The Intercept is once again the host of a major leak of classified US documents, this time with a focus on US policies on drones and the “targeted killings” they allow. The extensive eight-part series, called The Drone Papers, attempts to lay bare the process of selecting, approving, finding, and executing a target, explicitly comparing this process to the one stated or implied to be in effect by the Obama administration. Among the more concrete revelations, that targeted killings may hurt intelligence capabilities on the ground, and that US drone strikes kill potential innocents as often as 90% of the time.
The Drone Papers is a slick and effective display of complex leaked information. It shows both The Intercept‘s nature as an activist publication and its history with the Snowden leaks, that it has gone to such lengths to present a clear, compelling, monolithic place to read about this policy-relevant information. There is clearly an awareness of how poorly understood the Snowden revelations ultimately were, how scattered and overly technical the reporting. These documents are far less complex, and they can be summed up in a series of rather compelling news-pinion features. They say “months,” but it would still be interesting to know just how long these journalists have been sitting on this information, working to make sure the release goes just right.
The premiere piece is titled The Assassination Complex, written by swashbuckling conflict journalist Jeremy Scahill. It sums up the issue and explains the leak and its anonymous source. This is an Intercept joint, so the whole thing is laced with legitimate but subjective points, while it would probably be more helpful as a sober primary document. As it is, this first reporting of the data comes in a nakedly interested package, talking about things like the “futility of the war in Afghanistan” and potentially providing a means for some to ideologically dismiss the otherwise hard-nosed empirical arguments.
The most interesting piece, I think, is the second one, entitled A Visual Glossary. This goes through many of the maps, figures, and charts of the leak with an eye for vocabulary. Drones are “birds.” A period of lost contact with a target is a “blink.” To kill is, in many cases, to “finish,” both the person and operation. And, as has been reported elsewhere before, seemingly important terms like “imminent” and “threat” are used so loosely as to be totally meaningless. It all sums to show the sanitized, fluorescent-lights-on-grey-carpet banality of remote warfare. The Drone Papers wants people to understand the human reality (or lack thereof) in the so-called Kill Chain that directs this program and ends at the very top, with the President of the United States.
This kill chain of legal authorities has been much ballyhooed by the government as being robust and accountable, with a tough requirement for reliable information. Targets are “finished” only when they are virtually certain to be guilty, and virtually certain to be taken out cleanly in the strike. The Intercept‘s reporting reveals a different story, particularly focusing on one five-month period in which only 10% of those killed by drones in Afghanistan’s Operation Haymaker were the intended target. Not all of the remaining 90% were civilians, as many would certainly have been terrorist-affiliated associates of the target — but neither can they all possibly be “enemies killed in action,” as is their official designation.
As seen in the leaked papers, one of the major contributing factors to this state of affairs is an over reliance on so-called signals intelligence. Targeting bombs to SIM cards or online cookies can perhaps reliably target a particular device, but devices get passed around between friends and family. Perhaps that explains the2011 killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was not an approved target on a kill list, two weeks after the assassination of his uncle, well-known jihadist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. We still don’t know the reasoning behind that second strike.
There’s also an oft-repeated claim that the targeted killing program has come at the expense of intelligence capabilities, as potential sources of information are now being eliminated rather than captured for interrogation. The Intercept notes that, “The slide illustrating the chain of approval makes no mention of evaluating options for capture. It may be implied that those discussions are part of the target development process, but the omission reflects the brute facts beneath the Obama administration’s stated preference for capture: Detention of marked targets is incredibly rare.”
These policies straddle the line between security and foreign policy — is it a military or a diplomatic decision, to kill a foreign civilian on his own soil, in a country with no ongoing state of war? Is it a military or a legal decision, to kill an American citizen and avowed jihadist living abroad, without trial? Right now, the answer to both questions is clearly the military. As revelations like this continue to tumble out of the US government (and they almost certainly will), that mentality might finally be about to change.