Already battered by disclosures that it collects the phone records of innocent Americans, among other things, the embattled National Security Agency has emerged as a key player in the controversial U.S. campaign of targeted killings in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen.
The Central Intelligence Agency has commanded the drone mission, for the most part. But intel sources tell Vocativ that the NSA is critical to the deadly strikes. The reason: The agency’s devices are mounted on the CIA’s killer drones as they prowl the skies for suspected terrorists.
These drones have left thousands dead—including a number of innocent civilians. And their lethal capabilities, sources say, stem in part from the NSA’s specially designed “boxes,” which enable intelligence officials to locate and track electronics suspected terrorists use on the ground.
Tracking these signals doesn’t just help the NSA and CIA listen to people chat, it transforms cell phones and radios into virtual beacons for missiles. The NSA’s technology also means that Langley’s drones can fire even when their operators can’t see the target.
Because U.S. intelligence agencies have so few sources on the ground in places like Waziristan, the drone war depends more on what’s known as signals intelligence or SIGINT: Tracking phone numbers and Internet usage and trying to figure out what it all means. “It’s the NSA that is basically in charge of the battlefield SIGINT on these drones,” says James Bamford, the author of several books on the NSA, including The Shadow Factory.
“Everyone knows that the drones are collecting imagery and video and all that,” says Bamford. “But a lot of people don’t know they are eavesdropping.”
Though the existence of the NSA’s secret boxes has never previously been disclosed, information about the agency’s role in the CIA’s drone program has been dribbling out. Last month The Washington Post’s Greg Miller, Julie Tate and Barton Gellman reported on how documents former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released underscore “the agency’s extensive involvement in the targeted killing program.” Later NBC’s Michael Isikoff wrote about how the NSA’s surveillance program played a prominent role in a lethal drone strike in Somalia.
The CIA’s drone program is big enough, sources say, to fire 20 missiles simultaneously at different spots around the globe. Though under Langley’s command, all of the armed CIA drones are technically operated by uniformed Air Force officers based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
The most recent U.S. drone strike came earlier this month, killing Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Despite its success, the strike has brought considerable blowback: Mehsud had reportedly been involved in peace talks with Pakistan, where various authorities accused the U.S. of sabotaging the ongoing negotiations. The U.S. has not publicly commented on his possible role in these talks. Mehsud was wanted by the U.S. for his alleged role in the deadly bombing of a CIA base in Khost Province, Afghanistan.
Neither the CIA nor the NSA would comment for this story.