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The Drone Debate: Do US Drone Strikes Create More Terrorists Than They Kill?

In the wake of the war in Iraq and the ground incursion the US launched in Afghanistan after 9/11, the phrase “boots on the ground’ has become something of an obscenity among the American public. 

Putting American lives at stake by sending soldiers into battle against extremist groups operating in the Mid-East is now viewed by many as the ultimate foreign policy blunder, which helps to explain why Washington has resorted increasingly to i) training and supplying proxy armies, and ii) executing “targets” from the stratosphere via drone strikes. 

We’ve spent more than enough time of late analyzing the flaws inherent in a strategy that involves providing covert support to those fighting regimes the US deems unfriendly and recalcitrant, but it’s important to remember that the CIA habitually uses unmanned drones to target suspected “terrorists” with virtually no regard for the “collateral damage” that can and does occur when Washington relies on shaky “intelligence” to spot “targets” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. 

A few weeks back, The Intercept was provided with what it calls “a cache of secret slides that provides a window into the inner workings of the U.S. military’s kill/capture operations at a key time in the evolution of the drone wars — between 2011 and 2013.”

We profiled The Intercept's report earlier this month (see here) and for anyone who missed it we've provided some notable excerpts, but the point in raising the issue again is to highlight a debate between Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept, and Georgetown University Associate Professor Christine Fair. The video clip is linked below.

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Via The Intercept

The documents, which also outline the internal views of special operations forces on the shortcomings and flaws of the drone program, were provided by a source within the intelligence community who worked on the types of operations and programs described in the slides.

The source said he decided to provide these documents to The Intercept because he believes the public has a right to understand the process by which people are placed on kill lists and ultimately assassinated on orders from the highest echelons of the U.S. government. “This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong,” the source said.

Documents on high-value kill/capture operations in Afghanistan buttress previous accounts of how the Obama administration masks the true number of civilians killed in drone strikes by categorizing unidentified people killed in a strike as enemies, even if they were not the intended targets. The slides also paint a picture of a campaign in Afghanistan aimed not only at eliminating al Qaeda and Taliban operatives, but also at taking out members of other local armed groups.

Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an overreliance on signals intelligence, an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and — due to a preference for assassination rather than capture — an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects. They also highlight the futility of the war in Afghanistan by showing how the U.S. has poured vast resources into killing local insurgents, in the process exacerbating the very threat the U.S. is seeking to confront.

These secret slides help provide historical context to Washington’s ongoing wars, and are especially relevant today as the U.S. military intensifies its drone strikes and covert actions against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Those campaigns, like the ones detailed in these documents, are unconventional wars that employ special operations forces at the tip of the spear.

The “find, fix, finish” doctrine that has fueled America’s post-9/11 borderless war is being refined and institutionalized. Whether through the use of drones, night raids, or new platforms yet to be unleashed, these documents lay bare the normalization of assassination as a central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

U.S. intelligence personnel collect information on potential targets, as The Intercept has previously reported, drawn from government watchlists and the work of intelligence, military, and law enforcement agencies. At the time of the study, when someone was destined for the kill list, intelligence analysts created a portrait of a suspect and the threat that person posed, pulling it together “in a condensed format known as a ‘baseball card.’” That information was then bundled with operational information and packaged in a “target information folder” to be “staffed up to higher echelons” for action. On average, it took 58 days for the president to sign off on a target,one slide indicates. At that point, U.S. forces had 60 days to carry out the strike. The documents include two case studies that are partially based on information detailed on baseball cards.

The system for creating baseball cards and targeting packages, according to the source, depends largely on intelligence intercepts and a multi-layered system of fallible, human interpretation. “It isn’t a surefire method,” he said. “You’re relying on the fact that you do have all these very powerful machines, capable of collecting extraordinary amounts of data and information,” which can lead personnel involved in targeted killings to believe they have “godlike powers.”

The White House and Pentagon boast that the targeted killing program is precise and that civilian deaths are minimal. However, documents detailing a special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan, Operation Haymaker, show that between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets.

During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm the people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be much worse.

“Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association,” the source said. When “a drone strike kills more than one person, there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate. … So it’s a phenomenal gamble.”

 The documents show that the military designated people it killed in targeted strikes as EKIA — “enemy killed in action” — even if they were not the intended targets of the strike. Unless evidence posthumously emerged to prove the males killed were not terrorists or “unlawful enemy combatants,” EKIA remained their designation, according to the source. That process, he said, “is insane. But we’ve made ourselves comfortable with that. The intelligence community, JSOC, the CIA, and everybody that helps support and prop up these programs, they’re comfortable with that idea.”

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And there's much, much more available at "The Drone Papers."

While what you'll read there is deplorable and on a certain level, shocking, those who follow US foreign policy will not be surprised. Essentially, Washington relies on faulty intelligence on the way to bombing targets from the stratosphere and almost everyone who ends up dead isn't a "terrorist." In order to conceal that fact, the CIA and the Pentagon classify anyone who was killed as an "enemy", and this egregious practice has become so commonplace as to be embedded in the drone workflow. 

Make no mistake, this is nothing short of a travesty and only serves to underscore the notion that Washington's Mid-East policy is beset by a toxic combination of corruption, buffoonery, and, if The Intercept is correct, murder. 

Click on the image below, watch the debate, and draw your own conclusions.