How are ‘militants’ identified?

Two very questionable methods for ‘identifying’ militants are currently in use – local level informants, and analysis of mobile phone data. The drone campaign relies heavily on local informants and spies. And these men (and women?) are paid handsomely for their services. Tom Junod, in a piece called The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama published in Esquire magazine, pointed out the sheer fragility, inaccuracy and irrelevance of much that passes for ‘intelligence’ and ‘facts’:

There have been thousands killed as the result of direct orders of the Lethal Presidency. How can each death be said to be the end product of rigorous review when there are so many of them? And most importantly, how can the care given to the inclusion of individual terrorists on CIA and DOD kill lists be extended to those who are killed without the administration ever knowing their names — those who are killed in “signature strikes,” based on data, rather than “personality strikes,” based on human intelligence?

The simple answer: It can’t, especially when, in the words of a former senior CIA official, “the increase in signature strikes is what accounts for most of the increased activity.” The Lethal Presidency is using intelligence to put people to death, but when the official familiar with targeting is asked about the quality of the information, there is a long pause before the answer.

“I can’t answer that question,” the official finally says. “You get information from intelligence channels and you don’t know how reliable it is or who the source was. The intelligence services have criteria, but most of the time the people making the decision have no idea what those criteria are. Some people [targets] you see over and over again. But when someone turns up for the first time, it’s harder to have confidence in that information.”

It is only human to have faith in the “human intelligence” generated by the agents, operatives, and assets of the CIA. But that’s the point: What’s human is always only human, and often wrong. America invaded Iraq on the pretext of intelligence that was fallacious if not dishonest. It confidently asserted that the detainees in Guantánamo were the “worst of the worst” and left them to the devices of CIA interrogators before admitting that hundreds were hapless victims of circumstance and letting them go. You, Mr. President, do not have a Guantánamo. But you are making the same characterization of those you target that the Bush administration made of those it detained, based on the same sources. The difference is that all your sentences are final, and you will never let anybody go. To put it as simply as possible: Six hundred men have been released uncharged from Guantánamo since its inception, which amounts to an admission of a terrible mistake. What if they had never even been detained? What if, under the precepts of the Lethal Presidency, they had simply been killed?

Since 2010 the bulk of drone attacks have been what is called ‘signature strikes’ – this was revealed in The Wall Street Journal by writers Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman and Julian E. Barnes in a piece called US Tightens Drone Rules, where they pointed out that:

Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known. The bulk of CIA’s drone strikes are signature strikes…

CIA officials defended the signature strikes by saying they frequently netted top terrorists, not just foot soldiers. Twice as many ‘wanted terrorists’ have been killed in signature strikes than in personality strikes, a U.S. counter-terrorism official claimed. This is difficult to believe, and frankly appears to be an outright lie. In fact, even the most cursory examination of facts on the ground reveal that the administration and the Pentagon are persistently lying about the scale of civilian casualties. In fact, recently leaked Pakistani government reports confirm the high level of civilian casualties. The same facts were confirmed in two recently release reports, . The Amnesty Report, titled Will I Be Next: US Drone Strikes In Pakistan and Human Rights Watch report title Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda: The Civilian Cost of U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen

We now learn that a third technique is being used – one equally suspect and unreliable. Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill have reported, in their new online journalism venture called The // Intercept, that the National Security Agency (NSA) is playing a close support role in the drone program. According to a former JSOC drone operator quoted in the report:

…the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who…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.

According to the article, the NSA has been playing a growing role in the drone program over the past five years. NSA data has been utilized extensively since 2009 as the drone program grew in intensity and reach. But such programs are riddled with problems, as the anonymous former drone operator is quoted as saying:

…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.”

Indeed.

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