That Pirate May Be the Missing Link We Should Drone Kill

As I mocked last night, 60 Minutes decided to use pirate data collected under EO 12333 to demonstrate how it conducts call chaining on US citizen data collected under Section 215. But the exchange is rather interesting for the way the NSA analyst, Stephen Benitez, describes finding a potentially key player in a network of pirates.

Metadata has become one of the most important tools in the NSA’s arsenal. Metadata is the digital information on the number dialed, the time and date, and the frequency of the calls.  We wanted to see how metadata was used at the NSA.  Analyst Stephen Benitez showed us a technique known as “call chaining” used to develop targets for electronic surveillance in a pirate network based in Somalia.

Stephen Benitez: As you see here, I’m only allowed to chain on anything that I’ve been trained on and that I have access to. Add our known pirate. And we chain him out.

John Miller: Chain him out, for the audience, means what?

Stephen Benitez: People he’s been in contact to for those 18 days.

Stephen Benitez: One that stands out to me first would be this one here. He’s communicated with our target 12 times.

Stephen Benitez: Now we’re looking at Target B’s contacts.

John Miller: So he’s talking to three or four known pirates?

Stephen Benitez: Correct. These three here. We have direct connection to both Target A and Target B. So we’ll look at him, too, we’ll chain him out. And you see, he’s in communication with lots of known pirates. He might be the missing link that tells us everything. [my emphasis]

Compare the language Benitez uses here with that which Gregory McNeal used to describe drone targeting back in February.

Networked based analysis looks at terrorist groups as nodes connected by links, and assesses how components of that terrorist network operate together and independently of one another.  Those nodes and links, once identified will be targeted with the goal of disrupting and degrading their functionality.  To effectively pursue a network based approach, bureaucrats rely in part on what is known as “pattern of life analysis” which involves connecting the relationships between places and people by tracking their patterns of life. This analysis draws on the interrelationships among groups “to determine the degree and points of their interdependence.” It assesses how activities are linked and looks to “determine the most effective way to influence or affect the enemy system.”

[snip]

Viewing targeting in this way demonstrates how seemingly low level individuals such as couriers and other “middle-men” in decentralized networks such as al Qaeda are oftentimes critical to the successful functioning of the enemy organization. Targeting these individuals can “destabilize clandestine networks by compromising large sections of the organization, distancing operatives from direct guidance, and impeding organizational communication and function.” Moreover, because clandestine networks rely on social relationships to manage the trade-off between maintaining secrecy and security, attacking key nodes can have a detrimental impact on the enemy’s ability to conduct their operations. [my emphasis]

That is, the language describing the process behind signature strikes closely matches the language describing NSA’s targeting for wiretapping. Both these analyses are doing the same thing: trying to find the key nodes in networks of people (though the drone targeting appears to draw in additional intelligence about someone’s observed actions and locations).

Now, as I said, when Benitez used the word “target,” he was presumably discussing only targeting for surveillance, not for drone killing (besides, thus far we haven’t drone killed any pirates I know of).

But it is very easy to see what kind of role metadata analysis would play in the early stages of targeting a signature strike, because that’s precisely how the intelligence community identify the nodes that, McNeal tells us, they’re often targeting when they conduct signature strikes. Wiretap the person at that node and you may learn a lot (that’s also probably the same kind of targeting they do to select potential informants, as we know they do with metadata), kill that person and you may damage the operational capabilities of a terrorist (or pirate) organization.

When the WaPo reported on NSA’s role in drone killing, it focused on how NSA collected content associated with a known target — Hassan Ghul — to pinpoint his location for drone targeting.

But NSA probably plays a role in the far more controversial targeting of people we don’t know for death, with precisely the kind of contact chaining it uses on US persons.

Note, in related news, Richard Leon has just ruled for Larry Klayman in one of the first suits challenging the phone dragnet (with the injunction stayed pending appeal). I’ll have analysis on that later.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit0Share on Facebook0Google+2Email to someone

16 Responses to That Pirate May Be the Missing Link We Should Drone Kill

Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz @Will_Bunch Awe come on man, that was the most informative WH briefing in years.
7mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @TyreJim The best @JasonLeopold can do is get legal fees for @_LightLaw, I think.
8mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel Notorious “FOIA Terrorist” Jason Leopold “Saves” FBI Over $300,000 https://t.co/qnJLk3MCWg
14mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz RT @adamjohnsonNYC: ICYMI bullshit racists are still a thing https://t.co/88GCoN9Fvb
32mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel MSF: "lack of meaningful accountability" in Kunduz attack "unlikely to act as a deterrent against future violations" https://t.co/LA3Hjda9tt
44mreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV @Pedinska Meh. Those guys are very reclusive. Probably only came out because we are now the driest we've been all spring.
1hreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV @Pedinska Apparently coral snake fangs are pretty short so they are reluctant to take on large foes with thick skin/fur.
1hreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV @Pedinska See this : https://t.co/BepCVGaEnf See my pic and compare to links for scarlet kingsnake and scarlet snake. Def. coral in house.
1hreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV @Pedinska Yes, but this one was the real deal, yellow between red and black. In the safe ones, red touches black. And heads diff colors.
1hreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV @Pedinska Yeah, they used up several lives today.
1hreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV @Pedinska The cats have brought in a number of harmless corn snakes before. This is the first nasty one.
1hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @charlie_savage The way in which they've hidden the 2009 shut-down, though, is equally significant. That was still the same STLW dragnet.
1hreplyretweetfavorite
December 2013
S M T W T F S
« Nov   Jan »
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031