Whistleblower: How Obama Leads Drone Strikes Killing Many Civilians


U.S. military drones are killing far more civilians than announced in strikes against Islamic areas, according to a major new investigative report aided by an intelligence whistleblower.

As many as 90 percent of U.S. drone killings charted in one confidential study over a five-month period were not the intended target. That was one finding by The Intercept, an investigative website, as part of The Drone Papers, its eight-part series Oct. 15 describing CIA and Defense Department Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) actions.

The series has been at least a year in the making and is based in significant part on the revelations of an unnamed whistleblower from the intelligence community whose findings were briefly summarized on last year's Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour.

Intercept Drones Kill ChartThe movie scene included Edward Snowden, the former NSA government contractor who leaked classified documents in 2013 about surveillance programs to journalist Glenn Greenwald

Snowden, who now lives in Russia, shared his reaction to the drone series on Twitter with his 1.5 million followers:

“In an astonishing act of civil courage, one American just shattered an unspeakable lie,” Snowden wrote of the new whistleblower while also citing their Pentagon Papers predecessor Daniel Ellsberg. “When we look back on today, we will find the most important national security story of the year. Today, @DanielEllsberg is smiling.”

Snowden, shown on his Twitter photo, joined the messaging service in late September. Intercept co-founder Greenwald was a Brazil-based columnist for the Guardian when he broke the Snowden revelations in 2013 with film maker Laura Poitras, producer of last year's award-winning Citizen Four.

One of the film's final scenes shows Snowden examining a version of the "The Chain of Command" chart at right, created with the new whistleblower's help to show the path of drone decision-making leading to the president's decisions to launch deadly strikes.

Edward Snowden Twitter PhotoNeither the White House nor other agencies commented in detail.

"The Drone Wars" series was promptly panned, however, by a writer affiliated with several of the many organizations in the nation's capital that argued for aggressive U.S. military actions, especially in the Middle East. They generally advocate for the war and intelligence industries by using quasi-academic arguments regarding the dangers of terror.

Writing for the "Lawfare" blog published by the Brookings Institution, Adam Klein thus published A Response to the “Drone Papers”: AUMF Targeting is a Deliberate Process with Robust Political Accountability.

Klein also is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs fellow and a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The latter organization was co-founded in 2007 by future Obama administration CIA Director David Petraeus, a Republican, and has been a perch for many neoconservatives and neoliberals rotating through the Obama administration.

Obama has resisted some of most aggressive pressures from the military-intelligence sector to ramp up U.S. ground forces in war zones and he forced a Petraeus resignation in 2012 because of doubts about the CIA director's loyalty to the administration, as we reported in our 2013 book Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters and elsewhere.

But Obama's own career was fostered by the military-intelligence-banking-and-foundation world in ways still-hidden from most in the public. And even now, when he resists the more extreme calls for troops and relies instead on drones, his presidential powers are far more circumscribed than commonly understood. The president himself, like his predecessors, faces powerful and little-seen opposition when he chooses a policy that is restrained compared to the more radical alternatives he is pressured to undertake.

So, as Snowden underscored, the Intercept's pathbreaking series is extremely important — and, this column argues, parallels other major revelations during recent days regarding Western foreign policy.

These developments are explored below as a part of a series on foreign policy that began Oct. 13. It has presented so far (in chronological order): 

We examine The Drone Papers, more specifically below. An appendix provides a direct link to each installment of the Intercept series as well as to a range of reaction so far.

 Barack Obama and John Brennan speak at White House in 2012 (White House photo)

President Obama with John O. Brennan in 2012. At the White House, Brennan managed the “kill lists” for drone strikes. White House Photo.

Intercept co-founder Jeremy Scahill, shown in a screen shot from his Oct. 16 appearance on the syndicated radio show Democracy Now!, was a lead reporter on the drone series. In 2007, he published Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, which won the Jeremy Scahill on Democracy Now! October 15, 2015prestigious George Polk Book Award. His Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield was published in 2013 nearly concurrent with a documentary film of the same name that he produced, narrated and co-wrote.

For the drone series, Scahill authored The Assassination Complex, the first of the eight parts of the series and authored two other segments.

It began: "From his first days as commander in chief, the drone has been President Barack Obama’s weapon of choice, used by the military and the CIA to hunt down and kill the people his administration has deemed — through secretive processes, without indictment or trial — worthy of execution. There has been intense focus on the technology of remote killing, but that often serves as a surrogate for what should be a broader examination of the state’s power over life and death."

The preamble continued: "Drones are a tool, not a policy. The policy is assassination. While every president since Gerald Ford has upheld an executive order banning assassinations by U.S. personnel, Congress has avoided legislating the issue or even defining the word “assassination.” This has allowed proponents of the drone wars to rebrand assassinations with more palatable characterizations, such as the term du jour, 'targeted killings.'"


When the Obama administration has discussed drone strikes publicly, it has offered assurances that such operations are a more precise alternative to boots on the ground and are authorized only when an “imminent” threat is present and there is “near certainty” that the intended target will be eliminated. Those terms, however, appear to have been bluntly redefined to bear almost no resemblance to their commonly understood meanings.

The first drone strike outside of a declared war zone was conducted more than 12 years ago, yet it was not until May 2013 that the White House released a set of standards and procedures for conducting such strikes.

Democracy Now! co-host Juan González provided this overview for an interview with co-host Amy Goodman:

One of the most secretive military campaigns in U.S. history is under the microscope like never before. In a major exposé based on leaked government documents, The Intercept has published the most in-depth look at the U.S. drone assassination program to date. "The Drone Papers" exposes the inner workings of the U.S. military’s assassination program in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, revealing a number of flaws and far more casualties than the intended targets. The documents were leaked to The Intercept by an unnamed U.S. intelligence source who says he wanted to alert Americans to wrongdoing. We are joined by The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill, lead author of the exposé, "The Drone Papers."

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the most secretive military campaigns in U.S. history is under the microscope like never before. In a major exposé based on leaked government documents, The Intercept has published the most in-depth look at the U.S. drone assassination program to date. "The Drone Papers" exposed the inner workings of how the drone war is waged, from how targets are identified to who decides to kill. They reveal a number of flaws, including that strikes have resulted in large part from electronic communications data, or "signals intelligence," that officials acknowledge is unreliable. The documents also undermine government claims that the drone strikes have been precise. During one five-month period of an operation in Afghanistan, nine out of 10 casualties were not the intended target. And among other revelations, the documents also corroborate previous reports that all foreign males in a target zone have been treated as militants — unless they are proven innocent after death.

Many other initial news coverage focused on how the series charted decision-making for drone strikes and documented a pattern of mistaken deaths and other due process failures. An excerpt of the series in the Huffington Post, for example, was headlined: Drone Leak: 90% Of Killed Weren't Targeted.

The excerpt said: "Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an over reliance 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.

Similarly CNN headlined its interview by Jake Tapper of Scahill with: Report: Most killed in U.S. drone strikes are unintended targets. The CNN introduction was: "From the author who helped publish Snowden documents, a new report claims the Pentagon's drone program killed nearly 90% of unintended targets."

The complete Intercept series was:

1. The Assassination Complex, Jeremy Scahill, Oct. 15 2015.
2. A Visual Glossary, Josh Begley Oct. 15 2015.
3. The Kill Chain, Cora Currier, Oct. 15 2015.
4. Find, Fix, Finish, Jeremy Scahill, Oct. 15 2015.
5. Manhunting in the Hindu Kush, Ryan Devereux, Oct. 15, 2015.
6. Firing Blind, Cora Currier, Peter Maass, Oct. 15, 2015.
7. The Life and Death of Objective Peckham, Ryan Gallagher, Oct. 15, 2015. 
8. Target AfricaNick Turse, Oct. 15, 2015.

Wired provide an early and sympathetic overview in A Second Snowden Has Leaked a Mother Lode of Drone Docs by Andy Greenberg.

"It’s been just over two years since Edward Snowden leaked a massive trove of NSA documents, and more than five since Chelsea Manning gave WikiLeaks a megacache of military and diplomatic secrets," Greenberg wrote. "Now there appears to be a new source on that scale of classified leaks — this time with a focus on drones. On Thursday, the Intercept published a groundbreaking new collection of documents related to America’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles to kill foreign targets in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Yemen."

The revelations about the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command actions include primary source evidence that as many as 90 percent of US drone killings in one five-month period weren’t the intended target, that a former British citizen was killed in a drone strike despite repeated opportunities to capture him instead, and details of the grisly process by which the American government chooses who will die, down to the “baseball cards” of profile information created for individual targets, and the chain of authorization that goes up directly to the president.

All of this new information, according to the Intercept, appears to have come from a single anonymous whistleblower. A spokesperson for the investigative news site declined to comment on that source. But unlike the leaks of Snowden or Manning, the spilled classified materials are accompanied by statements about the whistleblower’s motivation in his or her own words.

Wired then cited the courageous anonymous source from the series: “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 tells the Intercept. “We’re allowing this to happen. And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it.”

Reaction included complaints, as in the Lawfare blog, excerpted further below:

"Unsurprisingly," Klein wrote, "The Intercept is out to convict; its focus is on the “shortcomings and flaws” of the program, as supposedly exemplified by its ingenuous account of the life and death of al Qaeda commander Bilal el-Berjawi." 

"But the documents themselves are hardly as damning as the breathless tone of the reporting suggests," Klein continued. "In fact, for those concerned about oversight and accountability in the targeting process for AUMF-based strikes, the documents should reassure rather than unsettle. The overall impression is of thorough, individualized review, at the highest levels of government, that meaningfully constrains those developing and carrying out these operations."

These slides do not suggest operators run amok, “assassinat[ing]” targets with little forethought or oversight. To the contrary, the “Drone Papers” suggest that these operations go forward only after a deliberate, individualized process. They confirm that senior political decisionmakers, including the President, review and approve each individual operation. And they reveal that operators view this review process as a significant constraint — a constraint that distinguishes these operations from the (presumably more liberal) operating environments in Iraq and Afghanistan

More commentary is below in an appendix, including a remarkable indication of public hunger for details on such decision-making: In Edward Snowden Is On Twitter: @Snowden, the Intercept's Dan Froomkin Marjorie Cohn book cover on "Drones and Targeted Killings"reported on Sept. 29 how Snowden joined Twitter on Sept. 29, 2015 and promptly received more than 60,000 followers. That total has grown to 1.53 million, as of this writing. Snowden follows just the NSA, for whom he worked as a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor in 2013 after previously working both there and at the CIA as a full time analyst.

In Snowden and Ellsberg hail leak of drone documents from new whistleblower, Guardian reporter surveyed Washington opinion on the disclosures. “It’s pretty remarkable stuff,” he was told by Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “In some ways it reconfirms and illuminates much of what we knew, or thought we knew, about a lot of these programs, like that the administration firmly prefers kill over capture despite claiming the opposite, and that there’s not ‘a bunch of folks in the room’, as Obama calls it — that there’s a clear, bureaucratic process for this."

But, Zenko continued, “It clearly shows, as we’ve known, that the United States does not know who it’s killing.”

The White House and National Security Council declined to comment on the leak to the Guardian. “The report the Intercept story references is an internal classified document,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Linda Rojas. “As a matter of policy we don’t comment on the details of classified reports.”

Drones are much in the news otherwise. The federal government this week announced a plan to regulate civilian drones, which have an expanding array of practical and entertainment uses. The Atlantic magazine provided an authoritative overview in an article last month and a video presentation by staff writer Amanda Ripley.

But for real life drama, it would be hard to match the concept of life-and-death decision making at the White House inflicting at times not simply destruction upon innocents but the near-certainty of actions illegal under long-accepted international law even if the drones hit their intended target.

A powerful, concise summation of relevant law and recent facts is contained in Drones and Targeting Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. The 2015 book collecting expert essays was edited by Marjorie Cohn, with a foreword by Archbishop Bishop Tutu.

The expert essayists make a compelling case that is almost never mentioned in mainstream news articles or broadcasts that unilateral drone killings across borders, especially without permission of host countries or even a declaration of war by the United States, might reasonably be considered a violation of international law and a war crime, and certainly would be if another nation or party tried to undertake them against the United States or allied nation.

With advances in technology, such a free-for-all is not simply a possibility but a near certainty. Therefore, legal and moral dimensions of American foreign policy are not simply a luxury but a necessity.

For such reasons, the best way to conclude is to reflect on Snowden's words about the revelations. Why? Because constitutional protections and watchdog institutions clearly are failing and will continue to do so unless a few individuals break the code of silence about monumental, officially sanctioned folly and crime that hurts the country along with many others in the world.

Greenberg's Wired story tells this part of tale well:

The final scene of the film Citizenfour, directed by Intercept co-founder Laura Poitras, shows fellow Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald meeting with Snowden in Moscow to tell him about a new source with information about the U.S. drone program, whom he says has been communicating with the Intercept‘s Jeremy Scahill.

At one point, Greenwald draws Snowden a diagram of the authorization chain for drone strikes that ends with the president, one that looks very similar to the one included in Thursday’s publication.

“It’s really risky,” Snowden tells Greenwald in the scene. “That person is incredibly bold.”


Coming next: Last developments in the vicious federal prosecutions of those in the intelligence community who seek to protest wrongdoing internally or otherwise.

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Related News Coverage

Morality and Mistakes In Drone Warfare

The Intercept, The Drone Papers, Staff report including Jeremy Scahill, Oct. 15 2015. (Article 1 of 8.) From his first days as commander in chief, the drone has been President Barack Obama’s weapon of choice, used by the military and the CIA to hunt down and kill the people his administration has deemed — through secretive processes, without indictment or trial — worthy of execution. Editor-in-Chief: Betsy Reed. Series Editor: Roger Hodge. Rubina Madan Fillion, Charlotte Greensit, Andrea Jones, Peter Maass. Research: Alleen Brown, John Thomason, Margot Williams, Spencer Woodman. Art Direction: Stephane Elbaz and Philipp Hubert. Development: Tom Conroy and Raby Yuson.

Democracy Now! Drone War Exposed: Jeremy Scahill on U.S. Kill Program’s Secrets & the Whistleblower Who Leaked Them, Amy Goodman and Juan González, Oct. 16 2015. AMY GOODMAN: The documents were leaked to The Intercept by an unnamed U.S. intelligence source who says he wanted to alert Americans to wrongdoing. In a statement, Amnesty International said the leaks should spark an independent congressional inquiry over, quote, "whether the USA has systematically violated international law, including by classifying unidentified people as 'combatants' to justify their killings." The leaks include detailed files on the drone war in Afghanistan, just as President Obama has announced his plan to again delay the withdrawal of U.S. troops and extend the occupation of Afghanistan indefinitely.

Huffington Post, Drone Leak: 90% Of Killed Weren't Targeted, (Excerpt of The Drone Papers by staff, including Jeremy Scahill), Oct. 15 2015. 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.

CNN, Report: Most killed in U.S. drone strikes are unintended targets, Jake Tapper interviews Jeremy Scahill, Oct. 15, 2015 (4:34 min.). From the author who helped publish Snowden documents, a new report claims the Pentagon's drone program killed nearly 90% of unintended targets.

The Guardian, Snowden and Ellsberg hail leak of drone documents from new whistleblower, Tom McCarthy, Oct. 16, 2015. Classified documents on US assassination program released to the Intercept welcomed by men who exposed NSA surveillance and Pentagon Papers. Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other rights groups said the report raised significant concerns about human rights violations by the US government, and called for an investigation. Classified documents published by the Intercept include pages from a 2013 study of the drone program by a Pentagon taskforce. The documents came from “a source within the intelligence community who worked on the types of operations and programs described in the slides”, the Intercept said.

The Intercept report revealed, among other new disclosures, that at one point in 2012 Obama had approved 20 people for assassination in Yemen and Somalia. More than 200 were killed by drones in those countries that year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It revealed that the military labels unidentified people it kills in targeted strikes as “enemies killed in action,” although victims may be family members or associates of actual targets – or may just have been nearby, or mistakenly targeted.

Lawfare, A Response to the “Drone Papers”: AUMF Targeting is a Deliberate Process with Robust Political Accountability, Adam Klein, Oct. 15, 2015. Adam Klein is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The Intercept’s “Drone Papers” leaker “believes the public has a right to know how the U.S. government decides to assassinate people.” Maybe so — or maybe public safety and the need for secrecy trump the public’s curiosity. Unfortunately, the leaker has unilaterally decided for all of us. One person with a thumb drive again trumps the democratic process.

The key documents, two DOD slide decks on “ISR support to small footprint CT operations” in Somalia and Yemen (a full deck and an executive summary) include these details:

  • The “average approval time” for a proposed strike under the AUMF process was 79 days.  Even excluding the single longest approval, presumably an unrepresentative outlier, the average was 58 days. The fastest approval was 27 days.
  • These approvals were preceded by lengthy periods of gathering and analyzing intelligence on the targets—an average of six years.
  • Four out of 24 proposed concepts of operations covered by the study were disapproved under the AUMF review process.
  • Each proposed operation must be approved by a lengthy sequence of high-ranking officials, culminating in the President.
  • The process for approving strikes under the AUMF “requires significant intel/ISR to justify (and maintain) approvals.” “Relatively few, high-level terrorists meet criteria for targeting” under this process. (Note that this isn’t a press release touting the program’s robust oversight; it’s an internal DOD assessment, written from the perspective of operators for whom a laborious approval process is an obstacle rather than a virtue.)
  • These “[p]olitical constraints” make these operations “challenging” and “fundamentally different from what we’ve experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Wired, A Second Snowden Has Leaked a Mother Lode of Drone Docs, Andy Greenberg, Oct. 15, 2015.Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who in 2013 leaked classified documents about surveillance programs to journalist Glenn Greenwald – then at the Guardian, now at the Intercept – hailed the new leak on Twitter.
Washington Post, U.S. to require registration of recreational drones, Craig Whitlock, Oct. 19, 2015. Federal regulators said that they plan to require recreational drone users to register their aircraft with the government in an attempt to restore order to U.S. skies that have been invaded by rogue flying robots. Pilots of passenger planes and other aircraft are now reporting more than 100 sightings or close calls with rogue drones a month — an exponential increase just in the past year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Police “disappeared” more than 7,000 people at an off-the-books interrogation warehouse in Chicago, nearly twice as many detentions as previously disclosed, the Guardian can now reveal.
"Flying robots: a fun new thing for everyone — from normals to celebrity wedding planners — to worry about when planning a ceremony."

David Talbot "The Devil's Chessboard" Dulles Book coverCatching Our Attention on other Justice, Media & Integrity Issues

Democracy Now! Hosts Amy Goodman and Juan González interviewed for a three-part series David Talbot, author of the new book The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. He is the founder and former CEO and editor-in-chief of Salon. He is also author of the best-seller, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years. Introduction: It’s been more than 50 years since Allen Dulles resigned as director of the CIA, but his legacy lives on. Between 1953 and 1961, under his watch, the CIA overthrew the governments of Iran and Guatemala, invaded Cuba, and was tied to the killing of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first democratically elected leader. We speak with David Talbot about how Dulles’ time at the CIA helped shape the current national security state.

The Rise of America's Secret Government: The Deadly Legacy of Ex-CIA Director Allen Dulles Pt. 1, Oct. 13, 2015.

The Rise of America’s Secret Government: The Deadly Legacy of Ex-CIA Director Allen Dulles, Pt. 2, Oct. 16, 2015.

A CIA Tie to JFK Assassination? Book on Ex-Director Allen Dulles Questions Agency's Role, Pt. 3, Oct. 19, 2015.