According to a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA, the agency often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies. Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.
What we have here is a situation where approximately 300 innocent people (that we know about) have been killed because they were misidentified as targets or were carrying a SIM card associated with a target. These were not necessarily casualties nor bystanders. They were individuals targeted based on the data collection and analysis algorithms used by the NSA. These may be similar, or the same, as the ones used to identify networks and individuals domestically in the Western hemisphere.
Actual targets have long been aware of the dangers of SIM cards and have taken measures to thwart this: they may carry dozens of cellular phones registered to other individuals, distribute their cellular phones among friends or register cellular phones to strangers in their own names. As a result innocent people are targeted and killed by drones based on metadata analysis pointing toward the fake trail.
Within the NSA, the paper reported, “A motto quickly caught on at Geo Cell: ‘We Track ’Em, You Whack ’Em.’”
Don’t forget – these are not combat operations. This is not happening in countries that are at war with the United States. These are not individuals fighting on a battlefield.
This is a long-distance assassination program.
President Obama signs authorizations for “hits” that remain valid for 60 days. If a target cannot be located within that period, it must be reviewed and renewed. According to the former drone operator, it can take 18 months or longer to move from intelligence gathering to getting approval to actually carrying out a strike in Yemen. “What that tells me,” he says, “is that commanders, once given the authorization needed to strike, are more likely to strike when they see an opportunity – even if there’s a high chance of civilians being killed, too – because in their mind they might never get the chance to strike that target again.”