Death by Geolocation: “We’re Going after Their Phones”

In December, I talked about the role I thought SIGINT played in drone targeting (here, noting that the same analysis that picks key pirates out of a database might choose to kill them).

[I]t 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.

It turns out I overestimated the role of HUMINT in the targeting process.

In their first story at the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill describe drone killing being done almost entirely on SIGINT.

What’s more, he adds, the NSA often locates drone targets by analyzing the activity of a SIM card, rather than the actual content of the calls. Based on his experience, he has come to believe that the drone program amounts to little more than death by unreliable metadata.

“People get hung up that there’s a targeted list of people,” he says. “It’s really like we’re targeting a cell phone. We’re not going after people – we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.”


The former JSOC drone operator estimates that the overwhelming majority of high-value target operations he worked on in Afghanistan relied on signals intelligence, known as SIGINT, based on the NSA’s phone-tracking technology.

“Everything they turned into a kinetic strike or a night raid was almost 90 percent that,” he says. “You could tell, because you’d go back to the mission reports and it will say ‘this mission was triggered by SIGINT,’ which means it was triggered by a geolocation cell.”

Their source argues the reliance exclusively on SIGINT is particularly bad for JSOC in Yemen.

As the former drone operator explains, the process of tracking and ultimately killing a targeted person is known within the military as F3: Find, Fix, Finish. “Since there’s almost zero HUMINT operations in Yemen – at least involving JSOC – every one of their strikes relies on signals and imagery for confirmation: signals being the cell phone lock, which is the ‘find’ and imagery being the ‘unblinking eye’ which is the ‘fix.’” The “finish” is the strike itself.

“JSOC acknowledges that it would be completely helpless without the NSA conducting mass surveillance on an industrial level,” the former drone operator says. “That is what creates those baseball cards you hear about,” featuring potential targets for drone strikes or raids.

I’ve been pointing out JSOC’s inaccuracy for some time.

In fact, this may explain Dianne Feinstein’s efforts to ensure CIA retains control of drone targeting.

Of course, the HUMINT CIA gets — in both Pakistan and Yemen — has proven highly susceptible to manipulation by our partners on the ground. So it’s not clear that’s any better either.

All this Intelligence and so little actual intelligence.

9 replies
  1. TarheelDem says:

    @allan: That seems reasonable.

    OMG. I knew the issue was intelligence. I didn’t know that it was a matter of being intentionally stupid on this scale. And zee Prezident zigns off on each and effery one each Tuesday.

    Deep state has gone on autopilot.

  2. Frank33 says:

    I wonder who is doing the manipulation. This is state sponsored terrorism, obviously. But I wonder if the manipulation is perhaps controlled by some world alliance of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, Secret Police.

    Of course, the HUMINT CIA gets — in both Pakistan and Yemen — has proven highly susceptible to manipulation by our partners on the ground. So it’s not clear that’s any better either.

    It does seem the CIA uses HUMINT, all over the world. Although I might call it inhuman. And it seems the Pakistani Secret Police are involved in keeping this mass murder assassination program secret.

    A drone victim who was due to travel to Europe this week to give evidence to parliamentarians was detained on 5 February by unknown elements of the Pakistani police and has not been seen since, according to his family.

    Kareem Khan, who is also involved in legal proceedings against the Pakistani Government concerning their failure to investigate the deaths of his son and brother in a drone strike, was seized in the early hours at his home in Rawalpindi by 15-20 men in police uniform and plain clothes, say witnesses.

    The Secret Government is an International Secret Government. This world-wide organization of assassins are totally ruthless and evil.

  3. orionATL says:

    “…All this Intelligence and so little actual intelligence…”

    this simple sentence, i believe, tells the big story of our “intelligence” community from just prior to sept, 2001 to the present.

    too much righteousness, too much raw competitiveness,, too much thrill of the kill, too little regard for one’s presumed enemies, too little oversight, too little legal liability/accountability,

    and far, far too little high-quality human analysis, the intelligence that counts the most.

    i would guess that the ametican brutality reveled in this story will cost the unites states a great deal not only in good will, but also in legal problems at the u.n. and the hague.

    it should also cost the politicians, generals, and intelligence officials responsible a great deal here in the united states, but i’m not holding my breath.

  4. orionATL says:

    it doesn’t have to be cell phones, by the way. electronically traceable miniature korans will do quite nicely. or perhaps even popular children’s toys. as long as the other are just things, whatever works – off we send into the wild blue yonder.

  5. C says:

    Wow. I had been of the opinion that the errors were due to faulty HUMINT or due to relying on people with a score to settle rather than our own best interests at heart. Apparently I was wrong. Instead of unreliable HUMINT they focused on even more unreliable metadata. To that extent the Brazil reference is quite apt.

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