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The US drone assassinations

The Intercept has obtained a cache of secret documents detailing the inner workings of the U.S. military’s assassination program in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The documents, provided by a whistleblower, offer an unprecedented glimpse into Obama’s drone wars.

The Kill Chain

Key points:

  • Both the Pentagon and the National Security Council declined to respond to detailed questions about the study and about the drone program more generally. The NSC would not say if the process for approving targets or strikes had changed since the study was produced.

  • ... intelligence personnel from JSOC’s Task Force 48-4, working alongside other intelligence agencies, would build the case for action against an individual, eventually generating a “baseball card” on the target, which was “staffed up to higher echelons — ultimately to the president.” The intelligence package on the person being targeted passed from the JSOC task force tracking him to the command in charge of the region — Centcom for Yemen, and Africom for Somalia — and then to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed by the secretary of defense. It was then examined by a circle of top advisers known as the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, and their seconds in command, known collectively as the Deputies Committee.

  • ... the kill chain indicates that while Obama approved each target, he did not approve each individual strike, although news accounts have previously reported that the president personally “signs off” on strikes outside of Afghanistan or Pakistan.

  • There have been various accounts of this drone bureaucracy, and almost all stress the role of Obama’s influential counterterrorism adviser John Brennan (who became director of the CIA in 2013) and of top administration lawyers in deciding who could be killed. Under Brennan, the nominations process was reportedly concentrated in the White House, replacing video conferences once run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and elevating the role of the National Counterterrorism Center in organizing intelligence. Later in 2013, the White House reportedly tightened control over individual strikes in Yemen.

  • At the time of the study, with the president’s approval, JSOC had a 60-day window to hit a target. For the actual strike, the task force needed approval from the Geographic Combatant Command as well as the ambassador and CIA station chief in the country where the target was located. For a very important target, such as al Qaeda-linked preacher Anwar al Awlaki, who was a U.S. citizen, “it would take a high-level official to approve the strike,” said Lt. Col. Mark McCurley, a former drone pilot who worked on operations in Yemen and recently published a book about his experiences. “And that includes a lot of lawyers and a lot of review at different levels to reach that decision. We have an extensive chain of command, humans along the whole link that monitor the entire process from start to finish on an airstrike.” The country’s government was also supposed to sign off. “One Disagrees = STOP,” ...

  • In practice, the degree of cooperation with the host nation has varied. Somalia’s minister of national security, Abdirizak Omar Mohamed, told The Intercept that the United States alerted Somalia’s president and foreign minister of strikes “sometimes ahead of time, sometimes during the operation … normally we get advance notice.” He said he was unaware of an instance where Somali officials had objected to a strike, but added that if they did, he assumed the U.S. would respect Somalia’s sovereignty.

  • Today, with Yemen’s capital under the control of the Houthi rebel group and undergoing bombardment by Saudi Arabia, administration lawyers do not seem worried about asking permission to carry out drone strikes amid the fray. “Now, I think they don’t even bother telling anyone. There is really no one in charge to tell,” said the former Yemeni official, who requested anonymity citing current unrest and the fact that he no longer works for the government.

  • The two-month window for striking, says Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, shows the administration’s broad interpretation of “a continuing, imminent threat.” “If you have approval over a monthslong period, that sends the signal of a presumption that someone is always targetable, regardless of whether they are actually participating in hostilities,” said Shamsi.

  • The study does not contain an overall count of strikes or deaths, but it does note that “relatively few high-level terrorists meet criteria for targeting” and states that at the end of June 2012, there were 16 authorized targets in Yemen and only four in Somalia. Despite the small number of people on the kill list, in 2011 and 2012 there were at least 54 U.S. drone strikes and other attacks reported in Yemen, killing a minimum of 293 people, including 55 civilians, according to figures compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In Somalia, there were at least three attacks, resulting in the deaths of at minimum six people.

  • Some of those Yemen strikes were likely carried out by the CIA, which since mid-2011 has flown drones to Yemen from a base in Saudi Arabia and reportedly has its own kill list and rules for strikes. Yet it is also clear that the military sometimes harmed multiple other people in trying to kill one of those high-level targets.

  • The large number of reported strikes may also be a reflection of signature strikes in Yemen, where people can be targeted based on patterns of suspect behavior. In 2012, administration officials said that President Obama had approved strikes in Yemen on unknown people, calling them TADS, or “terror attack disruption strikes,” and claiming that they were more constrained than the CIA’s signature strikes in Pakistan.

  • Identifying the correct target relates directly to the issue of civilian casualties: If you don’t have certainty about your target, it follows that you may well be killing innocent people. In Iraq and Afghanistan, “when collateral damage did occur, 70 percent of the time it was attributable to failed — that is, mistaken — identification,” according to a paper by Gregory McNeal, an expert on drones and security at Pepperdine School of Law.

  • If the 60-day authorization expired, analysts would have to start all over in building the intelligence case against the target, said a former senior special operations officer, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing classified materials. That could lead to pressure to take a shot while the window was open.

  • ... there were multiple well-reported, high-profile incidents in which reported JSOC strikes killed the wrong people. Perhaps most famously, in October 2011, a 16-year-old U.S. citizen named Abdulrahman Awlaki, the son of Anwar al Awlaki, died in a JSOC strike while eating dinner with his cousins, two weeks after his father was killed by a CIA drone. In press accounts, one anonymous official called Abdulrahman’s death “an outrageous mistake,” while others said he was with people believed to be members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Publicly, the government has said only that he “was not specifically targeted.”

  • A September 2012 strike in Yemen, extensively investigated by Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Foundations, killed 12 civilians, including three children and a pregnant woman. No alleged militants died in the strike, and the Yemeni government paid restitution for it, but the United States never offered an explanation.

  • The mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of the people who were killed in these drones strikes want to know why,” said Amrit Singh, senior legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative.We’re left with no explanation as to why they were targeted and in most cases no compensation, and the families are aware of no investigation.

  • This spring, in a rare admission of a mistake in targeting, the White House announced that two hostages held by al Qaeda — an American and an Italian — had been killed in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan in January. In attempting to explain the tragedy, the White House spokesperson used the language of the standards that had failed to prevent it: The hostages had died despite “near certainty,” after “near continuous surveillance,” that they were not present.

Full report, diagrams:


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