Snowden Documents: NSA Aiding Administration's Drone Strikes

Monday, 10 Feb 2014 10:20 AM

By Lisa Barron

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The U.S military and CIA often rely on data from the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance programs for targeted drone strikes and killings, according to a report from The Intercept, a new independent news website launched by journalist Glenn Greenwald, who received tens of thousands of documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

According to a former drone operator for the military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the NSA "often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies," wrote Greenwald and "Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield" author Jeremy Scahill.

"Rather than confirming a target's identity with operatives or information 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."

Greenwald and Scahill said that the account of the former drone operator, who was a member of the JSOC's High Value Targeting task force, in charge of identifying, capturing or killing terrorist suspects in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, is bolstered by documents provided by Snowden.

In one program, code-named GILGAMESH, the NSA reportedly "geolocates" the SIM card or handset of a suspected terrorist's cell phone, allowing the CIA and military to capture or kill the person using the device.

The former JSOC drone operator told Greenwald and Scahill that while the technology has led to the deaths of terrorists and others involved in attacks against U.S. forces, innocent people have "absolutely" been killed because of the NSA's reliance on the surveillance methods.

"Once the bomb lands or a night raid happens, you know that phone is there," he said. "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."

In addition to GILGAMESH, wrote Greenwald and Scahill, citing documents provided by Snowden, the CIA uses another NSA platform known as SHENANIGANS, which uses a pod on aircraft that vacuums up massive amounts of data from any electronic devices that are within range.

Whatever the methods used, according to the former drone operator, before a strike is "green-lit," there have to be at least two sources of intelligence, but the problem is that both of those sources often involve NSA-supplied data.

"JSOC acknowledges that it would be completely helpless without the NSA conducting mass surveillance on an industrial level," he said. "That is what creates those baseball cards you hear about," featuring potential targets.

Greenwald and Scahill provided extensive corroborating information from NSA documents, including one that confirms the agency "played a key supporting role" in the drone strike in September 2011 that killed American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as another American, Samir Khan, in Yemen.

The NSA refused to comment on their report. Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the agency, said it would not acknowledge "the type of operational detail that, in our view, should not be published."

As for the president, concluded Greenwald and Scahill, "Whether or not Obama is fully aware of the errors built into the program of targeted assassination, he and his top advisers have repeatedly made clear that the president himself directly oversees the drone operation and takes full responsibility for it."

"Obama once reportedly told his aides that it 'turns out I'm really good at killing people. Didn't know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine,'" they added.

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