The Intercept’s ‘Drone Papers’ Revelations Mandate a Congressional Investigation

Sadly, that will never happen under the Obama administration’s watch.

A Yemeni boy (C) walks past a mural depicting a US drone and reading " Why did you kill my family" on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa. A drone strike on a wedding convoy in Yemen killed 17 people, mostly civilians, medical and security sources said, adding grist to mounting criticism of the US drone war.  AFP PHOTO/ MOHAMMED HUWAIS        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A Yemeni boy (C) walks past a mural depicting a US drone and reading " Why did you kill my family" on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa. A drone strike on a wedding convoy in Yemen killed 17 people, mostly civilians, medical and security sources said, adding grist to mounting criticism of the US drone war. AFP PHOTO/ MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

This morning, the reporting team at the Intercept published an impressive eight-part series on the policies and processes of U.S. drone strikes, called “The Drone Papers.” Some of the newly reported information is purportedly based upon “a cache of secret slides that provides a window into the inner workings of the U.S. military’s kill/capture operations … between 2011 and 2013.” Intercept journalist Jeremy Scahill writes that the slides “were provided by a source within the intelligence community.” (Full disclosure: I spoke with two reporters from the Intercept about some of these documents in mid-July and have a partial quote in one of the pieces.)

With a helpful framing narrative and context, lots of big pictures and graphics, and many new insights, this reporting could awaken or reintroduce interested readers to how the U.S. national security apparatus has thought about and conducted counterterrorism operations since 9/11. The reporting is less one big “bombshell” and more of a synthesis of over a decade’s worth of reporting and analysis, bolstered by troubling new revelations about what has become routine.

The uniqueness of “The Drone Papers” lies in the fact that there has been no comparable, comprehensive release of classified documents about U.S. capture or kill operations. Previous, equally invaluable, reporting has relied upon similar government documents but has not provided them in whole for public consumption, such as the Department of Justice memo, which provided the legal basis for targeting U.S. citizens, which NBC’s Michael Isikoff published in February 2013; the “top-secret U.S. intelligence reports,” which McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay quoted in April 2013; and the CIA documents, which Richard Engel and Robert Windrem briefly showed on NBC News, but did not published in full, in June 2013. But the source documents for “The Drone Papers” are available and easily searchable. There are only a few redactions in a series of slides about Afghanistan, which journalist Ryan Devereaux told me was done to protect the identity of individuals who “we A) could not confirm are dead through the documents or open source reporting or B) are already a widely known, wanted militant figure.”

The Intercept series, at a minimum, reconfirms and illuminates much of what we knew, thought we knew, or suspected about drone strikes. For example, there is “not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions,” as President Barack Obama put it in 2012, but indeed a clear chain of command that is displayed in a slide with the heading: “Step 1 — ‘Developing a target’ to ‘Authorization of a target.’” Also, it is clear that the Obama administration strongly prefers killing suspected terrorists rather than capturing them, despite claiming the opposite. Additionally, it is evident that the military and intelligence communities do not have the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms that they claim they need.

Finally, the documents support that military commanders have a strong bias against seemingly endless and pointless drone strikes, strongly preferring a “find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, and disseminate” (F3EAD) approach, which allows a command staff to continuously improve its situational awareness of an environment through capturing and interrogating suspected militants and terrorists. As one secret study declares: “Kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees and captured materials.” One military official described to me the normalcy of killing with drones in 2012, saying, “It really is like swatting flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you really think about killing a fly?”

But there are certainly also several new revelations that make this series a must-read for engaged citizens or those interested in U.S. counterterrorism strategies and policies. First, that Obama, as of June 2012, had authorized a special operation task force (within a 60-day “potential targeting window”) to kill 16 people in Yemen (named Operation Copper Dune) and four in Somalia (Operation Jupiter Garret). However, over that time, according to figures cited from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 19 percent of suspected militants and terrorists were killed in these countries — which raises the question of how many strikes were conducted by Title 50 cover authorities (i.e., the CIA) or how many people were unintentionally killed, like 16-year-old U.S. citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.

Second, we learn that a campaign of airstrikes intended to kill specific high-value targets — named Operation Haymaker — had, during a five-month stretch ending in February 2013, “resulted in no more than 35 ‘jackpots,’ a term used to signal the neutralization of a specific targeted individual, while more than 200 people were declared EKIA — ‘enemy killed in action.’” This implies that the unintentional killing of “military-age males” while targeting a specific individual, known as “signature strikes” for non-battlefield counterterrorism operations, was also a routine practice in Afghanistan. According to a U.N. report, “between 10,000 and 12,000” members of the Taliban were killed in 2013. Given the increasing reach of the Taliban today, high-value targeting — let’s call them decapitation strikes — may have killed a lot of suspected militants, but they were quickly replaced on the battlefield.

Third, “The Drone Papers” tell the story of Bilal el-Berjawi — a British-Lebanese citizen who grew up in the United Kingdom and was suspected of having ties to al Qaeda in East Africa by his mid-20s, leading the U.K. to revoke his citizenship and the United States to place him on a “kill list.” Although it is known that Berjawi was killed outside Mogadishu, Somalia, in January 2012 by a missile that struck his car, the Intercept revealed that the United States had been monitoring him for at least five years before his death, that he was the target of a covert special operations unit, and that surveillance of his cell phone helped facilitate the strike that killed him.

However, the most impressive and appreciated contribution of “The Drone Papers” is not what it reveals, but the analysis within which the revelations are presented. Having read probably every major reported story about U.S. counterterrorism operations for the past dozen years, I am consistently disappointed that journalists leave out essential context, history, or directly relevant previous reporting by other journalists. Often, what is promoted as an “exclusive” or “breaking” story can only be described this way by omission. Whether that omission is done unconsciously, due to a lack of knowledge of others’ work, or mandated by space constraints for print editions, it misleads readers about the uniqueness of the story reported. Thankfully, the Intercept has taken the time to put its stories into context and explicitly name and link to the work of other journalists and even academics. This is a model that all national security journalists should emulate.

The first U.S. drone strike in a war zone was on Oct. 7, 2001, in Afghanistan, and the first outside of a declared war zone was on Nov. 3, 2002, in Yemen. Despite the normalcy of the never-ending war on terror, we still know remarkably little about what is being done around the world by the U.S. military and intelligence communities. As I have noted, it is only due to the work of investigative journalists, and their sources in the U.S. government or in the associated countries, that we know anything about U.S. counterterrorism operations over the past 14 years. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations have fought to shield what the public knows about these operations, described them incredibly selectively, and refused to answer clarifying questions when their rhetoric does not match their practice. In the absence of aggressive journalism, American citizens would be largely ignorant.

This series calls into question many U.S. government claims about lethal counterterrorism strikes, which should compel long-overdue, rigorous oversight hearings by the relevant congressional committees and a full and complete public investigation of U.S. targeted killing policies — similar to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee (SSCI) report of the CIA’s rendition and interrogation program.

Unfortunately, in recent conversations with policymakers surrounding these programs, I have again learned that there is not just weariness about discussing them, but also a collective shoulder-shrug about the possibility of any serious investigations or reforms. In April, when Obama announced the deaths of three U.S. citizens and one Italian citizen in drone strikes, the chair and co-chair of the SSCI, Sens. Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein respectively, declared that U.S. targeted killing policies should be reviewed. That never happened. And, of course, those close to the White House still claim U.S. counterterrorism operations were “reformed” in May 2013. They were not.

So, as impressive and important as “The Drone Papers” are, I am sadly certain that this balanced reporting and its eye-opening disclosures will not compel any new concerns or investigations in Washington. Nor should we ever expect them under this president and this Congress.

Photo credit: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.