Privacy SOS

US government insider blows the whistle on drone operations, challenging the public to act


Yesterday marked four years since the US government fired a drone missile at a group of people eating lunch, killing 16 year-old US citizen from Denver Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (pictured above). The government has never apologized or explained why they killed the young man.

Today the Intercept publishes never before seen, classified documents from inside the US government’s extrajudicial killing program. The Drone Papers were leaked by a whistleblower concerned about the morality, legality, and efficacy of the strikes and the bureaucratic system that supports them. You should navigate over to the Intercept to read the many stories its journalists wrote after combing through the documents, and to see the documents themselves. Here are some highlights (or low-lights, given the subject matter):

  • The source who leaked the documents told the Intercept he’s concerned that “addiction” to drone strikes in military circles may prevent the government from changing course away from extrajudicial killings. “The military is easily capable of adapting to change, but they don’t like to stop anything they feel is making their lives easier, or is to their benefit. And this certainly is, in their eyes, 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,” the source told the Intercept. “But at this point, they have become so addicted to this machine, to this way of doing business, that it seems like it’s going to become harder and harder to pull them away from it the longer they’re allowed to continue operating in this way.”
  • The US government creates so-called “baseball cards” to manage identifying possible targets during the killing process. That baseball card, along with other information, is part of the package that’s ultimately sent to higher ups including the President, who decide whether to bomb someone.
  • Decisions about who to kill are often based on cell phone records. Yet the drone documents describe the military’s signals intelligence (or SIGINT) capabilities in places like Somalia and Yemen as “poor” and “limited.” The Intercept‘s source reflected on this problem: “There’s countless instances where I’ve come across intelligence that was faulty. It’s stunning the number of instances when selectors are misattributed to certain people. 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 documents reveal that the US government is aware that many of its strikes do not kill the intended targets—as many as 9 out of 10. This despite claims by top members of the US security state establishment that its drone strikes do not kill civilians.

Of the revelations, ACLU National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi said, “These eye-opening disclosures 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.”

Amnesty International is calling for a congressional investigation. “This warrants an immediate congressional inquiry into why the Obama administration has kept this vital information secret, including the real identities of all those killed in this global killing program,” said Naureen Shah, director of the Security with Human Rights project.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.