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For more than a decade the U.S.’s drone program has been shrouded in secrecy. But a new series Thursday in The Intercept pulls back the curtain on a number of details that, among other things, reported that nearly 90 percent of people killed in drone strikes over a 5-month period were unintended causalities.
In a 8-part series titled “The Drone Papers,” the online news site obtained a cache of classified documents from an anonymous whistleblower that offer a glimpse into the internal process of the U.S. military’s drone operations, which have become a tool to remotely kill al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives.
“This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong,” the anonymous source told The Intercept.
“We’re allowing this to happen. And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it,” the source said.
President Barack Obama said in 2013 that there had to be “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” before any drone strikes are authorized. However, in one U.S. operation between January 2012 and February 2013 in northeastern Afghanistan, 35 out of more than 200 people killed by drones were the actual intended targets, The Intercept reported.
The documents also appear to reveal that anyone killed by the unmanned aircraft, including unintended casualties, are labeled as EKIA, or “enemy killed in action.” The designation stayed, unless evidence comes forward that proved that a person killed wasn’t an “unlawful enemy combatant,” The Intercept reported.
The documents also paint a scenario in which the U.S. military routinely rely on unreliable intelligence about intended targets in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In April, the White House apologized for the accidental drone killings of one American and one Italian hostage along the Afghan-Pakistan border during a U.S. operation against al-Qaeda.
The Intercept reported another instance in 2012 where a drone was used to kill a former British citizen, Bilal el-Berjawi, after repeated attempts to capture him failed.
The source told The Intercept that the government’s reliance on drones allowed a “clean way of doing things.”
“It’s a very slick, efficient way to conduct the war, without having to have the massive ground invasion mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan,” the source said.
The Intercept’s report also characterizes the twin drone programs conducted by both the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, as an “intense turf war.” The Intercept’s series focuses on the U.S. military’s drone program.
The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti told the NewsHour in 2013 that there is a “redundancy” of drone operations between the two programs in places like Yemen, with neither the CIA or the Pentagon were willing to give up their role in the operations.
The source told The Intercept that the military is able to adapt to change, but have become “addicted … to this way of doing business.”
“It seems like it’s going to become harder and harder to pull them away from it the longer they’re allowed to continue operating in this way,” the source said.
In September, both the CIA and the U.S. military launched a drone campaign in Syria to target high-level Islamic State operatives, The Washington Post reported.
The lead journalist of “The Drone Papers” is Jeremy Scahill. The Intercept was founded by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, along with Scahill. They previously covered documents leaked by Edward Snowden.
Read The Intercept’s full, eight-part series, “The Drone Papers,” here.
Joshua Barajas is a senior editor for the PBS NewsHour's Communities Initiative. He also the senior editor and manager of newsletters.
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