The Problem with Unidentified Drone Victims: NSA Never Learns Who the Journalists Were

Al Jazeera Islamabad bureau chief Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan is lucky.

Thus far, the CIA has not drone-killed him because the NSA has identified him as a terrorist courier, which the Intercept explains at length today.

The U.S. government labeled a prominent journalist as a member of Al Qaeda and placed him on a watch list of suspected terrorists, according to a top-secret document that details U.S. intelligence efforts to track Al Qaeda couriers by analyzing metadata.

The briefing singles out Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, Al Jazeera’s longtime Islamabad bureau chief, as a member of the terrorist group. A Syrian national, Zaidan has focused his reporting throughout his career on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and has conducted several high-profile interviews with senior Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.

A slide dated June 2012 from a National Security Agency PowerPoint presentation bears his photo, name, and a terror watch list identification number, and labels him a “member of Al-Qa’ida” as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. It also notes that he “works for Al Jazeera.”

As Michael Hayden says (and the article repeats) the US government kills people based on metadata, and NSA’s metadata has erroneously concluded that Zaidan is a terrorist.

As I said, Zaidan is lucky that the system that starts with phone metadata and ends in dead “military aged males” hasn’t killed him yet.

But that’s why it’s a problem that the Intelligence Community is not forced to do better accountability of all the unknown military aged males it kills with drones.

As the Intercept makes clear, the metadata system that (reidentified — he was already targeted) Zaidan as a terrorist courier is based on machine learning.

As the two slide shows they included in the story make clear, the process of using cell data to find “couriers” (or Al Jazeera journalists) is an iterative learning process. That is, it’s important for them to understand if their matches are correct.

But we know that one outcome of this process — drone killing — doesn’t include a very robust feedback mechanism on that front. Partly because the CIA wants to fluff its numbers and partly because they’re often drone-killing without good access to HUMINT that tells them exactly who they kill and partly because they write off large numbers of targets as “military aged males” who therefore must be legitimate targets, they almost certainly don’t input what they learn after they’ve drone-killed someone back into the NSA’s process to teach the computers that they’ve just killed an innocent American hostage.

And so dumb computers can go on identifying journalists as terrorist couriers.


4 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    there may be more to zaidan’s being targeted by the u.s. military/paramilitary (nsa is part military remember) than just dumb computers trying to learn from incomplete information input.

    from dan fromkin’s intercept article:

    […A History of Targeting Al Jazeera

    The U.S. government’s surveillance of Zaidan is not the first time that it has linked Al Jazeera or its personnel to Al Qaeda.

    During the invasion of Afghanistan, in November 2001, the United States bombed the network’s Kabul offices. The Pentagon claimed that it was “a known al-Qaeda facility.”

    That was just the beginning. Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman, was imprisoned by the U.S. government at Guantanamo for six years before being released in 2008 without ever being charged. He has said he was repeatedly interrogated about Al Jazeera. In 2003, Al Jazeera’s financial reporters were barred from the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange for “security reasons.” Nasdaq soon followed suit.

    During the invasion of Iraq, U.S. forces bombed Al Jazeera’s Baghdad offices, killing correspondent Tariq Ayoub. The U.S. insisted it was unintentional, though Al Jazeera had given the Pentagon the coordinates of the building. When American forces laid siege to Fallujah, and Al Jazeera was one of the few news organizations broadcasting from within the city, Bush administration officials accused it of airing propaganda and lies. Al Jazeera’s Fallujah correspondent, Ahmed Mansour, reported that his crew had been targeted with tanks, and the house they had stayed in had been bombed by fighter jets.

    So great was the suspicion of Al Jazeera’s ties to terrorism that Dennis Montgomery, a contractor who had previously tried peddling cheat-detector software to Las Vegas casinos, managed to convince the CIA that he could decode secret Al Qaeda messages from Al Jazeera broadcasts. Those “codes” reportedly caused Bush to ground a number of commercial transatlantic flights in December 2003.

    But the U.S. government appeared to have somewhat softened its view of the network in the last several years. The Obama administration has criticized Egypt for holding three of Al Jazeera’s journalists on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood. During the height of the 2011 Arab Spring, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the network’s coverage, saying, “Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news.” …]

  2. Don Bacon says:

    The US has a huge air base in Qatar just down the road from Doha, the spiritual and financial base for al-Qaeda, which as al-Nusra is supported by the US and Qatar in Syria. Similar in Libya, and no doubt elsewhere.

    Al Jazeera is similar to RT, news outlets that the US doesn’t control, so they are enemies and their employees are therefore “terrorists.” They have been assassinated as orionATL indicates.

    It all becomes very clear once one makes the necessary assumption that the US government always, always lies, and the truth is often the opposite of what the government says. And they need dead bodies to authenticate their budgets.

  3. Evangelista says:

    The “Programmed Intelligent-Computer Robot Controll Defence Device Responding to Innocently Triggered Activation” was a staple of pulp science-fiction in the late 1950’s and 1960’s.

    But that stuff would have been read by today’s decision-makers’ grandparents; it did not transition to television in the ’70’s, ’80’s and ’90’s, for being too ‘melodramatic’; the ‘sophisticated’ future CIA and Administration Operatives would have found it ‘campy’, and would have turned it off, not watched and ended going into government with a hole in their training regimes. With that stuff not part of their training regimes they don’t have ‘holes’, or ‘gaps’ in their educations, they have total knowledge including ignorance in continuity. They think like computers, the old science-fiction computers that were the relentlessly continuing forward on their programmed mission brains of the imminently world-destroying ‘civilization-saving’ anihilation devices.

    Government drones operating drones: With symbiosis like that what could possibly go wrong?

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