Welcome to Global Drones Watch!

Welcome to Global Drones Watch. The purpose of this site is to provide useful information about drones, and to encourage people to become active in efforts to stop killer drones overseas and stop domestic drones from violating our privacy and safety.

This site is run by CODEPINK Women for Peace and CODEPINK is coordinating a coalition of organizations, academics, and activists working to stop drone warfare. Please contact us with any suggestions, comments or questions.

In November of 2013 CODEPINK hosted an International Drone Summit in Washington DC, hosting delegates from Yemen, Afghanistan, England, Germany, and many more!  To see video and articles chronicling this groundbreaking event visit our Drone Summit 2013 page.

by Martha Hubert

On Sunday, April 6th, Toby, Fred and I drove to Creech AFB via Fresno, where we visited the artist installation of a life size drone model.
We were greeted by Joseph DeLappe (the artist from Reno), Beverly and later, Teresa (both Fresno Activist friends).
We watched as the artist and his student assistants added the final wing to the Drone.

The point of this installation is to draw attention to drone warfare, and that it isn’t just another computer game.
Drone warfare is TERROR.  We said our goodbyes and were on our way.
There were a lot of miles to cover before we reached Creech.  We arrived at the Goddess Temple in Cactus Springs,
a short drive from Creech AFB, at 10:00 p.m. Sunday night, glad to get out of the car.Monday morning our friend John (VFP Albany) joined the three of us from the Bay Area to protest at the base entry.
Our numbers were small, but our messages were many (and STRONG), thanks to Toby’s obsession with banner making.

Between protests on Monday, we visited the wild horses at Cold Creek, not far from Creech at a higher elevation (cooler too).

On Monday night we were joined by our friend Barry (VFP Sacramento).
He was especially popular with some of us since he brought Coffee for Tuesday morning.

It’s wonderful being back here on the Goddess Temple property.
The huge Cottonwood trees provide shade and a great place to work on making new banners.
Barry picked up Catherine at the Las Vegas Tuesday afternoon, while some of us stayed behind.
We had banners to make!

CAUTION:  MILITARY LIFE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH

QUESTION AUTHORITY

It was nice to have both Catherine and Barry back with us for Tuesday afternoon’s commute.
Was it ever HOT out there!  Those cold beers that we got at the Oasis Bar in the tiny town of Indian Springs were exceptionally good!

The desolate landscape in this part of the country is a rock hound’s dream come true.
The Goddess Temple and grounds are evolving in a beautiful way, thanks to Candace Ross, the Temple Priestess.
We’re fortunate to have the Temple Guest House for a place to stay, a place filled with love and creative energy.
Each day we greet the commuters in and out of the base with our signs and banners.
We’re out at the most busy entrance to the base 6-8 am and 3-5 pm, sometimes longer.

Wednesday morning we dressed in black with white masks, carried tiny coffins, a baby (doll), and the huge banner saying
DRONE WARFARE IS TERROR, as well as another saying MOTHERS SAY NO TO WAR.
The five of us had a funeral procession down the highway next to the base.
We were back at the base entrance Wednesday afternoon, focusing on Justice for Chelsea Manning and all whistleblowers.
Wednesday evening we brought our messages to Las Vegas, and had dinner at Bacco, Lt. Ehren Watada’s restaurant there.
Edwina, Lisa, John, Mark, Ming and others joined us for dinner.
While waiting for our meal, we kept busy cutting out paper drones for an upcoming action.
It was very fitting to show our support of the restaurant owned and managed by the brave veteran
who stood up to the lies of our government leading us to the war in Iraq.  It was an excellent meal, enjoyed by all.
After dinner we split into two cars: one for grocery and hardware shopping and the other to pick up Renay and Peggy at the airport.


None of us got much sleep that night.  Barry’s coffee was essential Thursday morning.
We were all up bright (well, it was actually dark) and early Thursday morning (with five new participants!)
We gathered at the entrance to Creech wearing white clothing and white masks.

We wore blue scarves in solidarity with the Blue Scarf Movement (thebluescarf.org<http://thebluescarf.org/> )

“The Blue Scarf represents the expansive blue sky we all share and has become a global symbol for togetherness.
It was set in motion by a very brave group of women in Afghanistan ready to be heard and is now being worn around the world as a way for people to express their solidarity as global citizens for a better world.”


Every day we’re joined by more protesters!
There’s one nut of a counter protestor, on his huge motorcycle with a big American flag.  More on him later.

We’re having a blast.  Let’s hope we’re having an impact!

John Amidon’s beautiful video of the direct action/arrests on Friday:

Chris Woods | The Guardian

(To see the video, click here)

A regular US air force unit based in the Nevada desert is responsible for flying the CIA‘s drone strike programme in Pakistan, according to a new documentary to be released on Tuesday.

The film – which has been three years in the making – identifies the unit conducting CIA strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas as the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron, which operates from a secure compound in a corner of Creech air force base, 45 miles from Las Vegas in the Mojave desert.

Several former drone operators have claimed that the unit’s conventional air force personnel – rather than civilian contractors – have been flying the CIA’s heavily armed Predator missions in Pakistan, a 10-year campaign which according to some estimates has killed more than 2,400 people.

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said this posed questions of legality and oversight. “A lethal force apparatus in which the CIA and regular military collaborate as they are reportedly doing risks upending the checks and balances that restrict where and when lethal force is used, and thwart democratic accountability, which cannot take place in secrecy.”

The Guardian approached the National Security Council, the CIA and the Pentagon for comment last week. The NSC and CIA declined to comment, while the Pentagon did not respond.

The role of the squadron, and the use of its regular air force personnel in the CIA’s targeted killing programme, first emerged during interviews with two former special forces drone operators for a new documentary film, Drone.

Brandon Bryant, a former US Predator operator, told the film he decided to speak out after senior officials in the Obama administration gave a briefing last year in which they said they wanted to “transfer” control of the CIA’s secretdrones programme to the military.

Bryant said this was disingenuous because it was widely known in military circles that the US air force was already involved.

“There is a lie hidden within that truth. And the lie is that it’s always been the air force that has flown those missions. The CIA might be the customer but the air force has always flown it. A CIA label is just an excuse to not have to give up any information. That is all it has ever been.”

Referring to the 17th squadron, another former drone operator, Michael Haas, added: “It’s pretty widely known [among personnel] that the CIA controls their mission.”

Six other former drone operators who worked alongside the unit, and who have extensive knowledge of the drone programme, have since corroborated the claims. None of them were prepared to go on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Bryant said public scrutiny of the programme had focused so far on the CIA rather than the military, and it was time to acknowledge the role of those who had been carrying out missions on behalf of the agency’s civilian analysts.

“Everyone talks about CIA over Pakistan, CIA double-tap, CIA over Yemen, CIA over Somalia. But I don’t believe that they deserve the entirety of all that credit for the drone programme,” he said. “They might drive the missions; they might say that these are the objectives – accomplish it. They don’t fly it.”

Another former drone operator based at Creech said members of the 17th were obsessively secretive.

“They don’t hang out with anyone else. Once they got into the 17th and got upgraded operationally, they pretty much stopped talking to us. They would only hang out among themselves like a high school clique, a gang or something.”

Shamsi said the revelations, if true, raised “a host of additional pressing questions about the legal framework under which the targeted killing programme is carried out and the basis for the secrecy that continues to shroud it.”

She added: “It will come as a surprise to most Americans if the CIA is directing the military to carry out warlike activities. The agency should be collecting and analysing foreign intelligence, not presiding over a massive killing apparatus.

“We don’t know precisely what rules the CIA is operating under, but what we do know makes clear that it’s not abiding by the laws that strictly limit extrajudicial killing both in and out of traditional battlefields. Now we have to ask whether the regular military is violating those laws as well, under the secrecy that the CIA wields as sword and shield over its killing activities.

“Congressional hearings in the last year have made it embarrassingly clear that Congress has not exercised much oversight over the lethal programme.”

In theory, the revelation could expose serving air force personnel to legal challenges based on their direct involvement in a programme that a UN special rapporteur and numerous other judicial experts are concerned may be wholly or partly in violation of international law.

Sitting 45 miles north-west of Las Vegas in the Mojave desert, Creech air force base has played a key role in the US drone programme since the 1990s.

The 432d wing oversees four conventional US air force Predator and Reaper squadrons, which carry out surveillance missions and air strikes in Afghanistan.

There is another, far more secretive cluster of units within the wing called the 732nd Operations Group, which states that it “employs remotely piloted aircraft in theatres across the globe year-round”.

This operations group has four drone squadrons, which all appear to be linked with the CIA.

The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron “test-flies” the RQ-170 Sentinel, the CIA’s stealth drone which made headlines after one was captured over Iran in December 2011.

The 22nd and 867th Reconnaissance Squadrons each fly Reaper drones, the more heavily armed successor to the Predator.

But it is the last of the four units – the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron – that is now under the most scrutiny.

It is understood to have 300 air crew and operates about 35 Predator drones – enough to provide five or six simultaneous missions during any 24-hour period.

It operates from within an inner compound at Creech, which even visiting military VIPs are unable to access, say former base personnel. Former workers at Creech say the unit was treated as the “crown jewels” of the drone programme.

“They wouldn’t even let us walk by it, they were just so protective of it,” said Haas, who for two years was a drone operator. He was also an operational trainer at Creech.

“From what I was able to gather, it was pretty much confirmed they were flying missions almost exclusively in Pakistan with the intent to strike.”

In the Operations Cell, which receives video feeds from every drone “line” in progress at Creech, mission co-ordinators from the 17th were kept segregated from all the others.

Established as a regular drone squadron in 2002, the unit transitioned to its new “customer” in 2004 at the same time that CIA drone strikes began in Pakistan, former personnel have said.

The operators receive their orders from civilian CIA analysts who ultimately decide whether – and against whom – to carry out a strike, according to one former mid-level drone commander.

Creech air force base would only confirm that the 17th squadron was engaged in “global operations”.

“The 732nd Operations Group oversees global operations of four squadrons – the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron, 22nd Reconnaissance Squadron, 30th Reconnaissance Squadron and the 867th Reconnaissance Squadron. These squadrons are all still active … their mission is to perform high-quality, persistent, multi-role intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in support of combatant commanders’ needs.”

Although the agency’s drone strikes have killed a number of senior figures in al-Qaida and the Taliban, the CIA also stands accused by two United Nations investigators of possible war crimes for some of its activities in Pakistan. They are probing the targeting of rescuers and the bombing of a public funeral.

• Tonje Schei’s film Drone premieres on Arte on 15 April.

• Chris Woods is the author of Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, which is published next winter in the US and Europe.

by Mariana Baaber | The News International

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Ambassador Zamir Akram successfully spearheaded a resolution which was adopted by a majority vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling on all states to ensure that the use of armed drones complies with international law.

 

The resolution urges the member states to ensure that the use of armed drones comply with their obligations under international law, including the UN Charter, human rights law and international humanitarian law, in particular the principles of distinction and proportionality.

 

The resolution, co-sponsored by Yemen and Switzerland was adopted by a vote of 27 states in favour to six against, with 14 abstentions at the 47-member Geneva forum. The United States, Britain and France voted against.

 

Pakistan has publicly maintained that these drone strikes which have taken out civilians as collateral damage also infringe its sovereignty.“The purpose of this resolution is not to shame or name anyone, as we are against this approach. It is about supporting a principle,” Ambassador Zamir Akram told the UN Human Rights Council, said his office in Geneva.

 

The resolution did not name the United States.While India abstained from voting, Akram, speaking before the vote, said opposition “can only lead to the conclusion that these states are guilty of violating applicable international law and demonstrate that they are afraid of being exposed in the expert panel”.

 

It was after a long time that the Foreign Office, whose recent policies have been severely criticised, had reason to pat itself on the back.“The landmark resolution was adopted as a result of our Mission’s close coordination with like-minded states to sensitize the international community on this important legal matter at the United Nations. It underscores the success of Pakistan’s diplomacy in garnering international support for its principled position on the use of armed drones in violation of international law. This will further strengthen the country’s efforts to address the issue of drones,” the spokesperson at the Foreign Office said in a statement.

 

Equally delighted was the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, which has been in the forefront of political parties criticizing these American-led attacks.The party’s spokesperson Dr Shireen Mazari told The News, “PTI’s position has been vindicated regarding the illegality of drone attacks under international law”.

 

The resolution also calls for convening an interactive panel discussion of experts on legal questions pertaining to this issue as recommended in the report of Ben Emerson, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights, while countering terrorism. The panel discussion will take place at the 27th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva to be held in September 2014.

 

“Pakistan has consistently raised the issue at all relevant international fora including the United Nations. In November, 2013 Pakistan had successfully included references on the use of drones in a UN General Assembly resolution that urged member states to comply with their obligations under international law. Other UN bodies where Pakistan has raised this concern include the UN Security Council, committees of UN General Assembly dealing with disarmament and international security issues and Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons”, added the spokesperson.

from RT || http://rt.com/usa/us-boycotts-unhrc-drone-resolution-961/

Pakistani leaders hope to convince the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a resolution that would force US drone strikes to adhere to international law – a request that inspired the US to boycott the talks altogether, according to a new report.

The draft of a Pakistani resolution, first reported by Colum Lynch of Foreign Policy, proposes that nations “ensure transparency” when discussing drone strikes and “conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations whenever there are indications of any violations to human rights caused by their use.”

While official numbers are nonexistent, experts have suggested that anywhere from 200 to nearly 1,000 Pakistani civilians have been killed by US drone strikes, with as many as 200 children possibly among that total.

The issue of drone strikes, while remaining largely out of US headlines, has become one of the most polarizing in Pakistan. While previous reports have made it clear that Pakistani leaders have authorized at least some drone strikes, they publicly maintain that that unmanned American aerial vehicles constantly buzzing in the skies undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty.

The proposal revealed Wednesday, which also calls for “an interactive panel discussion” on the use of drones, is a clear appeal from Pakistan to the international community.

The Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva, Switzerland, entered its third day of discussing the resolution Wednesday, yet the US delegation was nowhere to be found.

 

A general view taken on the opening day of the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (AFP Photo / Fabrice Coffrini)

A general view taken on the opening day of the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (AFP Photo / Fabrice Coffrini)

 

The Obama administration first joined the council in 2009, ending a boycott initiated by the Bush administration, which was nervous about smaller nations trying to influence the body – particularly on matters relating to Israel.

Since then, though, the US has avoided a number of instances where authorities may have been forced to turn over information about its classified drone program.

Ben Emmerson, the UN’s current special rapporteur for the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, told Foreign Policy that American intelligence leaders must at least give other world leaders a basic understanding of US drone use.

The single greatest obstacle to an evaluation of the civilian impact of drone strikes is lack of transparency, which makes it extremely difficult to assess claims of precision targeting objectively,” he said.

Pressure from the international community seems to have worked, at least temporarily, as the number of US drone strikes in Pakistan has fallen over the past month. The Pakistani government asked the US to curtail drone activity as it tries to continue peace negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, according to The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller.

That’s what they asked for, and we didn’t tell them no,” one US official said.

The president has made clear that even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks – through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners – America must move off a war footing,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said last month. “We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.”

Those self-imposed restrictions have done little to quash debate both at home and abroad. Last month, after the Obama administration said it would reduce the amount of attacks, it came under fire from Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who warned against such a decision.

Individuals who would have been previously removed from the battlefield by US counterterrorism operations for attacking for plotting to attack against US interests remain free because of self-imposed red tape,” he said during a congressional hearing, adding that the new rules endanger “the lives of Americans at home and our military overseas in a way that is frustrating to our allies and frustrating to those of us who engage in the oversight of our classified activities.”

Resolutions like the one proposed by Pakistan generally pass by consensus, although the US has asked that this proposal goes up for a vote when it is formally introduced next week.

This, like the rest of the Obama administration’s approach on this matter, is misguided, says Andrew Prasow, an American lawyer affiliated with Human Rights Watch.

This resolution would be the first time the council is going to do anything about drones and the US is not participating in any of the informal discussion about language,” he told foreign Policy. “They are telling us they are reserving judgment on the resolution, which means they won’t be happy with it. We have also heard from them and others as well they are concerned that the council doesn’t have the jurisdiction over this issue. I think it’s ludicrous to say the Human Rights Council doesn’t have anything to say about drone strikes.”

Alice K. Ross | Global Research

Civilian drone deaths in Afghanistan tripled last year, according to a report by a UN agency. Forty-five civilians died in drone strikes in 2013.

The report, by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama), found that drone strikes accounted for at least a third of all civilian deaths in air strikes last year. Unama notes that it is sometimes difficult to establish which type of aircraft carried out a strike, so the true total could be higher.

The UK and US are the only countries to operate armed drones in the conflict. A December 2012 report by the Bureau found that the two forces had carried out over 1,000 drone strikes in the country in the previous five years. British drones have carried out over a fifth of all these strikes, despite having a much smaller fleet.

Unama identifies 19 separate incidents in which civilians were killed. It raises concerns about ‘possible negligence’ by international troops over a drone strike on September 7 2013 in which local officials immediately claimed civilians had died. The governor of Kunar province, where the attack took place, told Reuters: ‘Four women, four children, two drivers, a merchant and three suspected (insurgents) were killed.’

‘During Unama’s initial meetings with Isaf on the incident Isaf denied the possibility of civilian casualties,’ the report notes. Isaf claimed a senior insurgent had probably been killed and the dead were ‘insurgents’, although it did not identify them.

‘After multiple meetings in which Unama called for a review of the incident, Isaf confirmed two civilian deaths “one female and one child” and “would not rule out the possibility of another woman’s death,’ Unama’s report adds.

Unama conducted over 50 interviews with relatives of victims, community representatives, and Afghan and Isaf officials, and found that the attack killed 10 civilians and seriously injured a four-year-old girl. It notes that Isaf has not published the results of any investigation into the incident or indicated any change in its targeting policies.

‘The apparent failure… of international forces to identify the presence of a group of women and children in a vehicle prior to engaging the vehicle with a UAV/RPA [drone] strike could suggest negligence,’ Unama notes. ‘Of further concern, was the apparent failure of international military forces to confirm the identity and/or status of the men accompanying the fighter targeted by international military forces.’

Isaf spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Will Griffin told the Bureau that after Isaf investigated, it ‘acknowledged responsibility for at least three civilian casualties’.

He added: ‘Isaf identified a target individual in a vehicle and followed him to an area remote from villages and apparent civilians. In spite of persistent observation, unknown to ISAF there were at least three civilians located in the vehicle with the target. Although ISAF’s engagement was successful against the insurgent target, regrettably the strike resulted in three other casualties. One of these was a four-year-old child, for whom ISAF took responsibility for sending to the US for advanced medical treatment.’

Asked about the disparity between Isaf’s casualty count and Unama’s, he pointed to ‘variance between the sources and methodolgies used by Isaf and Unama to verify information’. He added: ‘We certainly respect the work that Unama does in this regard and agree that any civilian casualty is one too many.’

Unama does not state which force operated the drone. A Los Angeles Times report on the strike, published in December 2013, mentioned discussions with US officials about the strike. Philip Hammond, the British defence minister, wrote in the Guardian in December 2013 that only one attack by a British drone has killed civilians – a March 2011 attack, in which four farmers were killed.

The numbers killed in air strikes represented a tiny fraction of the overall violence captured in Unama’s report. After a decline in civilian deaths in 2012, last year they rose again to approach 2011′s record highs. Nearly 3,000 non-combatants were killed, including 1,300 women and children.

Three quarters of the deaths were caused by the Taliban and other insurgents, with improvised explosive devices alone killing almost 1,000 civilians. International air operations represented 2% of all civilian deaths, and declined by 10% compared to 2012.

The rising civilian toll in drone strikes is in stark contrast to the CIA’s operations over the border in Pakistan, where the Bureau has found drones killed a maximum of four civilians in the year’s 27 drone operations. However civilian casualties also rose in US drone operations in Yemen, where at least six civilians were killed in a US military strike that reportedly attacked a wedding procession.

Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald | The Intercept

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.

“Once the bomb lands or a night raid happens, you know that phone is there,” he says. “But we don’t know who’s behind it, who’s holding it. It’s of course assumed that the phone belongs to a human being who is nefarious and considered an ‘unlawful enemy combatant.’ This is where it gets very shady.”

The former drone operator also says that he personally participated in drone strikes where the identity of the target was known, but other unknown people nearby were also killed.

“They might have been terrorists,” he says. “Or they could have been family members who have nothing to do with the target’s activities.”

What’s more, he adds, the NSA often locates drone targets by analyzing the activity of a SIM card, rather than the actual content of the calls. 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.”

The Obama administration has repeatedly insisted that its operations kill terrorists with the utmost precision.

In his speech at the National Defense University last May, President Obama declared that “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.” He added that, “by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

But the increased reliance on phone tracking and other fallible surveillance tactics suggests that the opposite is true. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which uses a conservative methodology to track drone strikes, estimates that at least 273 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have been killed by unmanned aerial assaults under the Obama administration. A recent study conducted by a U.S. military adviser found that, during a single year in Afghanistan – where the majority of drone strikes have taken place – unmanned vehicles were 10 times more likely than conventional aircraft to cause civilian casualties.

The NSA declined to respond to questions for this article. Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, also refused to discuss “the type of operational detail that, in our view, should not be published.”

In describing the administration’s policy on targeted killings, Hayden would not say whether strikes are ever ordered without the use of human intelligence. She emphasized that “our assessments are not based on a single piece of information. We gather and scrutinize information from a variety of sources and methods before we draw conclusions.”

Hayden felt free, however, to note the role that human intelligence plays after a deadly strike occurs. “After any use of targeted lethal force, when there are indications that civilian deaths may have occurred, intelligence analysts draw on a large body of information – including human intelligence, signals intelligence, media reports, and surveillance footage – to help us make informed determinations about whether civilians were in fact killed or injured.”

The government does not appear to apply the same standard of care in selecting whom to target for assassination. The former JSOC drone operator estimates that the overwhelming majority of high-value target operations he worked on in Afghanistan relied on signals intelligence, known as SIGINT, based on the NSA’s phone-tracking technology.

“Everything they turned into a kinetic strike or a night raid was almost 90 percent that,” he says. “You could tell, because you’d go back to the mission reports and it will say ‘this mission was triggered by SIGINT,’ which means it was triggered by a geolocation cell.”

In July, the Washington Post relied exclusively on former senior U.S. intelligence officials and anonymous sources to herald the NSA’s claims about its effectiveness at geolocating terror suspects.

Within the NSA, the paper reported, “A motto quickly caught on at Geo Cell: ‘We Track ’Em, You Whack ’Em.’”

But the Post article included virtually no skepticism about the NSA’s claims, and no discussion at all about how the unreliability of the agency’s targeting methods results in the killing of innocents.

In fact, as the former JSOC drone operator recounts, tracking people by metadata and then killing them by SIM card is inherently flawed. The NSA “will develop a pattern,” he says, “where they understand that this is what this person’s voice sounds like, this is who his friends are, this is who his commander is, this is who his subordinates are. And they put them into a matrix. But it’s not always correct. There’s a lot of human error in that.”

The JSOC operator’s account is supported by another insider who was directly involved in the drone program. Brandon Bryant spent six years as a “stick monkey” – a drone sensor operator who controls the “eyes” of the U.S. military’s unmanned aerial vehicles. By the time he left the Air Force in 2011, Bryant’s squadron, which included a small crew of veteran drone operators, had been credited with killing 1,626 “enemies” in action.

Bryant says he has come forward because he is tormented by the loss of civilian life he believes that he and his squadron may have caused. Today he is committed to informing the public about lethal flaws in the U.S. drone program.

Bryant describes the program as highly compartmentalized: Drone operators taking shots at targets on the ground have little idea where the intelligence is coming from.

“I don’t know who we worked with,” Bryant says. “We were never privy to that sort of information. If the NSA did work with us, like, I have no clue.”

During the course of his career, Bryant says, many targets of U.S. drone strikes evolved their tactics, particularly in the handling of cell phones. “They’ve gotten really smart now and they don’t make the same mistakes as they used to,” he says. “They’d get rid of the SIM card and they’d get a new phone, or they’d put the SIM card in the new phone.”

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.

DT 1

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.

President Obama signs authorizations for “hits” that remain valid for 60 days. If a target cannot be located within that period, it must be reviewed and renewed. According to the former drone operator, it can take 18 months or longer to move from intelligence gathering to getting approval to actually carrying out a strike in Yemen. “What that tells me,” he says, “is that commanders, once given the authorization needed to strike, are more likely to strike when they see an opportunity – even if there’s a high chance of civilians being killed, too – because in their mind they might never get the chance to strike that target again.”

While drones are not the only method used to kill targets, they have become so prolific that they are now a standard part of U.S. military culture. Remotely piloted Reaper and Predator vehicles are often given nicknames. Among those used in Afghanistan, says the former JSOC drone operator, were “Lightning” and “Sky Raider.”

The latter drone, he adds, was also referred to as “Sky Raper,” for a simple reason – “because it killed a lot of people.” When operators were assigned to “Sky Raper,” he adds, it meant that “somebody was going to die. It was always set to the most high-priority missions.”

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.

“The VICTORYDANCE mission was a great experience,” the operator writes. “It was truly a joint interagency effort between CIA and NSA. Flights and targets were coordinated with both CIAers and NSAers. The mission lasted 6 months, during which 43 flights were flown.”

VICTORYDANCE, he adds, “mapped the Wi-Fi fingerprint of nearly every major town in Yemen.”

DT 5

DT 6

The NSA has played an increasingly central role in drone killings over the past five years. In one top-secret NSA document from 2010, the head of the agency’s Strategic Planning and Policy Division of the Counterterrorism Mission Management Center recounts the history of the NSA’s involvement in Yemen. Shortly before President Obama took office, the document reveals, the agency began to “shift analytic resources to focus on Yemen.”

In 2008, the NSA had only three analysts dedicated to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. By the fall of 2009, it had 45 analysts, and the agency was producing “high quality” signal intelligence for the CIA and JSOC.

In December 2009, utilizing the NSA’s metadata collection programs, the Obama administration dramatically escalated U.S. drone and cruise missile strikes in Yemen.

The first strike in the country known to be authorized by Obama targeted an alleged Al Qaeda camp in the southern village of al-Majala.

The strike, which included the use of cluster bombs, resulted in the deaths of 14 women and 21 children. It is not clear whether the strike was based on metadata collection; the White House has never publicly explained the strike or the source of the faulty intelligence that led to the civilian fatalities.

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.

When Brandon Bryant left his Air Force squadron in April 2011, the unit was aiding JSOC in its hunt for the American-born cleric. The CIA took the lead in the hunt for Awlaki after JSOC tried and failed to kill him in the spring of 2011.

DT 4

According to Bryant, the NSA’s expanded role in Yemen has only added to what he sees as the risk of fatal errors already evident in CIA operations. “They’re very non-discriminate with how they do things, as far as you can see their actions over in Pakistan and the devastation that they’ve had there,” Bryant says about the CIA. “It feels like they tried to bring those same tactics they used over in Pakistan down to Yemen. It’s a repeat of tactical thinking, instead of intelligent thinking.”

T

hose within the system understand that the government’s targeting tactics are fundamentally flawed. According to the former JSOC drone operator, instructors who oversee GILGAMESH training emphasize: “‘This isn’t a science. This is an art.’ It’s kind of a way of saying that it’s not perfect.”

Yet the tracking “pods” mounted on the bottom of drones have facilitated thousands of “capture or kill” operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan since September 11. One top-secret NSA document provided by Snowden notes that by 2009, “for the first time in the history of the U.S. Air Force, more pilots were trained to fly drones … than conventional fighter aircraft,” leading to a “‘tipping point’ in U.S. military combat behavior in resorting to air strikes in areas of undeclared wars,” such as Yemen and Pakistan.

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?”

Even NSA operatives seem to recognize how profoundly the agency’s tracking technology deviates from standard operating methods of war.

One NSA document from 2005 poses this question: “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.”

DT 3

Another document boasts that geolocation technology has “cued and compressed numerous ‘kill chains’ (i.e. all of the steps taken to find, track, target, and engage the enemy), resulting in untold numbers of enemy killed and captured in Afghanistan as well as the saving of U.S. and Coalition lives.”

The former JSOC drone operator, however, remains highly disturbed by the unreliability of such methods. 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.”

For Bryant, the killing of Awlaki – followed two weeks later by the killing of his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al Awlaki, also an American citizen – motivated him to speak out. Last October, Bryant appeared before a panel of experts at the United Nations – including the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, who is currently conducting an investigation into civilians killed by drone strikes.

Dressed in hiking boots and brown cargo pants, Bryant called for “independent investigations” into the Obama administration’s drone program. “At the end of our pledge of allegiance, we say ‘with liberty and justice for all,’” he told the panel. “I believe that should be applied to not only American citizens, but everyone that we interact with as well, to put them on an equal level and to treat them with respect.”

Unlike those who oversee the drone program, Bryant also took personal responsibility for his actions in the killing of Awlaki. “I was a drone operator for six years, active duty for six years in the U.S. Air Force, and I was party to the violations of constitutional rights of an American citizen who should have been tried under a jury,” he said. “And because I violated that constitutional right, I became an enemy of the American people.”

Bryant later told The Intercept, “I had to get out because we were told that the president wanted Awlaki dead. And I wanted him dead. I was told that he was a traitor to our country…. I didn’t really understand that our Constitution covers people, American citizens, who have betrayed our country. They still deserve a trial.”

The killing of Awlaki and his son still haunt Bryant. The younger Awlaki, Abdulrahman, had run away from home to try to find his dad, whom he had not seen in three years. But his father was killed before Abdulrahman could locate him. Abdulrahman was then killed in a separate strike two weeks later as he ate dinner with his teenage cousin and some friends. The White House has never explained the strike.

“I don’t think there’s any day that goes by when I don’t think about those two, to be honest,” Bryant says. “The kid doesn’t seem like someone who would be a suicide bomber or want to die or something like that. He honestly seems like a kid who missed his dad and went there to go see his dad.”

Last May, President Obama acknowledged that “the necessary secrecy” involved in lethal strikes “can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites. It can also lead a president and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.”

But that, says the former JSOC operator, is precisely what has happened. Given how much the government now relies on drone strikes – and given how many of those strikes are now dependent on metadata rather than human intelligence – the operator warns that political officials may view the geolocation program as more dependable than it really is.

“I don’t know whether or not President Obama would be comfortable approving the drone strikes if he knew the potential for mistakes that are there,” he says. “All he knows is what he’s told.”

Whether or not Obama is fully aware of the errors built into the program of targeted assassination, he and his top advisors have repeatedly made clear that the president himself directly oversees the drone operation and takes full responsibility for it. Obama once reportedly told his aides that it “turns out I’m really good at killing people.”

The president added, “Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”

Ryan Devereaux contributed to this article.

Drew Guarini I Huffington Post

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