Drone Strikes Accomplished Less And Killed More, Report Finds

An investigation from 'The Intercept' reveals drone program flaws

MQ-9 Reaper, Joint Base Balad, Iraq

MQ-9 Reaper, Joint Base Balad, Iraq

Erik Gudmundson, USAF, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier today, adversarial journalism outfit The Intercept (co-founded by Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Snowden NSA leaks) published a sizable eight-article omnibus titled "The Drone Papers." Detailing several facets of America's War on Terror, this new batch of leaked official classified papers looks at the tremendous, complicated, and morally fraught process that goes into drone surveillance and targeted killing. Among the most damning revelations: that nearly 90 percent of those killed during five months of drone strike operations in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013 were not the intended targets.

One section, "Firing Blind" specifically honed in on the limits of drones, as found in the skies above Somalia and Yemen. Because airbases were far from the areas of Somalia that the Pentagon wanted to watch, drones and other surveillance aircraft spent much of their flight time just getting in place. This limitation meant that, instead of setting up persistent spying surveillance flights, drones were used a lot more for targeted killing, which "are intelligence dead ends" From the text:

The [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] study shows that after a “kill operation” there is typically nobody on the ground to collect written material or laptops in the target’s house, or the phone on his body, or capture suspects and ask questions. Yet collection of on-the-ground intelligence of that sort — referred to as DOMEX, for “document and media exploitation,” and TIR, for “tactical interrogation report” — is invaluable for identifying future targets.

Stating that 75 percent of operations in the region were strikes, and noting that “kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees and captured material,” the study recommended an expansion of “capture finishes via host-nation partners for more ‘finish-derived’ intelligence.” One of the problems with that scenario, however, is that security forces in host nations like Yemen and Somalia are profoundly unreliable and have been linked to a wide variety of abuses, including the torture of prisoners.

Rather than confirming a vision of highly mechanized, robotic warfare, The Intercept's report portrays the targeted killing program as one filled with profound compromises and hampered by limitations. Intelligence operations that trade attacks for further surveillance and rely on local parties who may, at best, lack America's same priorities are a murky part of a long-running covert war.

The massive report deserves to be read in full over at The Intercept.