Leaked documents reveal critical information regarding U.S. drone programs

On Oct. 15, The Intercept released a number of articles based on leaked documents about the U.S. drone program. The articles showcased the processes by which objective enemies are tracked, targeted, and then neutralized by a drone strike. This information was acquired by The Intercept via an anonymous source and also included profiles and rankings of potential U.S. targets and accounts of operations in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Considering the fact that two of The Intercept’s editors are Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras—journalists who worked with Edward Snowden in the release of his NSA documents—the impact of these articles could be enormous.

So far, three American citizens have been killed by drone strikes in Yemen. Of the three, only one was an intended target—the radical preacher, Anwar al Awlaki, who released online videos encouraging Muslims to go to war with the U.S.. Samir Khan was killed when Awlaki’s vehicle was hit by a drone. The third was Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, who died shortly afterwards in a subsequent drone strike. A senior official within the CIA described this as an outrageous mistake—Abdulrahman was only 16 years old at the time of his death. 

The killing of American citizens without due process raises a number of questions about the power of the government and its drone program. This, in turn, raises larger legal, moral, and journalistic questions about the importance of whistleblowers. On one hand, the leaking of classified documents can aid enemies of the state—revealing covert operatives, informants, and military strategies—which can lead to the loss of American life. On the other hand, holding these documents’ classified status as sacred allows the government to act without fear of being held accountable. For example, the U.S. government is not at war with Yemen or Somalia, a fact acknowledged by the leaked documents, yet this has not stopped U.S. military involvement in those areas.

The chain of command for the drone program, as shown on The Intercept, moves through several different levels, ultimately ending up with the president of the United States, who must authorize a strike before it occurs. The president has knowledge of all strikes and their intended targets before they occur, and presumably, the results of each operation. Once authorized, the strike can be made at any time in the next 60 days, provided that there are two separate sources of intelligence locating the targeted individual, no contradicting sources, and ‘low’ collateral damage estimations—although a definition of what low entails is not made clear in the slides themselves.

(Infographic courtesy of: The Intercept.)
(Infographic courtesy of: The Intercept.)

The documents further reference a number of problems that the current drone program faces, including the inability to maintain a “persistent stare,”—a 24/7 video feed from a drone—on the area of operation, due to the drone’s refuelling requirements. To address this, one of the leaked documents included a recommendation that more drones be put into orbit. However, it’s doubtful that more drones in the air would lead to more accurate strikes. The success rate of drone strike programs for the period between May 1 and Sept. 15 2012 was over 70 per cent, with 19 out of the 27 intended targets killed; however, 155 bystanders, labelled Enemies Killed In Action (EKIA), were also killed, despite little or no evidence that they were combatants, according to the unnamed whistleblower. Having more drones in the air might increase the frequency of the strikes, but would likely do little to reduce collateral damage incurred in such operations.

(Infographic courtesy of: The Intercept.)
(Infographic courtesy of: The Intercept.)

This is compounded by the fact that currently, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), responsible for the U.S. drone program, operates only one venture. The CIA makes use of air force personnel for its own drone operations in Pakistan that operate under different directives, use different methods, and accomplish different goals than JSOC, all of which are shrouded from the public eye. Leaks to the press have shown that President Obama waived the CIA’s requirement to show that strike targets posed an imminent threat to the U.S., which suggests that the collateral damage caused by drone strikes is worse than this leak shows.

The success rate of drone strike programs for the period between May 1 and Sept. 15 2012 was over 70 per cent, with 19 out of the 27 intended targets killed; however, 155 bystanders, labelled Enemies Killed In Action (EKIA), were also killed, despite little or no evidence that they were combatants, according to the unnamed whistleblower.

Whistleblowers are not well protected in the Western world, as evidenced by Snowden’s continued exile in Russia, Julian Assange’s house arrest at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and Chelsea Manning’s conviction under the Espionage Act. In the age of the internet, however, this aggressive persecution of whistleblowers has not stopped leaks—showcased by this current situation.

This new form of whistleblowing generally follows two methods. The first, which Snowden made use of, is more traditional. Confidential documents are released to journalists whom the whistleblower trusts (in Snowden’s case, Greenwald). The journalists then make use of government contacts and their own experience to vet the documents, eliminating information which could prove harmful to operatives or to national security at a whole. The chosen information is then released to the public. This allows discretion to be used when handling sensitive information, allowing the sanctity of the story to be maintained without damaging the nation’s security.

The other method was popularized by Assange and WikiLeaks. In this case, there is no professional journalist combing through the documents for what’s relevant and what could prove dangerous. Instead, the information is released en masse to the public, allowing for general perusal. Without discretion, this could put the lives of overseas military personnel in danger.

(Infographic courtesy of: The Intercept.)
(Infographic courtesy of: The Intercept.)

However, WikiLeaks does have some built in discretion in choosing what to release and when to release it. For example, after acquiring the draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, WikiLeaks chose to only release the chapter on intellectual property law. The scope of the agreement is much larger than that—the TPP aims to universalize legal standards and barriers to trade along the Pacific Rim. The rest of the document is scheduled to be released after the Canadian election on Oct. 19. Additionally, during Manning’s trial for releasing classified documents to Wikileaks, Robert Carr, a counterintelligence officer, stated that there was no specific example of a named operative within the leaked documents losing their life as a result of the leak.

Despite the differences between these methods, the message is the same. Whistleblowers need to exist and they need to be protected. They remain one of the only ways to inform the public of their government’s actions. As much as U.S. officials believe they can justify civilian deaths by calling them EKIAs, or undertake public mass surveillance by claiming internal security measures, the general public is concerned—and rightly so. Their government is killing people overseas, including their own citizens, with no repercussion and no due process. 

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