Death from Above

Whistleblowers reveal the truth about the drone war to a nation that struggles to listen.


The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program, by Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept, Simon & Schuster, 217 pages, $24.99

Simon & Schuster

One summer day in 2013, NBC reporters Richard Engel and Robert Windrem unveiled a lengthy news story revealing a dark truth about America's use of drones to fight terrorists overseas: The CIA did not really know who it was killing with strikes in Pakistan, but it was classifying them all as "other militants" anyway.

Readers may be forgiven for not remembering this exposé. It was released on June 5, the same day Glenn Greenwald, in The Guardian, published the first of an explosive series of stories detailing how Western intelligence agencies were using mass surveillance systems to track and store enormous amounts of private data about their citizens. Even before former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden outed himself as Greenwald's source, the coverage led to a massive media blitz and to related revelations by other outlets. NBC couldn't compete for attention.

Engel and Windrem were not the first reporters to cover the dark side of the drone wars, and they haven't been the last. Jeremy Scahill (author of Dirty Wars and Blackwater) and the staff of The Intercept, where Greenwald is now an editor, are the latest to receive, analyze, and disseminate secret information about America's program of drone assassinations. Like NBC's report, their book, The Assassination Complex, shows how Washington's drones are killing civilians in such countries as Pakistan and Yemen. To conceal the potentially unpleasant repercussions of these strikes, the administration—when not stonewalling attempts at transparency entirely—classifies these deaths as "enemies killed in action," or EKIAs, though it is actually often unsure of these people's identities. The designation is changed only when posthumous evidence proves those killed by drones were definitively not members of terrorist cells.

With the help of confidential documents leaked to The Intercept, the book is able to offer some hard numbers. In a yearlong operation in northeastern Afghanistan, the United States killed more than 200 people; only 35 were intended targets. The source who leaked the documents explained: "Anyone caught within the vicinity is guilty by association," but "there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate…so it's a phenomenal gamble."

Regardless of the success rate of that gamble, it appears to have become the status quo. Two competing pressures have made it so. One is the push to protect Americans from radical forces gathering in the Middle East. The second is the demand that, in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president reduce the footprint of actual U.S. troops in these areas. Adm. Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence, sums it up: "It is the politically advantageous thing to do—low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term."

The trade-offs that reduce the risks faced by American troops also contribute directly to the likelihood that innocent civilians will be killed in these strikes. The government has become extremely reliant on SIGINT, or "signals intelligence"—what the rest of us refer to as surveillance. Hunting targets is increasingly done not with eyes on the ground but by tracking their communications. A human being may technically be the target, but it's the person's phone that's actually being tracked and that will tell the drone pilots where to launch the attack. They have a very limited view of what is actually happening where they're striking, making it even more likely that civilians or other unrelated people will be injured or killed. One analyst determined that drone strikes were 10 times more likely to kill civilians than raids by manned aircraft.

There are more subtle trade-offs as well. Because drone strikes are likely to be more lethal than aircraft raids or military assaults on the ground, there is very little to no possibility that new intelligence can be gained. There are no survivors to interrogate, and there are no people there to perform the task anyway. Drone strikes create intelligence dead ends, thus reinforcing the need to rely on signals intelligence. And so the cycle continues.

The Assassination Complex also includes some reporting on surveillance issues not directly related to drone warfare. This is intended to help Americans understand how it all connects to how the government treats us at home. Of the 12 chapters, three—again based on leaks—explore how America's various terrorist "watch lists" work and how law enforcement's surveillance technology tracks phone locations.

The watch lists are supposed to be tools to help officials keep an eye on terror suspects. Those who end up on the lists are singled out for more thorough searches when flying, and they may even earn a place on the infamous "no fly" list. But The Intercept discovered that the majority of the people on these lists—close to 300,000 of them—have no known connection to recognized terrorist groups.

With its chapters on watch lists and police surveillance, the authors warn us that tools developed to fight threats against America can easily be adapted to be used against Americans. Such concerns prompted Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) to launch a 13-hour filibuster back in 2013, temporarily blocking the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA and drawing attention to the secrecy, lack of due process, and lack of oversight in America's drone program.

It's worth pondering why America's drone killings haven't stirred the sort of outrage that Snowden's leaks inspired. (Snowden, incidentally, contributes a forward to this book.) While The Assassination Complex's primary sources remain anonymous, actual former drone pilots such as Brandon Bryant, who is quoted, have come forward to criticize the way the programs operate. Yet he is nowhere near as famous as Snowden.

In the afterword, Greenwald acknowledges that Americans mostly favor the use of drones in the war on terror. But that support isn't monolithic. He points to a poll from 2012 showing 77 percent of self-described liberal Democrats supporting drone strikes on suspected terrorists. But a more recent Pew Research poll, from 2015, has 58 percent of the country endorsing such strikes, including a little more than half of Democrats.

While a majority still supports the strikes, that's nevertheless a notable drop in a short timespan. Debate over the use of drone strikes may not be making household names out of its critics, but documentation like The Assassination Complex helps readers understand that a hands-off war still has costs—and may not be making us as safe as we want to believe.

NEXT: Brickbat: Jordan Rules

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  1. Fear not. I have a little doubt that at precisely 12:01 PM on January 20, 2017, 100% of Democrats and the entire mainstream media will discover to its shock That targeted assassinations are going on and react with suitable outrage.

    1. Pragmatically speaking, this is a definite upside of Trump’s win.

    2. Tad bit of hyperbole, I’m sure they will wait until after the inauguration is complete, and enough time to have Obama safely out of the public mind as President… say 48 hours, give or take. At which point the Media will be outraged and demands to know who is responsible, and when and what did the President know about these illegal War Crimes.

  2. The Donald will inherit…

    Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will


    1. After Trump’s first drone strike, regardless of casualties, there will be howls and cries from all over the world for his prosecution as a war criminal. I wonder if they will trot out Sheehan?

      He doesnt have a Nobel Peace Prize i.e. license to kill, now does he?

      1. Plus he has the wrong letter after his name. Also, …something something… racist… mumble mumble… sexist… Although that goes along with having the wrong letter after his name too.

    2. Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Lack of Principles and Will


  3. Not the one Obama helped create. No you gotta tie it to Trump. A quick scan and you spinless fucks didnt mention Obama once. Fuck you Reason.

    1. When I’m feeling generous (a rarity), I feel sorry for Obama. A few months ago, the historians were all drafting the hagiographies of his glorious reign. Now he will fade into history, like John Tyler and Gerald Ford.

    2. Give Reason a break, will you? Putting “Targeted assassination” and “Barack Obama” is a redundancy.

      1. Putting them in the same story, that is

  4. Attention comrades! Wonderful news from the Malabar Front!

    (& typo: foreword, not forward)

  5. If they didn’t want to get droned they should have chosen to be born in a better country.

  6. Retarded falcons hunting in murder theaters are unleashed from the dizzying social heights of gentility and top-notch culture which scoffs at blood poured from unnamed skin behind tapestries embroidered with the neon distractions of motif-spinning delusion and cause.

    1. You said it, man.

      1. Harvard belts are thick with scalps.

    2. Ok, now that one I can follow.

    3. It doesn’t scan.

  7. Here’s a plan.

    After Trump gets his hands on some juicy report of one of Obama’s bigger drone fuck-ups.

    He releases a bogus report of a strike he (Trump) authorized which is a duplicate of the Obama fuck up.

    Wait for the MSM to go apeshit and demand impeachment and trial for war crimes.

    Then, reveal the truth.

    Begin popping corn and chilling beer.

    1. I like, no, I LOVE, this plan!

  8. It’s worth pondering why America’s drone killings haven’t stirred the sort of outrage that Snowden’s leaks inspired.

    Probably because drone strikes are something that happen to other people on the other side of the planet. The drone program reminds me a little of the A Taste of Armageddon episode of Star Trek (I know, NEEERRRRRRDDDDD!!!!!!) in that drone warfare is so clean and sterile (for us, not so much for the poor bastards on the receiving end) that there’s little to no incentive to stop it.

  9. That’s quite a trio of authors. Some of us have been talking about the Drone program for years. Hopefully now mainstream libs will actually take it seriously. Too little too late for those that have injudiciously suffered.

  10. RE: Death from Above
    Whistleblowers reveal the truth about the drone war to a nation that struggles to listen.

    Hey we made these weapons, so we might as well use them.
    Otherwise they might go to waste.

  11. until I looked at the paycheck saying $4730 , I did not believe that…my… brother woz like actualy bringing in money part time from there computar. . there friend brother started doing this for less than 7 months and resently paid for the morgage on there home and bought a new Cadillac …….


  12. Let’s make love and listen to death from above!


  13. until I looked at the paycheck saying $4730 , I did not believe that…my… brother woz like actualy bringing in money part time from there computar. . there friend brother started doing this for less than 7 months and resently paid for the morgage on there home and bought a new Cadillac …….


  14. 200 years ago intellegence wasn’t an honorable profession, spying and assasinating was the work of cowards. Such progress we’ve made.

  15. until I looked at the paycheck saying $4730 , I did not believe that…my… brother woz like actualy bringing in money part time from there computar. . there friend brother started doing this for less than 7 months and resently paid for the morgage on there home and bought a new Cadillac …….


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