The Washington Post has published a story relying upon more documents from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, which provide a glimpse at how the NSA coordinates with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to assassinate “targets.” It featured the first concrete evidence to date that Hassan Ghul, a courier for Osama bin Laden who provided intelligence that helped the CIA locate bin Laden, was killed in a drone strike. Yet, some of the main reactions to the story are troubling because it appears to resent the fact that journalists involved in this story decided to engage in an act of journalism.
Several who read the story have looked at it and accused the media organization of revealing intelligence operations that may put national security at risk by revealing tactics to America’s adversaries—the Terrorists—that could bring great harm to this country. Some suggested the story did not contain any news because, obviously, the NSA would be providing intelligence on enemies to the CIA for use in “targeted killings.” They said this shows the NSA was achieving “national security objectives” through legitimate counterterrorism missions. Others considered the story evidence that the NSA’s role in the assassination program is the least objectionable part of it.
Overall, it was essentially what should be considered a state-identified reaction: There is nothing new. Government agencies are doing their job appropriately. There is really nothing of interest here and, if we are too interested, that could enable bad guys who want to see Americans dead so let’s move along now.
Such thinking enables US dirty wars, of which the NSA and CIA are a key apart, to take place without any scrutiny. Also, it is wrong to accept the story is not newsworthy but shows all is well with US counterterrorism operations.
In neither of the following books—Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars, Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife, Peter Bergen’s Manhunt (which actually mentions Ghul)—will one find any indication of what happened to Ghul in Pakistan. The documents that the Post analyzed gave the media organization the ability to confirm an operation that the government has never publicly acknowledged for reasons that frankly are not explained in the Post’s story.
Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project poses a number of questions raised by the story.
An email from Ghul’s wife happened to reveal Ghul’s location. What happened to Ghul’s wife and his other family? Did they die in the drone strike?
The Washington Post recounts how Ghul was captured, tortured at a CIA black site, transferred to a prison in Pakistan and released by Pakistani authorities. He apparently then returned to Waziristan and participated in al Qaeda operations. What about this chain of events? What role did the torture play in Ghul’s decision to continue fighting as a part of al Qaeda? Did this past convince US intelligence agencies they had to remain committed to killing him?
That there are questions related to the story that should be answered makes this piece of journalism worthwhile.
Additionally, in this case, it seems the “signals intelligence” from emails, phone calls, etc, all resulted in a legitimate outcome. What about the times when intelligence collected is flawed or misread and leads to the assassination of people that are later found to have had no role in terrorist operations? How reliable is the “signals intelligence”?
Here’s this excerpt from a report released by Stanford/NYU law clinics, “Living Under Drones”:
In April 2011, for example, US forces used a predator drone to fire upon and kill two American soldiers in Afghanistan who had apparently been mistaken for Taliban fighters. In September 2010, US special forces bombed the convoy of Zabet Amanullah, a candidate in parliamentary elections, killing him along with nine fellow election workers; US forces reportedly mistakenly believed Amanullah to be a member of the Taliban. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been documented cases of opportunistic informants providing false tips to settle scores, advance sectarian or political agendas, or to obtain financial reward. For example, in Guantanamo, a reported 86 percent of those imprisoned were turned over to coalition forces in response to a bounty offered by the US. Pakistani and Afghan villagers reported the bounty amount was “[e]nough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.” For several years, the US government regularly referred to Guantanamo detainees as “the worst of the worst.” Classified as “enemy combatants,” prisoners remained in US custody for significant periods of time, often years, and often without being charged. Yet of the 779 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, 603 have now been released. According to the US government itself, 92% of prisoners in the facility were never Al Qaeda fighters.
For people who suggest the Post’s story could be helpful to terrorists, none of that information appears in the Post’s report on the intricate relationship between the NSA and CIA.
There are clear issues, such as whether the United states is violating international humanitarian law or committing war crimes, when it launches drone strikes in Pakistan (or other countries) in which it has not declared war. No nod to this reality can be found in the Post’s story, despite a recent United Nations report by UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudical, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Christof Heyns.
Heyns has previously stated, “The position of the Government of Pakistan is quite clear. It does not consent to the use of drones by the United States on its territory and it considers this to be a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. As a matter of international law, the US drone campaign in Pakistan is therefore being conducted without the consent of the elected representatives of the people, or the legitimate Government of the State. It involves the use of force on the territory of another State without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.”
Critics of The Washington Post’s decision to exercise their right to publish should recognize, especially if they support all of the NSA’s unconstitutional, unchecked and overly broad collection programs, that the Post may be doing the NSA an unintentional favor. The future of NSA surveillance powers are at risk. Although it is unclear if any of the programs exposed by Snowden contributed to the killing of Ghul, this could bolster an argument that all programs have to be kept in tact because one never knows when something useful like an email from a relative of a terrorist could be intercepted and provide that key piece of intelligence for an operation.
Furthermore, a Counter-Terrorism Mission Aligned Cell organized to go after hard-to-find individuals like Ghul was established by the NSA and the unit appears to engage in hacking or system intrusions to collect information. The details of how these “penetrations” are done were not described in the story, though they probably could have.
The Post, which regularly discusses the future publication of national security stories with US government officials, withheld “many details” about missions where the NSA and CIA collaborated “at the request of US intelligence officials who cited potential damage to ongoing operations and national security.”
What the Post published only begins to explore the role of surveillance in America’s dirty wars. This story is a teaser for what journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill will likely publish in the coming months.
In the meantime, it should be recognized that how these operations work may not seem like news to you, especially if you have a past history working for an intelligence agency in government, but for most Americans this could be the first glimpse they are getting at how intelligence contributes to CIA drone strikes.
Citizens should not react to stories about national security operations like the officials in government in charge of coordinating and defending them. They do not have to fear knowing that these operations are occurring on a regular basis will result in “enormous grave damage.” This enables a national security state to become more entrenched and conceal abuses and crimes being committed.
Finally, accepting that a story cannot be published if there is not some clear, immediate outrage is a state-identified reaction that works against reporters engaging in the kind of transparency journalism that should be valued. It also fuels a culture of thinking like US intelligence agency leaders, who will claim any sliver of information on what national security agencies do can help the terrorists—and usually does, when in fact that is rarely, if ever, confirmed to be true.
OneKade has pointed out that The Washington Post has removed a statement from the NSA that appeared in the story.
The USA Today’s version that is posted still includes the statement from an NSA spokeswoman:
“The National Security Agency is a foreign intelligence agency,” the statement read. “We’re focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets, such as terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers. Our activities are directed against valid foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements from U.S. leaders in order to protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
The new statement in the Post’s story is as follows, “The NSA is “focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets,” an NSA spokeswoman said in a statement provided to The Post on Wednesday, adding that the agency’s operations “protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
But, as Marcy Wheeler writes, this statement and then request to have the Post edit out the part about targeting human traffickers and drug smugglers suggests the NSA and CIA have been working together to target human trafficker and drug smugglers with drones.