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Drone papers part 2

Logo panic

Don't fight the system.
Go in the system and take them down on their own faults.

Alle acties komend uit wraak of ego zullen mislukken.
Alleen acties vanuit een hart en ziel zullen slagen.

In deze blog geef ik mijn zienswijze van de huidige wereld weer. 
Ik beroep me op het recht die geldt vanuit het Universum, namelijk: Het recht van respect naar elke energievorm in het Universum. In de menselijke wetten is het omschreven in het UVRM als zijnde: Artikel 1 Alle mensen worden vrij en gelijk in waardigheid en rechten geboren. Zij zijn begiftigd met verstand en geweten, en behoren
zich jegens elkander in een geest van broederschap te gedragen. In de reeds niet meer geldende Nederlandse grondwet staat het beschreven als zijnde: Artikel 1 Allen die zich in Nederland bevinden, worden in gelijke gevallen gelijk behandeld. Discriminatie wegens godsdienst, levensovertuiging, politieke gezindheid,
ras, geslacht of op welke grond dan ook, is niet toegestaan.

03 The Kill Chain

The lethal bureaucracy behind Obama’s drone war

Article 3 of 8 The Drone Papers

Secret military documents obtained by The Intercept offer rare documentary evidence of the process by which the Obama administration creates and acts on its kill list of terror suspects in Yemen and Somalia. The documents offer an unusual glimpse into the decision-making process behind the drone strikes and other operations of the largely covert war, outlining the selection and vetting of targets through the ranks of the military and the White House, culminating in the president’s approval of a 60-day window for lethal action.

THE DOCUMENTS COME FROM a Pentagon study, circulated in early 2013, evaluating the intelligence and surveillance technology behind the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) killing campaign in Yemen and Somalia in 2011 and 2012.

The study, carried out by the Pentagon’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force, illuminates and in some cases contradicts the administration’s public description of a campaign directed at high-level terrorists who pose an imminent threat to the United States. It admits frankly that capturing terrorists is a rare occurrence and hints at the use of so-called signature strikes against unknown individuals exhibiting suspicious behavior.

The Intercept obtained two versions of the study, a longer presentation dated February 2013, and an executive summary from May 2013, which includes a slide showing the chain of command leading to the approval of a lethal strike.


A slide from a May 2013 Pentagon presentation shows the chain of command for ordering drone strikes and other operations carried out by JSOC in Yemen and Somalia.

GCC = Geographic Combatant Command; SECDEF = Secretary of Defense; PDC/PC = Principals’ Deputies Committee/Principals Committee; CoM = Chief of Mission; CoS = Chief of Station

The Obama administration has been loath to declassify even the legal rationale for drone strikes — let alone detail the bureaucratic structure revealed in these documents. Both the CIA and JSOC conduct drone strikes in Yemen, and very little has been officially disclosed about either the military’s or the spy agency’s operations.

“The public has a right to know who’s making these decisions, who decides who is a legitimate target, and on what basis that decision is made,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Both the Pentagon and the National Security Council declined to respond to detailed questions about the study and about the drone program more generally. The NSC would not say if the process for approving targets or strikes had changed since the study was produced.

Two Steps to a Kill

The May 2013 slide describes a two-part process of approval for an attack: step one, “‘Developing a target’ to ‘Authorization of a target,’” and step two, “‘Authorizing’ to ‘Actioning.’” According to the slide, intelligence personnel from JSOC’s Task Force 48-4, working alongside other intelligence agencies, would build the case for action against an individual, eventually generating a “baseball card” on the target, which was “staffed up to higher echelons — ultimately to the president.”

The intelligence package on the person being targeted passed from the JSOC task force tracking him to the command in charge of the region — Centcom for Yemen, and Africom for Somalia — and then to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed by the secretary of defense. It was then examined by a circle of top advisers known as the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, and their seconds in command, known collectively as the Deputies Committee.

The slide detailing the kill chain indicates that while Obama approved each target, he did not approve each individual strike, although news accounts have previously reported that the president personally “signs off” on strikes outside of Afghanistan or Pakistan. However, the slide does appear to be consistent with Obama’s comment in 2012 that “ultimately I’m responsible for the process.”


Illustrations: The Intercept
Photo: Feierstein: Landov; all other photos: Getty Images

There have been various accounts of this drone bureaucracy, and almost all stress the role of Obama’s influential counterterrorism adviser John Brennan (who became director of the CIA in 2013) and of top administration lawyers in deciding who could be killed. Under Brennan, the nominations process was reportedly concentrated in the White House, replacing video conferences once run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and elevating the role of the National Counterterrorism Center in organizing intelligence. Later in 2013, the White House reportedly tightened control over individual strikes in Yemen.

At the time of the study, with the president’s approval, JSOC had a 60-day window to hit a target. For the actual strike, the task force needed approval from the Geographic Combatant Command as well as the ambassador and CIA station chief in the country where the target was located. For a very important target, such as al Qaeda-linked preacher Anwar al Awlaki, who was a U.S. citizen, “it would take a high-level official to approve the strike,” said Lt. Col. Mark McCurley, a former drone pilot who worked on operations in Yemen and recently published a book about his experiences. “And that includes a lot of lawyers and a lot of review at different levels to reach that decision. We have an extensive chain of command, humans along the whole link that monitor the entire process from start to finish on an airstrike.” The country’s government was also supposed to sign off. “One Disagrees = STOP,” the slide notes, with a tiny red stop sign.

In practice, the degree of cooperation with the host nation has varied. Somalia’s minister of national security, Abdirizak Omar Mohamed, told The Intercept that the United States alerted Somalia’s president and foreign minister of strikes “sometimes ahead of time, sometimes during the operation … normally we get advance notice.” He said he was unaware of an instance where Somali officials had objected to a strike, but added that if they did, he assumed the U.S. would respect Somalia’s sovereignty.

By 2011, when the study’s time frame began, Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh was in crisis. Facing domestic protests during the Arab Spring, he left the country in June 2011 after being injured in a bombing. Both the CIA and JSOC stepped up their drone campaigns, which enjoyed vocal support from Saleh’s eventual successor, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

“It was almost never coordinated with Saleh. Once Hadi became president, March 2012, there was a big chance we’d be in the loop” before drone strikes were conducted, said a former senior Yemeni official who worked for both the Saleh and Hadi governments.

Today, with Yemen’s capital under the control of the Houthi rebel group and undergoing bombardment by Saudi Arabia, administration lawyers do not seem worried about asking permission to carry out drone strikes amid the fray.

“Now, I think they don’t even bother telling anyone. There is really no one in charge to tell,” said the former Yemeni official, who requested anonymity citing current unrest and the fact that he no longer works for the government.

Who Can Be Targeted

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have maintained that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, permits the pursuit of members of al Qaeda and its affiliates wherever they may be located.

The Pentagon study refers throughout to operations that fall under AUMF. But it also underlines how the targeted killing campaigns differ from traditional battlefields, noting that the region is located “Outside a Defined Theater of Active Armed Conflict,” which limits “allowable U.S. activities.”

Obama administration officials have said that in addition to being a member of al Qaeda or an associated force, targets must also pose a significant threat to the United States. In May 2013, facing increasing pressure to fully admit the existence of the drone war and especially to address allegations of civilian harm, the White House released policy guidelines for lethal counterterrorism operations that seemed to further restrict them. In a speech, Obama announced that action would be taken only against people who posed a “continuing, imminent threat to the American people,” and who could not be captured. A strike would only occur with “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed or injured.

Even with the new guidelines, legal observers, particularly human rights lawyers, have disputed the Obama administration’s position that the U.S., in strict legal terms, is in an armed conflict with al Qaeda in Yemen or Somalia — and therefore dispute what standards should apply to strikes. Others question the extent to which the hundreds of people killed in drone strikes in those countries meet the supposedly strict criteria.

“I think there can be questions raised about how stringently some of the requirements are being applied,” said Jennifer Daskal, an assistant professor of law at American University who worked for the Department of Justice from 2009 to 2011. “Near certainty of no civilian deaths, is that really imposed? What does it mean for capture not to be feasible? How hard do you have to try?”

It is not clear whether the study reflects the May policy guidance, since it does not give an extensive description of the criteria for approving a target, noting only that the target must be “a threat to U.S. interest or personnel.”

A spokesperson for the National Security Council would not explain why the standards in the study differed from the guidelines laid out in May 2013, but emphasized that “those guidelines remain in effect today.”

The two-month window for striking, says Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, shows the administration’s broad interpretation of “a continuing, imminent threat.”

“If you have approval over a monthslong period, that sends the signal of a presumption that someone is always targetable, regardless of whether they are actually participating in hostilities,” said Shamsi.

The slide illustrating the chain of approval makes no mention of evaluating options for capture. It may be implied that those discussions are part of the target development process, but the omission reflects the brute facts beneath the Obama administration’s stated preference for capture: Detention of marked targets is incredibly rare.

A chart in the study shows that in 2011 and 2012, captures accounted for only 25 percent of operations carried out in the Horn of Africa — and all were apparently by foreign forces. In one of the few publicized captures of the Obama presidency, al Shabaab commander Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was picked up in April 2011 by U.S. forces in the Gulf of Aden and brought to Manhattan for trial, though he may not be reflected in the study’s figures because he was apprehended at sea.


The Pentagon study recommended more captures, rather than killings, because of the intelligence that could be gleaned from interrogations and collected materials.

EKIA = Enemy Killed in Action; HOA = Horn of Africa

The study does not contain an overall count of strikes or deaths, but it does note that “relatively few high-level terrorists meet criteria for targeting” and states that at the end of June 2012, there were 16 authorized targets in Yemen and only four in Somalia.

Despite the small number of people on the kill list, in 2011 and 2012 there were at least 54 U.S. drone strikes and other attacks reported in Yemen, killing a minimum of 293 people, including 55 civilians, according to figures compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In Somalia, there were at least three attacks, resulting in the deaths of at minimum six people.

Some of those Yemen strikes were likely carried out by the CIA, which since mid-2011 has flown drones to Yemen from a base in Saudi Arabia and reportedly has its own kill list and rules for strikes. Yet it is also clear that the military sometimes harmed multiple other people in trying to kill one of those high-level targets. The study includes a description of the hunt for an alleged al Qaeda member referred to as “Objective Rhodes” or “Anjaf,” who is likely Fahd Saleh al-Anjaf al-Harithi, who was reported killed in July 2012, on the same day as Objective Rhodes. A failed strike on Harithi that April killed two “enemies.” News accounts at the time reported three “militants” had died.


A slide from February 2013 recounts the hunt for an alleged al Qaeda member (likely Fahd Saleh al-Anjaf al-Harithi) showing that two others died in a botched attempt to kill him.

The large number of reported strikes may also be a reflection of signature strikes in Yemen, where people can be targeted based on patterns of suspect behavior. In 2012, administration officials said that President Obama had approved strikes in Yemen on unknown people, calling them TADS, or “terror attack disruption strikes,” and claiming that they were more constrained than the CIA’s signature strikes in Pakistan.

The study refers to using drones and spy planes to “conduct TADS related network development,” presumably a reference to surveilling behavior patterns and relationships in order to carry out signature strikes. It is unclear what authorities govern such strikes, which undermine the administration’s insistence that the U.S. kills mainly “high-value” targets.

Near Certainty

According to the White House guidelines released in May 2013, the decision to take a strike should be based on thorough surveillance and only occur in the absence of civilians. A strike requires “near certainty that the terrorist target is present” and “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”

The study describes the rules for a strike slightly differently, stating that there must be a “low CDE [collateral damage environment]” — meaning a low estimate of how many innocent people might be harmed. It also states there must be “near certainty” that the target is present, “based on two forms of intelligence,” with “no contradictory intelligence.” In contrast to the White House statement, the “near certainty” standard is not applied to civilians.

The study cites the “need to avoiding [sic] collateral damage areas” as a reason for “unsuccessful” missions, but it does not give numbers of civilian casualties or examples of bad intelligence leading to a mistaken kill.


Graphic: The Intercept

Since the first drone strike in Yemen in 2002, hundreds of people have been killed in U.S. operations in Yemen and Somalia, many of them innocent civilians. The tallies shown here were compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from reports of both CIA and JSOC drone strikes and other operations. The large range in the estimates is due to the inherent difficulties of collecting data on airstrikes in war zones. The identities of the “people killed” were often unknown and may include civilians as well as suspected terrorists or militants. The U.S. almost never publicly acknowledges individual operations.

Yet the overall conclusion is that getting accurate positive identification is a “critical” issue for the drone program in the region, due to limitations in technology and the number of spy aircraft available. The military relies heavily on signals intelligence — drawn from electronic communications — and much of it comes from foreign governments, who may have their own agendas.

Identifying the correct target relates directly to the issue of civilian casualties: If you don’t have certainty about your target, it follows that you may well be killing innocent people. In Iraq and Afghanistan, “when collateral damage did occur, 70 percent of the time it was attributable to failed — that is, mistaken — identification,” according to a paper by Gregory McNeal, an expert on drones and security at Pepperdine School of Law.

Another factor is timing: If the 60-day authorization expired, analysts would have to start all over in building the intelligence case against the target, said a former senior special operations officer, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing classified materials. That could lead to pressure to take a shot while the window was open.

During the time of the study, there were multiple well-reported, high-profile incidents in which reported JSOC strikes killed the wrong people. Perhaps most famously, in October 2011, a 16-year-old U.S. citizen named Abdulrahman Awlaki, the son of Anwar al Awlaki, died in a JSOC strike while eating dinner with his cousins, two weeks after his father was killed by a CIA drone. In press accounts, one anonymous official called Abdulrahman’s death “an outrageous mistake,” while others said he was with people believed to be members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Publicly, the government has said only that he “was not specifically targeted.”

A September 2012 strike in Yemen, extensively investigated by Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Foundations, killed 12 civilians, including three children and a pregnant woman. No alleged militants died in the strike, and the Yemeni government paid restitution for it, but the United States never offered an explanation.

“The mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of the people who were killed in these drones strikes want to know why,” said Amrit Singh, senior legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative. “We’re left with no explanation as to why they were targeted and in most cases no compensation, and the families are aware of no investigation.”

This spring, in a rare admission of a mistake in targeting, the White House announced that two hostages held by al Qaeda — an American and an Italian — had been killed in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan in January. In attempting to explain the tragedy, the White House spokesperson used the language of the standards that had failed to prevent it: The hostages had died despite “near certainty,” after “near continuous surveillance,” that they were not present.

Find, Fix, Finish

For the Pentagon, creating an architecture of assassination meant navigating a turf war with the CIA

Article 4 of 8 The Drone Papers

Soon after he was elected president, Barack Obama was strongly urged by Michael Hayden, the outgoing CIA director, and his new top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, to adopt the way of the scalpel — small footprint counterterrorism operations and drone strikes. In one briefing, Hayden bluntly told Obama that covert action was the only way to confront al Qaeda and other terrorist groups plotting attacks against the U.S.


Photo Getty Images

THE VIEW AMONG Obama’s inner circle was that Iraq and Afghanistan had served as useful laboratories for such tactics, but deploying them outside conventional war zones meant different legal and diplomatic considerations would apply. An all-star team of special operations commanders, war planners, and Pentagon officials pressed the new president to dramatically ramp up the shadow wars in Yemen and Somalia to fight the emerging threats in those countries. They called for sweeping away bureaucratic obstacles and streamlining lethal operations.

In short, a new global architecture of assassination was called for, and that meant navigating an increasingly tense turf war between the CIA and the Pentagon over these activities.

The CIA had long dominated the covert war in Pakistan, and in 2009 Obama expanded the agency’s drone resources there and in Afghanistan to regularly pound al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and other targets. The military, tasked with prosecuting the broader war in Afghanistan, was largely sidelined in the Pakistan theater, save for the occasional cross-border raid and the Air Force personnel who operated the CIA’s drones. But the Pentagon was not content to play a peripheral role in the global drone war, and aggressively positioned itself to lead the developing drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia.


Illustration: The Intercept

Altered insignia of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

In September 2009, then-Centcom Commander Gen. David Petraeus issued a Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order that would lay the groundwork for military forces to conduct expanded clandestine actions in Yemen and other countries. It allowed for U.S. special operations forces to enter friendly and unfriendly countries “to build networks that could ‘penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy’ al Qaeda and other militant groups, as well as to ‘prepare the environment’ for future attacks by American or local military forces.”

At the same time, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Shabaab both began to escalate their rhetoric — and, in AQAP’s case, to plot terror attacks on U.S. soil. After the failed Christmas Day “underwear” bomb plot over Detroit, the Obama administration responded by greenlighting special operations commanders’ plans for direct action.

In December 2009, the Obama administration signed off on its first covert airstrike in Yemen — a cruise missile attack that killed more than 40 people, most of them women and children. After that strike, as with the CIA’s program in Pakistan, drones would fuel the Joint Special Operations Command’s high-value targeting campaign in the region.

When Obama took office, there had been only one U.S. drone strike in Yemen — in November 2002. By 2012, there was a drone strike reported in Yemen every six days. As of August 2015, more than 490 people had been killed in drone strikes in Yemen alone.

“The drone campaign right now really is only about killing. When you hear the phrase ‘capture/kill,’ capture is actually a misnomer. In the drone strategy that we have, ‘capture’ is a lower case ‘c.’ We don’t capture people anymore,” Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told The Intercept. “Our entire Middle East policy seems to be based on firing drones. That’s what this administration decided to do in its counterterrorism campaign. They’re enamored by the ability of special operations and the CIA to find a guy in the middle of the desert in some shitty little village and drop a bomb on his head and kill him.”

THE TIP OF THE SPEAR in the Obama administration’s escalated wars in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula was a special operations task force known as TF 48-4, according to secret documents provided to The Intercept. In response to a series of detailed questions, a Defense Department spokesperson said, “We don’t comment on the details of classified reports.”

The task force’s primary command center was at the former French Army outpost at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a small African nation nestled between Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and the Gulf of Aden. With its strategic location, Lemonnier served as the hub for launching actions from military facilities scattered across the region. The task force also utilized a maritime drone platform and a surveillance apparatus positioned in the Arabian Sea, used for intercepting data. TF 48-4 had sites in Nairobi and Sanaa and a drone base in Arba Minch, Ethiopia. A small base in Manda Bay, Kenya — a stone’s throw from Somalia — housed special operations commandos and manned aircraft.


A slide from a classified Pentagon study outlines the air and naval assets of the secret task force charged with hunting down, killing, and capturing high-value individuals in Somalia and Yemen.

The task force’s operations, aimed at hunting down and killing or capturing members of AQAP and al Shabaab, were largely conducted with drones and fixed-wing aircraft. On occasion, small teams of special operators mounted ground operations inside Somalia and Yemen, or interdicted ships, snatching suspected terrorists. But drones were the administration’s preferred weapon.

“It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” said Adm. Dennis Blair, Obama’s former director of national intelligence, explaining how the administration viewed its policy at the time. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

As Yemen’s status began to rise to the top of U.S. counterterrorism priorities, the long-simmering turf war between the Pentagon and the CIA flared up. In 2011, the CIA began using a newly constructed drone base in Saudi Arabia, giving it easier access to targets in Yemen than the military’s bases in East Africa. There were parallel, and competing, target lists and infighting over who should run the drone war in Yemen. At times, this drama played out on the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post — with leaks coming from both sides in an effort to influence policy. The CIA’s backers in Congress argued that the agency showed more “patience and discretion” in its drone strikes, while some prominent military advocates portrayed the agency as ill-equipped to conduct military-style operations and less accountable to Congress.
Michael Vickers


Photo: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

Michael Vickers, former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, was a powerful figure in the world of covert operations.

At the peak of this bureaucratic civil war, in 2012, an influential and well-funded Defense Department entity, the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force, began preparing a classified brief on challenges faced by special operations forces conducting counterterrorism operations in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, such as those operating under TF 48-4. The ISR Task Force fell under the control of Michael Vickers, a powerful veteran of CIA paramilitary operations. Obama had promoted Vickers in 2010 to undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and as the Pentagon’s top intelligence official he exerted great influence over matters of covert operations.

The task force had been established in 2008 to study the intelligence and surveillance needs of war fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq. By 2012, it had evolved into a multibillion-dollar advocacy wing pushing for the purchase of new surveillance technologies to support the military’s black ops forces in waging unconventional wars.

The purpose of the ISR study, in outlining the challenges faced by special operations units tasked with disrupting and destroying terrorist networks, was to press for more tools and to collect data that would guide future operations.

The Intercept obtained two versions of the study, both titled “ISR Support to Small Footprint CT Operations — Somalia/Yemen.” One slide deck, a detailed report, was distributed in February 2013, and another, an executive summary, was circulated in May 2013, the month President Obama gave the first major address of his presidency on drones and targeted killings. The timing of the reports is interesting, because it was during this period that the Obama administration began to publicly advance the idea of handing control of the drone program to the military.

On May 23, 2013, President Obama gave his first formal address on drone strikes at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

“The United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones,” Obama said in front of a military audience. “As was true in previous armed conflicts, this new technology raises profound questions — about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality.” Drone strikes, he asserted, are “effective” and legal.

Obama did not mention TF 48-4 in his speech, but it was the actions of the special operations task force — and those of the CIA’s parallel program — that he was discussing.

During the period covered in the ISR study — January 2011 through June 2012 — three U.S. citizens were killed in drone strikes in Yemen. Only one, the radical preacher Anwar al Awlaki, was labeled the intended target of the strike. The U.S. claimed it did not intend to kill Samir Khan, who was traveling with Awlaki when a Hellfire hit their vehicle. The third — and most controversial — killing of a U.S. citizen was that of Awlaki’s son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki. He was killed two weeks after his father, while having dinner with his cousin and some friends. Immediately after the strike, anonymous U.S. officials asserted that the younger Awlaki was connected to al Qaeda and was 21 years old. After the family produced his birth certificate, the U.S. changed its position, with an anonymous official calling the killing of the teenager an “outrageous mistake.”

A former senior official in the Obama administration, who worked on the high-value targeting program and asked not to be identified because he was discussing classified material, told me in 2013 that after the Abdulrahman strike, the president was “surprised and upset and wanted an explanation.” “We had no idea the kid was there,” the official said. The White House did not officially acknowledge the strikes until nearly two years later. “We killed three U.S. citizens in a very short period,” he told me. “Two of them weren’t even targets: Samir Khan and Abdulrahman Awlaki. That doesn’t look good. It’s embarrassing.”

The former senior official said that John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, “suspected that the kid had been killed intentionally and ordered a review. I don’t know what happened with the review.” When asked about the review, a spokesperson for the National Security Council told me, “We cannot discuss the sensitive details of specific operations.”

Lt. Gen. Flynn, who since leaving the DIA has become an outspoken critic of the Obama administration, charges that the White House relies heavily on drone strikes for reasons of expediency, rather than effectiveness. “We’ve tended to say, drop another bomb via a drone and put out a headline that ‘we killed Abu Bag of Doughnuts’ and it makes us all feel good for 24 hours,” Flynn said. “And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It just made them a martyr, it just created a new reason to fight us even harder.”


Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA/Landov

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was an architect of JSOC’s find, fix, finish doctrine.

Glenn Carle, a former senior CIA officer, disputes Flynn’s characterization of the Obama administration’s motive in its widespread use of drones. “I would be skeptical the government would ever make that formal decision to act that way,” Carle, who spent more than two decades in the CIA’s clandestine services, told The Intercept. “Obama is always attacked by the right as being soft on defense and not able to make the tough decisions. That’s all garbage. The Obama administration has been quite ruthless in its pursuit of terrorists. If there are people who we, in our best efforts, assess to be trying to kill us, we can make their life as short as possible. And we do it.”

TF 48-4, according to the documents, did in fact have an impressive cache of firepower in Djibouti to kill or capture people approved for the kill list by the president. According to one slide, as of 2012 the base at Camp Lemonnier housed more than a dozen armed drones and additional surveillance aircraft. Its arsenal also included eight manned F-15E warplanes, which can carry so-called bunker busters — 5,000-pound laser-guided bombs.

The ISR Task Force recommended providing special operations forces with more and better drones and an enhanced mandate to capture and interrogate suspects “via host-nation partners.”

Outsourcing U.S. kill/capture operations to local forces, which occurred frequently throughout the Bush administration’s time in office, regularly led to human rights abuses, torture, and extrajudicial killings. “I’m very hesitant on backing foreign militaries or paramilitary forces or militias,” said Clinton Watts, a former FBI special agent who worked on counterterrorism and later served as an executive officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “I’ve seen that up close before and you’re backing rape and pillage campaigns through the countryside, usually. You can’t control them and you don’t have transparency over what they do and it blows up in your face the same way that a bad drone strike does.”

The ISR Task Force asserted that an increase in the number of capture operations could be achieved by using U.S. “advisors” to build partnerships with local forces and by conducting “advance force operations.” AFOs are used by the U.S. military to discreetly plant tracking devices, conduct surveillance, and physically access places inhabited by potential targets, often in “denied areas” where the U.S. is not yet at war. Forces deployed in AFOs may also conduct clandestine “direct actions,” including kill/capture operations.

During the Bush administration, AFOs served as a primary vehicle for justifying the clandestine deployment of U.S. special operators across the world to engage in “operational preparation” of a future battlespace. Those activities expanded as the Bush administration adopted the view that, post 9/11, “the entire world is the ‘battlespace.’”

A July 2015 U.S. government contract solicitation for training Pacific Command personnel who conduct AFOs envisioned a course that would focus on tactics “that directly or indirectly support technical surveillance operations in non-permissive environments.” Among them: breaking and bypassing a slew of locks, both physical and digital; cloning hotel room key cards; picking advanced car lock systems; and learning “physical restraint escape techniques.” The solicitation stated that operatives need such courses to “remain proficient in this highly refined skill set.”

Tubular key and cruciform key locks

U.S. military descriptions of the “skill set” required for advance force operations.

THE TONE OF THE ISR STUDY at times gives the impression that special operations forces were effectively prisoners of resource shortages and a legal bureaucracy that interfered with the military’s ability to kill or capture terrorists with the frequency, efficiency, and urgency demanded by policymakers.

Those sentiments were echoed by Lt. Gen. Flynn, who served for years as the chief intelligence officer for JSOC. “You cannot conduct counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, or counter-guerrilla operations without having effective interrogation operations,” Flynn said in an interview. “If the president says, ‘Defeat this enemy,’ but you say you need resources that you never get, you just can’t defeat the enemy. Without the ability to capture or interrogate, your effectiveness when conducting counterterrorism operations can be cut in half, if not even lower than that, and that’s the challenge that we face.”

Carle, the former senior CIA officer, said the ISR study is part of the “classic” turf war. “If you get the budget,” he said, “then you control the decisions and everybody thinks that whatever toys they control are the toys that need to be used and therefore you need more of them.” The Pentagon wants “to expand their influence,” he added, “because then you don’t have obstreperous and disheveled civilian CIA guys who clink glasses in salons telling you how to do things. They don’t want that. That’s a classic turf institutional tension.”

The study, which utilizes corporate language to describe lethal operations as though they were a product in need of refining and upgrading, includes analyses from IBM, which has boasted that its work for the Pentagon “integrates commercial consulting methods with tacit knowledge of the mission, delivering work products and advice that improve operations and creates [sic] new capabilities.”

The study compared the tempo and methods of conventional operations in which U.S. personnel were on the ground in large numbers — as in Iraq and Afghanistan — to the shadow wars in Yemen and Somalia, where there was a scant and sporadic U.S. military presence. Unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, where special operations units were given carte blanche to engage in a systematic kill/capture program, in Somalia and Yemen they were required to operate under more stringent rules and guidelines. “When compared to previous operations,” the study asserted, “the amount of time required to action objectives is literally orders of magnitude higher.”

The CIA has operated in Pakistan with looser requirements for obtaining the president’s direct approval before launching strikes; the president also waived the requirement that a CIA target present an “imminent” threat.


A slide from a May 2013 Pentagon presentation shows the chain of command for ordering drone strikes and other operations carried out by JSOC in Yemen and Somalia.

GCC = Geographic Combatant Command; SECDEF = Secretary of Defense; PDC/PC = Principals’ Deputies Committee/Principals Committee; CoM = Chief of Mission; CoS = Chief of Station

One slide outlined the bureaucracy involved in authorizing the military to conduct high-value strikes, a process that in some cases took years. “Relatively few high-level terrorists meet criteria for targeting under the provisions,” the study said, and the “near certainty” standard for positively identifying a target and requirements of “low” collateral damage “reduces targeting opportunities.” The study lamented the technical difficulties in achieving positive identification of a targeted person and guaranteeing minimal collateral damage, particularly when insufficient numbers of drones and full motion video platforms caused “blinking” in the surveillance apparatus.

One former senior special operations officer, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing classified materials, told The Intercept that the ISR study was best understood as a “bitch brief.” The message, he said, was, “We can’t do what you’re asking us to do because you are not giving us the resources to get it done.”

As the Obama era draws to a close, the internal debate over control of the drone program continues, with some reports suggesting the establishment of a “dual command” structure for the CIA and the military. For now, it seems that the military is getting much of what it agitated for in the ISR study. In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the military plans to “sharply expand the number of U.S. drone flights over the next four years, giving military commanders access to more intelligence and greater firepower to keep up with a sprouting number of global hot spots.” The paper reported that drone flights would increase by 50 percent by 2019, adding: “While expanding surveillance, the Pentagon plan also grows the capacity for lethal airstrikes.”


With a special thanks to: Cora Currier, Jeremy Scahill and the people who made the amages







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