The Obama administration was this week confronted with another large intelligence data leak, as website the Intercept unveiled a cache of slides related to the US government’s use of drones.
In what looks like the biggest breach of US data security since the flight of Edward Snowden, a trove of information is now available to browse online that exposes the guidelines, flaws and limits of the Obama administration’s “kill/capture” policy. The Intercept has refused to name the source, who has requested anonymity, but described them as someone with working knowledge of the operations described in the material.
The information covers the period 2011-2013 and many of the slides come from a 2013 study conducted by a Pentagon entity, the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force. The ISR concluded that operations during that time suffered from a number of significant flaws. For example, the killing of “legitimate” targets prevents them from becoming a source of information, which then forces analysts and decision-makers to rely very heavily on electronic, rather than human intelligence.
More concerning for human rights groups will be the revelation that government information about civilian casualties appears to be misleading. One set of the source’s document refer to Operation Haymaker, a special operations campaign that ran from January 2012 to February of the following year and which resulted in 200 deaths as a result of airstrikes, but only 35 were intended targets of Haymaker. However, the administration counts all casualties as “enemies killed in action” unless positive proof is provided to the contrary. According to the source, this means that the public figures for civilian casualties do not represent the true death toll.
Since one of the primary justifications of drone use is its precision and lack of collateral damage, it is also worth noting that Operation Haymaker missions incurred less foreign casualties when using ground troops. As slides related to Haymaker show, during the summer of 2012, only 2 people were killed over the course of manned raids, with 61 people taken prisoner. Over the same number of drone strikes, 155 people were listed as EKIA. The drones therefore had a much higher unintended casualty rate, but yielded more “jackpots”, which means the detention or killing of the intended target.
President Obama’s use of drones has long been controversial and a source of discontent on the American left. Professor Cornel West, who once campaigned for Obama, has gone as far as to call the president a “war criminal” and “the drone president”. Other critics of the administration’s approach to drones include the ACLU, who issued a strong statement denouncing the administration’s drone use. It seems clear, then, that the revelations of this week could cause political problems for President Obama and his team. It could also have an impact on the ongoing race to become the Democratic nominee for the 2016 presidential contest, as Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State during most of the period covered in the slides.
The Pentagon, White House and Special Operations Command have all refused to comment.