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.”


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.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

16 replies
  1. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    What Benitez and McNeal are both describing, in slightly different terms, is social network analysis. Social network analysis isn’t anything new and the intelligence community’s use of it isn’t anything new. The NSA has even written a paper on how great their software – Accumulo – is at storing and searching network graphs.

    When you start poking around in that domain – what people are bragging about in terms of their application of Accumulo – you find stuff like this: – “detection of subtle patterns in massive multi-source noisy datasets”. Or, to put it in 60 Minutes terms, they’re not just looking for who the pirates talk to but who else around the world might be talking like a pirate. So, we’ve moved from guilt by association (that’s what a “chain” is) to possible guilt because your pattern of association is just like a terrorist cell. If I were doing oversight, that’s what I’d be asking about.

  2. Arbusto says:

    I haven’t listened to 60 Minutes for over 30 years, since I realized they were/are journalistic ho’s. That said, I wonder two things about the NSA, its usefulness, as mentioned in judge Leon’s opinion and Al-Qaeda using low level throwaway operatives. Al-Qaeda has known for years that NSA et al. intercept and track cell phone calls. Why not use that to their advantage in false flag ops and to maximize the cost of our war on Radical Islamists™ or drug cartels. Hell, maybe they own stock in our military/industrial/intelligence/bankster complex and need to improve their investment portfolio.

  3. Valley Girl says:


    Thanks for that link. A very impressive showing by my favorite blogger.

    ends with:
    ~~~The Obama administration revealed two things on Friday: first, even a whitewash review group proved too disruptive for the White House and the military figures who won in last week’s pissing contest. Second, Obama has chosen to continue prioritizing attacks over keeping us safe.~~~

  4. Don Bacon says:

    I guess they knew the guy wasn’t calling his sick mother or his lonesome girl friend twelve times, and so it must have been a fellow ‘militant.’ How smart they are. So off them both.

  5. Snoopdido says:

    Reuters has a piece up by Jack Shafer – Plotting the Snowden plea bargain –

    The 2nd paragraph states:

    “The segment contained the usual NSA evasions and elisions (see the blog work of Jesselyn Radack for examples), so besides the novelty of network cameras recording images inside the puzzle palace, the only non-trivial moments of the broadcast came when Rick Ledgett, head of the NSA task force in charge of Snowden damage assessment, gave a positive response to Miller’s question of what he thought of the idea of acceding to Edward Snowden’s request for amnesty.”

    Unfortunately, at least for Jesselyn Radack, her name in the piece actually links to Emptywheel and her post of

    Might be worth contacting Reuters and Jack Shafer for a correction, but then again, perhaps not.

  6. JThomason says:

    Go on and scold the NSA for the problems at the DC Circuit ECF, shortly after I posted Freeman’s speech on Facebook today, I get the blue screen of death, and “it it makes you wonder”.

  7. C says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum: Yes, they’ve been talking about this for a while. The problem is, as facebook has learned, it is not all it is cracked up to be. Simply put, lots of people talk like pirates depending upon how you look at it and what features you choose.

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