The NSA's surveillance programs are often used to help carry out drone strikes on targets, according to a new report, and sometimes there are unintended victims. 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. The claims were corroborated by documents provided by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Innocent people have "absolutely" been killed
While the former JSOC operator says that the practice has been helpful in taking out known terrorists and insurgents that attack with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan, he also maintains that innocent people have "absolutely" been killed as a result of the technology, which is known to be unreliable. Some targets reportedly use up to 16 SIM cards in an attempt to evade the NSA's tracking, or lend their phones to friends or family members while unaware of the surveillance.
The Washington Post previously reported on the NSA's involvement in drone strikes, claiming that it had become "the single most important intelligence agency in finding al-Qaeda and other enemies overseas," with its geolocation team adopting the motto of 'We track 'em, you whack 'em.'" But The Intercept's report highlights the pitfalls and consequences of the technology. "Once the bomb lands or a night raid happens, you know that phone is there," says the former JSOC operator. "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."
"We’re not going after people — we’re going after their phones."
"People get hung up that there’s a targeted list of people," says the former JSOC operator. "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."
"They’ve gotten really smart now and they don’t make the same mistakes as they used to," says Brandon Bryant, another former drone operator. "They’d get rid of the SIM card and they’d get a new phone, or they’d put the SIM card in the new phone." Bryant says that drone operators are unaware of where the information on their targets comes from, claiming, "If the NSA did work with us, like, I have no clue."
The Intercept is the first publication from First Look Media, the journalism project started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who has expressed a desire to "convert mainstream readers into engaged citizens." Among others, Greenwald is joined at the site by Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who worked with him on the Snowden leaks, and Dirty Wars author Jeremy Scahill, with whom he shares a byline on today's report.