Up to 90 pct of U.S. drone strikes hit the wrong target, major leak reveals

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Cmdr. James Ridgway
Up to 90 percent of those killed by drone strikes in the first five months of a U.S. operation in Afghanistan were not the intended targets. This is just one of many startling revelations that an anonymous whistleblower has revealed through confidential documents shared with The Intercept. The documents offer the most detailed look to date at the secret and extensive military drone program run by the United States. The whistleblower who leaked these documents believes that the public deserves to know what is contained within.

Drone strikes are supposed to be ruthlessly precise and effective, but the leaked documents are filled with moral questions and acknowledgement by American officials that the programs are imperfect.

Among the revelations:

  • How people are placed on “kill lists”
  • How the President makes these decisions
  • The secret criteria for drone strikes
  • How the White House approves targets
  • The 60-day “window for lethal action”
  • Details about the special operations task force that helps guide the program
  • The costs of drone warfare
  • Results of a secret early-2013 Pentagon study on the drone program
  • Findings that show “chronic flaws” in intelligence
  • How drones fly from Djibouti, to Ethiopia, to Yemen and from Navy ships

The documents state that there must be a “low CDE [collateral damage environment]” — meaning a low estimate of how many innocent people might be harmed. It also states there must be “near certainty” that the target is present, “based on two forms of intelligence” with “no contradictory intelligence.” In contrast to a White House statement, the “near certainty” standard is not applied to the presence of civilians.

Many are likening the sensitivity of this information to the Edward Snowden revelations made just over two years ago. Snowden himself has emerged yet again to share his thoughts on the matter. Calling the latest release “an act of civil courage,” Snowden believes it is the most important national security story of the year.

It is unknown when these documents were extricated, but at least some of it dates to sometime in early 2013, which was just before Snowden began releasing his documents. If any documents date later than Snowden’s leak, questions will surely arise whether the state of security surrounding this kind of classified information has improved.

While these leaks may pale in comparison to Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance, they demonstrate the flaws of drone technology, surveillance, and the deadly consequences for humans caught in the crossfire. The minimal American political and human capital required to execute a drone strike has made it a popular option for the military. With this release, we’re beginning to understand its true cost.


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