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Extensive Whistleblower Leak on the Drone Program Makes a 'Mockery of U.S. Government Claims

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"It’s a very slick, efficient way to conduct the war."

Predator B unmanned aircraft landing after a mission, at the Naval Air Station, in Corpus Christi, Texas. (Photo: AP/Eric Gay, File)

A whistleblower has leaked documents about the U.S. drone program to give the public insight into how someone is placed on a kill list and is ultimately assassinated in a strike, as revealed in an eight-part series published by the Intercept.

Speaking and providing information exclusively to the publication launched in 2014 by a few investigative journalists, including those who broke the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden, this person, who was only identified as "the source" and as someone who worked in the U.S. drone program, said he wanted the public to know about the system's workings and its flaws.

drone Image source: U.S. Air Force

"This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong," the source told the Intercept in one of its articles in the series.

Slides provided by the source detail the U.S. drone program in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia from 2011 to 2013. The Intercept reported that the "Pentagon, White House and Special Operations Command all declined to comment," and it quoted a Defense Department spokesperson saying that it does not "comment on the details of classified reports.

The Intercept itself wrote that its series "is intended to serve as a long-overdue public examination of the methods and outcomes of America’s assassination program. [...] The public has a right to see these documents not only to engage in an informed debate about the future of U.S. wars, both overt and covert, but also to understand the circumstances under which the U.S. government arrogates to itself the right to sentence individuals to death without the established checks and balances of arrest, trial, and appeal."

In one part of "The Drone Papers" series, the Intercept reports reviewing a study by the Pentagon’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force that detailed the approval process for drone strikes, which President Barack Obama, on average, approved in less than 60 days:

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. A chart in the study shows that in 2011 and 2012, captures accounted for only 25 percent of operations carried out in the Horn of Africa — and all were apparently by foreign forces. In one of the few publicized captures of the Obama presidency, al Shabaab commander Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was picked up in April 2011 by U.S. forces in the Gulf of Aden and brought to Manhattan for trial, though he may not be reflected in the study’s figures because he was apprehended at sea.

The Pentagon study recommended more captures, rather than killings, because of the intelligence that could be gleaned from interrogations and collected materials. 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.

Another part of the series reported on the "critical shortfalls" of the intelligence used to identify and kill targets:

As a result, the U.S. military has been overly reliant on signals intelligence from computers and cellphones, and the quality of those intercepts has been limited by constraints on surveillance flights in the region.

“It’s stunning the number of instances when selectors are misattributed to certain people," the source told the Intercept. "And it isn’t until several months or years later that you all of a sudden realize that the entire time you thought you were going after this really hot target, you wind up realizing it was his mother’s phone the whole time.”

The source said that the military sees the drone programs as a "very quick, clean way of doing things. It’s a very slick, efficient way to conduct the war, without having to have the massive ground invasion mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan." But he criticized the military for becoming "addicted to this machine" and said it would be "harder and harder to pull them away from it the longer they’re allowed to continue operating in this way.”

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, said in a statement that the disclosures made in the Intercept's report "make a mockery of U.S. government claims that its lethal force operations are based on reliable intelligence and limited to lawful targets. In fact, the government often claims successes that are really tragic losses. The Obama administration’s lethal program desperately needs transparency and accountability because it is undermining the right to life and national security.”

Check out the full series on the Intercept.

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