Mike Masnick
techdirt.com
February 10, 2014

Late last night, the new publication from Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill launched. It’s called The Intercept, and I imagine that it’s going to be a must-follow for a variety of reasons. Its first major article digs deep into the NSA’s role in killing people with drones (often innocent people) based on questionable metadata. Remember how NSA defenders kept insisting that “it’s just metadata” as if that was no big deal? Well, what about when that metadata is being used to kill people?

Just last week, we wrote about Rep. Mike Rogers complaining about new “red tape” that was making it more difficult to indiscriminately kill people with drones. That “red tape” is actually just a new set of guidelines designed to try to prevent more killing of innocent people with drones. This new report highlights how the US government’s infatuation with drones, combined with the NSA’s obsessive collection of metadata, means that drones are frequently used to kill people based on very little evidence that the people being killed are actually terrorist threats.

One noteworthy point about this article: it relies on two new sources, one named, one kept secret, backed up by Snowden documents. That is, it appears that at least one other source (in this case, a recent member of JSOC’s High Value Targeting task force — the group that’s in charge of figuring out who to capture and kill) has come forward to Greenwald and others, calling foul on what the US government is doing. This person was privy to how targets are selected, and it’s pretty scary how little info they’re going on. The fact that the NSA was heavily involved in picking targets was revealed a while back, but this person explains how much those choosing targets rely on bad metadata from the NSA to kill people — often revealed later to be totally innocent.

In one tactic, the NSA “geolocates” the SIM card or handset of a suspected terrorist’s mobile phone, enabling the CIA and U.S. military to conduct night raids and drone strikes to kill or capture the individual in possession of the device.

The former JSOC drone operator is adamant that the technology has been responsible for taking out terrorists and networks of people facilitating improvised explosive device attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But he also states that innocent people have “absolutely” been killed as a result of the NSA’s increasing reliance on the surveillance tactic.

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.”

The guy also points out that the metadata is often somewhat questionable in itself:

What’s more, he adds, the NSA often locates drone targets by analyzing the activity of a SIM card, rather than the actual content of the calls. Based on his experience, he has come to believe that the drone program amounts to little more than death by unreliable metadata.

“People get hung up that there’s a targeted list of people,” he says. “It’s really like we’re targeting a cell phone. We’re not going after people – we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.”

You would think that someone like Rep. Rogers would be happy that we were trying to improve our targeting and to stop killing innocent people, but apparently making sure the people we target are actually guilty is just too much “red tape.” But it hasn’t stopped these killings. The source in the article notes that the “overwhelming majority” of the strikes they’re doing these days are based almost entirely on the NSA’s signals intelligence.

The report also reveals that the NSA has a program in which the drone itself has what’s basically its own phone cell attached to the drone, in order to better target a particular phone (note: not person, but phone) when dropping a bomb. The report also reveals another program, this one from the CIA, called SHENANIGANS (really), that maps out WiFi networks from the sky and tries to suck up any data it can. When this program was used in Yemen, the mission was called (again, no joke) VICTORYDANCE.

There’s a lot more in the article, which is well worth reading. It’s good to see more sources who are uncomfortable with what the NSA, CIA and others are doing getting in touch with Greenwald and others. It’s also worth noting that this guy claims he tried to raise these issues through the “proper channels” and was rebuffed.


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