A new report from journalists Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald highlights National Security Agency documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, providing new details on how the NSA uses industrial-scale mass surveillance to launch drone strikes on targets. It shows the dependence on metadata and cell-phone tracking technology and the government’s refusal to question intelligence collected is a huge contributor to the assassinations of the “wrong people” by United States drones.

The top secret documents, detailed in one of the first stories to be published by the new media organization, First Look, shows the NSA has used SIM cards, the handset of a mobile phone, to “geolocate” people the NSA suspects are terrorists. However, there is no guarantee the suspected terrorist is carrying that phone when a drone strike is launched.

A former drone operator, who worked for Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), explained, “Geolocation cells at the NSA that run the tracking program – known as Geo Cell –sometimes facilitate strikes without knowing whether the individual in possession of a tracked cell phone or SIM card is in fact the intended target of the strike.”

He further described, “Once the bomb lands or a night raid happens, you know that phone is there.” The mere presence of the phone is considered to make the strike a “success.” Even though it is unknown who was holding the phone, “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.”

Drone targets are also often located through the analysis of SIM card activity instead of the content of the calls. That means the patterns of movement or behavior are depended upon when making a decision to launch a strike. (This is how “signature strikes” work.) This results in “death by unreliable metadata.”

The former drone operator told First Look, “People get hung up that there’s a targeted list of people,” but, “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.”

He is certain that people nearby targets who are unknown have been killed. These people are either family members or others, who may have nothing to do with any of the activity which the government is targeting.

In October 2012, it was reported by The Washington Post that the administration of President Barack Obama was developing a database called a “disposition matrix.” It would be a way to track the movement of targets on “kill lists” and help the government make determinations when to assassinate a terrorist suspect.

As this story from First Look would seem to suggest, the collection of data presumes the targets are terrorists from the initial phases of data collection to the moment a Hellfire missile rains down upon them.

The system of targeting and assassinating terrorist suspects works because “the people who use it trust it unconditionally,” according to the former drone operator. Anyone raising objections is brushed off when objecting that decisions might be “rushed,” dependent on “inaccurate” intelligence or just plain wrong.

“The most common response I would get was ‘JSOC wouldn’t spend millions and millions of dollars, and man hours, to go after someone if they weren’t certain that they were the right person.’ There is a saying at the NSA: ‘SIGINT never lies.’ It may be true that SIGINT never lies, but it’s subject to human error,” the former drone operator recalled.

The government’s assassination program is actually constructed, he adds, to avoid self-correction. “They make rushed decisions and are often wrong in their assessments. They jump to conclusions and there is no going back to correct mistakes.” Because there is an ever-increasing demand for more targets to be added to the kill list, he says, the mentality is “just keep feeding the beast.”

In other words, the “wrong people” can easily be killed in countries like Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, where the US has had ongoing assassination operations.

At least 273 civilians in those countries have been killed in “unmanned aerial assaults,” since Obama was first elected president, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The report from Scahill and Greenwald emphasizes the lack of intelligence collected from human sources. Two sources of intelligence are often necessary for the launch of an attack on a target, but that data is typically two sources of supplied data from the NSA.

Remarkably, as a kind of anticipation of the backlash that could result from the publication of this story, NSA spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden gave the following the statement to First Look (in addition to apparently discouraging them from publishing the story):

…After any use of targeted lethal force, when there are indications that civilian deaths may have occurred, intelligence analysts draw on a large body of information – including human intelligence, signals intelligence, media reports, and surveillance footage – to help us make informed determinations about whether civilians were in fact killed or injured…

After drone attacks, Hayden would have the world believe that the NSA collects detailed intelligence on who exactly was killed. This tracks with what The New York Times reported in June 2012, that “military-age males” found killed in “strike zones” are “combatants” until “there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” And the standard for exculpating dead civilians would appear to be pretty high in order to aid the government in keeping their own civilian casualty counts low.

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The report from First Look affirms the concerns of human rights organizations and also shows the aspect of the government’s “targeted killing” program, which The Washington Post neglected to spotlight last year when it covered the NSA’s role using documents from Snowden.

Stanford University and New York University law clinics previously called attention to an oft-ignored fact that, in the “war on terrorism,” US intelligence has often led to the deaths of people who never should have been targeted:

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.

Call it “confirmation bias.” The NSA, CIA and JSOC, are all involved in an increasingly permanent war that involves targeting and assassinating individuals, who the agencies need to believe are dangerous people intent on doing harm to the United States in order to justify continued drone operations.

Yet, this can have horrific effects on people, including individuals who are not targeted and killed.

Attorney and former US Army platoon leader Brandon Mayfield, according to a story by Matthew Harwood, writer and media strategist for the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, was targeted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) particularly because of his religion and the fact that he was representing an alleged terrorist.

Read this excerpt to get a sense of how easy it would be for the CIA or JSOC to be ordering the assassination of people in countries, who pose no imminent threat at all to the US:

…On March 11, 2004, Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists coordinated a massive bombing of the Madrid commuter train system during the morning rush hour, killing 193 people and wounding approximately 1,800. Two latent fingerprints recovered during the investigation on a bag of detonators by the Spanish National Police (SNP) were shared with the FBI through Interpol. When the prints were run through the bureau’s database, it returned 20 possible matches for one of the fingerprints, one of whom was Brandon Mayfield. A former U.S. Army platoon leader, Mayfield was now an attorney specializing in child custody, divorce and immigration law in Portland, Ore. His prints were in the FBI system because of Mayfield’s military service as well as an arrest two decades earlier because of a misunderstanding. The charges were later dropped.

Despite finding that Mayfield’s print was not an identical match to the print left on the bag of detonators, FBI fingerprint examiners rationalized away the differences, according to a report by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Under the one discrepancy rule, the FBI lab should have concluded Mayfield did not leave the print found in Madrid — a conclusion the SNP reached and repeatedly communicated to the FBI. The FBI’s Portland field office, however, used that fingerprint match to begin digging into Mayfield’s background. Certain details of the attorney’s life convinced the agents that they had their man. Mayfield had converted to Islam after meeting his wife, an Egyptian. He had represented one of the Portland Seven, a group of men who tried to travel to Afghanistan to fight for al Qaeda and the Taliban against U.S. and coalition forces in a child custody case. He also worshipped at the same mosque as the militants. In the aftermath of 9/11, these innocent associations and relationships, however tangential, were transformed by investigators into evidence that Mayfield wasn’t a civic-minded American, but a bloodthirsty terrorist intent on destroying the West…

The FBI believed Mayfield was “acting on behalf of a foreign terrorist group.” The Fourth Amendment was circumvented. The government went to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain authorization to place Mayfield and his family under surveillance. FBI agents subsequently broke into his home and law office.

And, according to Harwood, they “rifled through documents protected by attorney-client privilege, wiretapped his phones, analyzed his financial records and web browsing history, and went through his garbage. They followed him wherever he went. Despite all this, the FBI never found a smoking gun connecting him to Madrid. They did, however, find Internet searches of flights to Spain and learned that he once took flying lessons. To FBI agents already convinced of his guilt, this was all evidence of Mayfield’s terrorist heart. The Web searches, however, were mundane. His daughter had to plan a fictional vacation for a school project. Flight lessons were indicative of nothing more than Mayfield’s interest in flying.”

Evidence of innocence was, when found, was twisted to support “concocted theories” of guilt. Because the FBI did not have the evidence desired, it believed Mayfield “traveled overseas as part of this terrorist conspiracy under a false identity.”

The Spanish authorities saved Mayfield. The FBI believed Mayfield was guilty until “Spanish authorities conclusively matched the print to the real culprit, Algerian national Ouhane Daoud. Only then did Mayfield’s traumatic journey into the stomach of the national security state end.”

This is the problem of “voluminous data” collected every day—that it can imply guilt when there is none. Imagine if Mayfield had been a Yemeni, Pakistani or Somali. He would likely be dead.

A drone equipped with a “virtual base-tower transceiver” to act as a “fake cell phone tower that can force a targeted person’s device to lock onto the NSA’s receiver without knowledge” would have likely been employed. Mayfield’s family would be mourning his death if they were not killed along with him.

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