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.
Find, Fix, Finish
- The CIA had long dominated the covert war in Pakistan, and in 2009 Obama expanded the agency’s drone resources there and in Afghanistan to regularly pound al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and other targets. The military, tasked with prosecuting the broader war in Afghanistan, was largely sidelined in the Pakistan theater, save for the occasional cross-border raid and the Air Force personnel who operated the CIA’s drones. But the Pentagon was not content to play a peripheral role in the global drone war, and aggressively positioned itself to lead the developing drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia.
- In December 2009, the Obama administration signed off on its first covert airstrike in Yemen — a cruise missile attack that killed more than 40 people, most of them women and children. After that strike, as with the CIA’s program in Pakistan, drones would fuel the Joint Special Operations Command’s high-value targeting campaign in the region.
- When Obama took office, there had been only one U.S. drone strike in Yemen — in November 2002. By 2012, there was a drone strike reported in Yemen every six days. As of August 2015, more than 490 people had been killed in drone strikes in Yemen alone.
- “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.”
- In 2011, the CIA began using a newly constructed drone base in Saudi Arabia, giving it easier access to targets in Yemen than the military’s bases in East Africa. There were parallel, and competing, target lists and infighting over who should run the drone war in Yemen. At times, this drama played out on the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post — with leaks coming from both sides in an effort to influence policy. The CIA’s backers in Congress argued that the agency showed more “patience and discretion” in its drone strikes, while some prominent military advocates portrayed the agency as ill-equipped to conduct military-style operations and less accountable to Congress.
- The task force had been established in 2008 to study the intelligence and surveillance needs of war fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq. By 2012, it had evolved into a multibillion-dollar advocacy wing pushing for the purchase of new surveillance technologies to support the military’s black ops forces in waging unconventional wars.
- During the period covered in the ISR study — January 2011 through June 2012 — three U.S. citizens were killed in drone strikes in Yemen. Only one, the radical preacher Anwar al Awlaki, was labeled the intended target of the strike. The U.S. claimed it did not intend to kill Samir Khan, who was traveling with Awlaki when a Hellfire hit their vehicle. The third — and most controversial — killing of a U.S. citizen was that of Awlaki’s son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki. He was killed two weeks after his father, while having dinner with his cousin and some friends. Immediately after the strike, anonymous U.S. officials asserted that the younger Awlaki was connected to al Qaeda and was 21 years old. After the family produced his birth certificate, the U.S. changed its position, with an anonymous official calling the killing of the teenager an “outrageous mistake.”
- A former senior official in the Obama administration, who worked on the high-value targeting program and asked not to be identified because he was discussing classified material, told me in 2013 that after the Abdulrahman strike, the president was “surprised and upset and wanted an explanation.” “We had no idea the kid was there,” the official said. The White House did not officially acknowledge the strikes until nearly two years later. “We killed three U.S. citizens in a very short period,” he told me. “Two of them weren’t even targets: Samir Khan and Abdulrahman Awlaki. That doesn’t look good. It’s embarrassing.”
- The former senior official said that John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, “suspected that the kid had been killed intentionally and ordered a review. I don’t know what happened with the review.” When asked about the review, a spokesperson for the National Security Council told me, “We cannot discuss the sensitive details of specific operations.”
- Lt. Gen. Flynn, who since leaving the DIA has become an outspoken critic of the Obama administration, charges that the White House relies heavily on drone strikes for reasons of expediency, rather than effectiveness. “We’ve tended to say, drop another bomb via a drone and put out a headline that ‘we killed Abu Bag of Doughnuts’ and it makes us all feel good for 24 hours,” Flynn said. “And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It just made them a martyr, it just created a new reason to fight us even harder.”
- Outsourcing U.S. kill/capture operations to local forces, which occurred frequently throughout the Bush administration’s time in office, regularly led to human rights abuses, torture, and extrajudicial killings. “I’m very hesitant on backing foreign militaries or paramilitary forces or militias,” said Clinton Watts, a former FBI special agent who worked on counterterrorism and later served as an executive officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “I’ve seen that up close before and you’re backing rape and pillage campaigns through the countryside, usually. You can’t control them and you don’t have transparency over what they do and it blows up in your face the same way that a bad drone strike does.”
- The CIA has operated in Pakistan with looser requirements for obtaining the president’s direct approval before launching strikes; the president also waived the requirement that a CIA target present an “imminent” threat.
- The study lamented the technical difficulties in achieving positive identification of a targeted person and guaranteeing minimal collateral damage, particularly when insufficient numbers of drones and full motion video platforms caused “blinking” in the surveillance apparatus.
- In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the military plans to “sharply expand the number of U.S. drone flights over the next four years, giving military commanders access to more intelligence and greater firepower to keep up with a sprouting number of global hot spots.” The paper reported that drone flights would increase by 50 percent by 2019, adding: “While expanding surveillance, the Pentagon plan also grows the capacity for lethal airstrikes.”
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