NSA Outrage Machine Misfires on Drone Kills

This is a story about drones, not the NSA

NSA Outrage Machine Misfires on Drone Kills NSA Outrage Machine Misfires on Drone Kills

Uncategorized October 17, 2013 0

Drone effigy at protest. compfight NSA Outrage Machine Misfires on Drone Kills This is a story about drones, not the NSA by JOSHUA FOUST... NSA Outrage Machine Misfires on Drone Kills
Drone effigy at protest. compfight

NSA Outrage Machine Misfires on Drone Kills

This is a story about drones, not the NSA


The Washington Post has a killer story today about how the NSA helps drones kill. Based on documents provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the story shows how the NSA, which is a military agency headed by a four-star general, also shares information with the CIA to enable Pres. Barack Obama’s drone war.

While some of the information there is noteworthy, it also seems to have a buried lede: the NSA is good at its job, and it’s part of a larger system operating around the world.

Much of the reaction to this story (the dulled outrage formed from a literal derecho of leaked documents about the agency) seems to misunderstand what military intelligence agencies actually do. The NSA’s primary defense against Snowden’s revelations thus far have focused on its counterterrorism mission, and now the Post is running a story that confirms it does, in fact, feed information into various counterterrorism programs — including those that result in deadly drone strikes.

Moreover, the kind of strike the Post highlights — against a courier for Osama Bin Laden hiding in Pakistan — is the sort of thing one would hope that a drone would be striking against anyway, rather than unidentified targets assumed to be terrorists because of their age and gender.

As the Post explains, the NSA spent a year tracking the Bin Laden courier, breaking into networks and devices he used so it could track his movements. The agency even created a specialized analysis group to sift through the many pieces of signals intelligence it vacuums from the Internet and airwaves to better track the terrorists it’s tasked with finding.

Yet many of the Post’s revelations don’t exactly advance the public’s understanding of how the NSA over-collects intelligence, or how such over-collection affects the civil rights of American citizens?—?a goal espoused by Post reporter Barton Gellman, who communicated with Snowden. Rather, these documents seem to verify previously-known stories about the drone war — and might actually expose additional operations that could harm the U.S.

Back in June, War is Boring founder David Axe wrote about one known example of how the NSA fed intel to the CIA for drone strikes. Pulling from James Bamford’s 2009 book The Shadow Factory, Axe recounted how the NSA used phone intercepts to identify Qaed Salim Sinan Al Harethi, an Al Qaeda terrorist who helped bomb the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. After identifying one of Al Harethi’s cellphones in use in Yemen, the NSA notified the CIA, which used that intel to track his car. A CIA-run drone launched a missile at the car, killing him and five others.

There are other details the Post writes about in a level of detail not seen before. The paper mentions how the NSA would set up listening stations at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, and that CIA agents would sneak into the field to plant tracking devices on known terrorists.

That was kind of an open secret in Pakistan, since some of the locals hired to plant the devices would speak out, but seeing the program discussed in top secret documents still exposes certain details about the bugs that could prove advantageous to future terrorists in Pakistan.

That’s because it was never just a question of the devices themselves. Rather, seeing how they are used — and where the NSA has been successful — can close off known avenues for tracking bad guys. The Post details, for example, a successful effort to break into the communications systems of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. NSA analysts were able to get a “trove of documents” that could “help NSA map out the movement of terrorists and aspiring extremists between Yemen, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Libya and Iran.”

This isn’t the first time the Washington Post has used Snowden’s documents to expose elements of how the drone program works. In September, it reported on a top secret study of how Al Qaeda was trying to adopt to drone strikes. “Although there is no evidence that al-Qaeda has forced a drone crash or interfered with flight operations, U.S. intelligence officials have closely tracked the group’s persistent efforts to develop a counter-drone strategy since 2010,” the newspaper reported.

While that may seem anodyne, the Post did reveal that defense officials detected the first signs of Al Qaeda in Pakistan trying to develop a GPS jamming capability. At the time it did not pose a threat, the paper says. The Post also reports intelligence analysts finding several other jamming development projects underway by Al Qaeda members.

Still, looking over these documents, the picture that emerges is far from negative. Rather than a heartless killing machine intent on harming children — a caricature often employed in opposition to drone strikes — what emerges is a terrorist organization deeply afraid of an effective weapon. Moreover, the NSA is, by its own documents, proving an invaluable part of the intelligence chain leading to successful strikes against known (and very dangerous) figures within Al Qaeda.

The reality is, none of the debate about drones or their legality is affected by these two stories. Rather, it is an attempt to shoehorn a document about drones’ effectiveness into the outrage machine put into motion about the NSA, even if the agency’s involvement is arguably the least controversial aspect of the program.

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