By Joe Wright
While the world is rightly concerned about the wholesale dragnet spying of citizens across the planet, another program has emerged which shows how “intelligence” gathered by the National Security Agency (NSA) is being used in a lethal manner.
Leaked documents from Edward Snowden in October revealed a secret unit of the NSA that was designed to process the communications of certain targeted individuals.
Chillingly, as detailed in the video below, this intelligence unit actually led to the confirmed death of Hassan Ghul, an alleged associate of Osama bin Laden. Now, however, new documents released by Glenn Greenwald and his new project The Intercept indicate that the targeting of individuals is far less precise than previously believed, leading to incorrect target identification and the documented killing of innocent people.
The NSA continues to assert the benign collection of “metadata” vs. the worry of the general population that actual conversations are swept up in dragnets and listened to. The new report from The Intercept indicates that cell phone metadata collection can have lethal implications:
An anonymous former drone operator for Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) told The Intercept — a new publication helmed by Glenn Greenwald, who broke the first of many NSA revelations last year — that the US military and CIA use the NSA’s metadata analysis and phone-tracking abilities to identify airstrike targets without confirming their veracity on the ground. (Source)
This use of signals intelligence (SIGINT) as opposed to human intelligence ground confirmation (HUMINT), is leading the CIA and military to order strikes based on tracking data alone. Although the source is anonymous, Greenwald states that leaked documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden confirm what the former drone operator is purporting, and is also supported by the testimony from Brandon Bryant, another former drone operator who revealed his identity.
The problems with assigning metadata to human targets are many:
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.
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).
The complete lawlessness of the NSA, the drone program, and everything that the military-industrial-surveillance complex is involved with continues to become more obvious with each new revelation.
One can only imagine what comes next.
The injustice being committed overseas is an extreme version that very well could creep into domestic NSA operations if the NSA is not thwarted.
Fortunately, an increasing number of states are asserting their rights to be free of this federal intrusion. Please read the latest from The Tenth Amendment center and the OffNow Coalition, as citizens aim to Nullify the NSA.
Full transcript with research links below:
By Christina Hartman
America’s drone program is most closely associated with the CIA, but it turns out the National Security Administration might have played an extensive role in the U.S. government’s targeted killing program. (Via Department of Defense)
All that from The Washington Post, which reviewed documents it got from former NSA analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Snowden is currently hiding out in Russia where he was granted temporary asylum. (Via The Guardian)
And of course, it was recently revealed the NSA carried out a domestic spying program involving surveillance of American citizens. (Via Electronic Frontier Foundation)
Now, the Post says intelligence officials requested the outlet withhold some details it came by in its review of the NSA documents. But for just one example, the Post cites an email apparently sent by the wife of an Osama bin Laden associate — intelligence the NSA and CIA closely collaborated on and which eventually led to that associate’s death in a drone strike in 2012. (Via CNN)
The U.S. never acknowledged killing that associate, Hassan Ghul, but the documents show the NSA was responsible for confirming the death.
The U.S. drone program has faced criticism from those who say it favors outright assassination in place of detention and interrogation. (Via RT)
According to the Post — specifically, the NSA’s role is to comb through the incredible volume of intelligence found in emails, phone calls and other communications. When asked for comment, a National Security Administration spokesperson offered something vague — saying the agency works to “protect the nation and its interests…”
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