The National Security Agency is using complex analysis of electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes – an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people.
According to a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA, the agency often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies. Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.
The drone operator, who agreed to discuss the top-secret programs on the condition of anonymity, was a member of JSOC’s High Value Targeting task force, which is charged with identifying, capturing or killing terrorist suspects in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
His account is bolstered by top-secret NSA documents previously provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It is also supported by a former drone sensor operator with the U.S. Air Force, Brandon Bryant, who has become an outspoken critic of the lethal operations in which he was directly involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.
In one tactic, the NSA “geolocates” the SIM card or handset of a suspected terrorist’s mobile phone, enabling the CIA and U.S. military to conduct night raids and drone strikes to kill or capture the individual in possession of the device.
The former JSOC drone operator is adamant that the technology has been responsible for taking out terrorists and networks of people facilitating improvised explosive device attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But he also states that innocent people have “absolutely” been killed as a result of the NSA’s increasing reliance on the surveillance tactic.
One problem, he explains, is that targets are increasingly aware of the NSA’s reliance on geolocating, and have moved to thwart the tactic. Some have as many as 16 different SIM cards associated with their identity within the High Value Target system. Others, unaware that their mobile phone is being targeted, lend their phone, with the SIM card in it, to friends, children, spouses and family members.
Some top Taliban leaders, knowing of the NSA’s targeting method, have purposely and randomly distributed SIM cards among their units in order to elude their trackers. “They would do things like go to meetings, take all their SIM cards out, put them in a bag, mix them up, and everybody gets a different SIM card when they leave,” the former drone operator says. “That’s how they confuse us.”
As a result, even when the agency correctly identifies and targets a SIM card belonging to a terror suspect, the phone may actually be carried by someone else, who is then killed in a strike. According to the former drone operator, the geolocation cells at the NSA that run the tracking program – known as Geo Cell –sometimes facilitate strikes without knowing whether the individual in possession of a tracked cell phone or SIM card is in fact the intended target of the strike.
Based on his experience, he has come to believe that the drone program amounts to little more than death by unreliable metadata.
“People get hung up that there’s a targeted list of people,” he says. “It’s really like we’re targeting a cell phone. We’re not going after people – we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.”
As the former JSOC drone operator describes – and as classified documents obtained from Snowden confirm – the NSA doesn’t just locate the cell phones of terror suspects by intercepting communications from cell phone towers and Internet service providers. The agency also equips drones and other aircraft with devices known as “virtual base-tower transceivers” – creating, in effect, a fake cell phone tower that can force a targeted person’s device to lock onto the NSA’s receiver without their knowledge.
That, in turn, allows the military to track the cell phone to within 30 feet of its actual location, feeding the real-time data to teams of drone operators who conduct missile strikes or facilitate night raids.
The NSA geolocation system used by JSOC is known by the code name GILGAMESH. Under the program, a specially constructed device is attached to the drone. As the drone circles, the device locates the SIM card or handset that the military believes is used by the target.
Relying on this method, says the former JSOC drone operator, means that the “wrong people” could be killed due to metadata errors, particularly in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. “We don’t have people on the ground – we don’t have the same forces, informants, or information coming in from those areas – as we do where we have a strong foothold, like we do in Afghanistan. I would say that it’s even more likely that mistakes are made in places such as Yemen or Somalia, and especially Pakistan.”
As of May 2013, according to the former drone operator, President Obama had cleared 16 people in Yemen and five in Somalia for targeting in strikes. Before a strike is green-lit, he says, there must be at least two sources of intelligence. The problem is that both of those sources often involve NSA-supplied data, rather than human intelligence (HUMINT).
As the former drone operator explains, the process of tracking and ultimately killing a targeted person is known within the military as F3: Find, Fix, Finish. “Since there’s almost zero HUMINT operations in Yemen – at least involving JSOC – every one of their strikes relies on signals and imagery for confirmation: signals being the cell phone lock, which is the ‘find’ and imagery being the ‘unblinking eye’ which is the ‘fix.’” The “finish” is the strike itself.
“JSOC acknowledges that it would be completely helpless without the NSA conducting mass surveillance on an industrial level,” the former drone operator says. “That is what creates those baseball cards you hear about,” featuring potential targets for drone strikes or raids.
In addition to the GILGAMESH system used by JSOC, the CIA uses a similar NSA platform known as SHENANIGANS. The operation – previously undisclosed – utilizes a pod on aircraft that vacuums up massive amounts of data from any wireless routers, computers, smart phones or other electronic devices that are within range.
One top-secret NSA document provided by Snowden is written by a SHENANIGANS operator who documents his March 2012 deployment to Oman, where the CIA has established a drone base. The operator describes how, from almost four miles in the air, he searched for communications devices believed to be used by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in neighboring Yemen.The mission was code named VICTORYDANCE.
Another top-secret NSA document confirms that the agency “played a key supporting role” in the drone strike in September 2011 that killed U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as another American, Samir Khan. According to the 2013 Congressional Budget Justification, “The CIA tracked [Awlaki] for three weeks before a joint operation with the U.S. military killed” the two Americans in Yemen, along with two other people.
The document continues: “Did you ever think you would see the day when the U.S. would be conducting combat operations in a country equipped with nuclear weapons without a boot on the ground or a pilot in the air?”
Another NSA document from 2005 asks: “What resembles ‘LITTLE BOY’ (one of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II) and as LITTLE BOY did, represents the dawn of a new era (at least in SIGINT and precision geolocation)?”
Its reply: “If you answered a pod mounted on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that is currently flying in support of the Global War on Terrorism, you would be correct.”
Like other whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, he says that his efforts to alert his superiors to the problems were brushed off. “The system continues to work because, like most things in the military, the people who use it trust it unconditionally,” he says.
When he would raise objections about intelligence that was “rushed” or “inaccurate” or “outright wrong,” he adds, “the most common response I would get was ‘JSOC wouldn’t spend millions and millions of dollars, and man hours, to go after someone if they weren’t certain that they were the right person.’ There is a saying at the NSA: ‘SIGINT never lies.’ It may be true that SIGINT never lies, but it’s subject to human error.”
The government’s assassination program is actually constructed, he adds, to avoid self-correction. “They make rushed decisions and are often wrong in their assessments. They jump to conclusions and there is no going back to correct mistakes.” Because there is an ever-increasing demand for more targets to be added to the kill list, he says, the mentality is “just keep feeding the beast.”
— tony perkins’ beard (@onekade) February 10, 2014
Relax, it’s just metadata. They only use it for assassinations, not for listening to conversations. https://t.co/bQj1z7WyJM
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) February 10, 2014
— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) February 10, 2014
Targeted Surveillance: http://t.co/mhxYqY7igc
— ashkan soltani (@ashk4n) February 10, 2014