bomb on his head and kill him.”
Surveillance now appears to be used mainly for targeting, rather than intelligence. Data and communications acquired by the NSA feeds into drone strike operations — not to provide information on potential attacks — but to locate targets. Money and man-hours are poured into surveillance, only to have a possible source of future intel killed off, rather than made use of.
Take the case of Bilal er-Berjawi, known to the US government as “Objective Peckham.” British and US intelligence surveilled Berjawi for six years, without ever making a serious move to “capture” him. Once it was decided he was supplying terrorists with weapons and money, the UK government stripped him of his citizenship and a CIA drone strike in Somalia took his life.
The entire Intercept piece is more than “worth reading.” It’s an essential, damning look at a program the US government has long touted as a success. The leaked documents suggest otherwise. Instead, they point towards an “extrajudicial killing” regime that sanitizes the carnage and deprives collateral damage of its humanity. While the program may have eliminated a few terrorism suspects, the program is predicated on the notion that only those who present an “immediate threat” will be killed. As we can see from the case of Berjawi, this “immediate” threat lasted more than six years and included multiple, unchallenged reentries to the UK.
This is part of who we are as a country: judge, jury and executioner, divorced from the humanity at the other end of the drone strikes by lines of code and thousands of miles.