The Intercept, a new publication by the media organisation funded by Ebay owner-billionaire Pierre Omidyar and led by journalist Glenn Greenwald, has revealed that the U.S. 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.”
Last year Mr. Greenwald and his colleague and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who is also a staffer at The Intercept, worked extensively with whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to expose a wide range of surveillance programmes by the secretive agency.
With the launch of the ‘First Look’ media organisation this week, however, they appeared to rely on a new source, a former drone operator for the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA.
The unnamed source said that rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the Central Intelligence Agency or Pentagon ordered strikes “based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.”
The Intercept’s source also stated that innocent people have “absolutely” been killed as a result of the NSA’s increasing reliance on the surveillance tactic and some targets, including senior Taliban leaders, “have moved to thwart the tactic.”
Specifically the former drone operator said that some such Taliban bosses had “as many as 16 different SIM cards associated with their identity within the High Value Target system... [and] 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.”
“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,” he added.
The revelations about the NSA and CIA using mass surveillance data for drone strikes are not new, even if some of the latest details and the source are.
Last October a report in the Washington Post based on documents made available by Mr. Snowden said that it was the NSA’s eavesdropping on emails that led to the killing of Hassan Ghul, an al Qaeda associate who provided “a critical piece of intelligence that helped the CIA” find Osama bin Laden, in a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt in October 2012.
At the time Hina Shamsi, National Security Project Director at the American Civil Liberties Union said to The Hindu that it was impossible for the public to evaluate the rules that the government had set up for itself if the it insisted on keeping virtually every aspect of them hidden.
However, the exposés based on Mr. Snowden’s documents led to heightened pressure from the U.S. Congress on President Barack Obama, compelling him to recently announce a limited review and reform the NSA’S telephone surveillance programmes.