Whistleblower: NSA targets SIM cards for drone strikes, 'Death by unreliable metadata'

The “NSA has played an increasingly central role in drone killings over the past five years,” according to a former drone operator for the Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) High Value Targeting task force who has also worked with the NSA. On the condition of anonymity, the whistleblower agreed to talk about the top-secret programs to The Intercept’s reporters Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald. His account was backed up by former U.S. Air Force drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant as well as documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

Drone strikes based on NSA geolocation of SIM cards

The first thing that snagged my attention was the phrase “death by unreliable metadata.” The JSOC drone operator was talking about the NSA’s surveillance tactic of geolocating a SIM card so the military or CIA can conduct night raids and order drone strikes. “The geolocation cells at the NSA that run the tracking program – known as Geo Cell –sometimes facilitate strikes without knowing whether the individual in possession of a tracked cell phone or SIM card is in fact the intended target of the strike.”

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.

He added:

“People get hung up that there’s a targeted list of people. 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.”

Some targets know about the NSA geolocating SIM cards and “have as many as 16 different SIM cards associated with their identity within the High Value Target system.” Taliban leaders would toss SIM cards in a bag and mix them up, so everyone left with a different SIM card. But some targets don’t know about it and might lend their phone to a family member or friend who gets taken out in a drone strike.

As high value targets also know, switching a phone to “airplane mode” to disable all wireless connections doesn’t cut it. After photographer and writer Michael Yon, a former Green Beret, was embedded with U.S. combat troops Iraq and Afghanistan, he talked about how smartphones are pocket spies that provide actionable intelligence for tracking. He said even "if location services/GPS-aware apps are turned off," or the cell phone itself is shut off, “if there is any juice to the battery at all” then the phone acts as a “homing beacon.” While overseas with U.S. troops, an officer told him that if you leave the battery in your phone, “you can practically watch it drain as the Iranians ping the phone.“

The anonymous former JSOC drone operator estimated that 90% of the drone strikes in Afghanistan relied on the SIGINT, “signals intelligence, based on the NSA’s phone-tracking technology.” Mission reports would state, “triggered by SIGINT, which means it was triggered by a geolocation cell.” But he claims that too often the wrong people are killed; “Tracking people by metadata and then killing them by SIM card is inherently flawed.”

The code name GILGAMESH refers to another JSOC method of tracking; the agency “equips drones and other aircraft with devices known as ‘virtual base-tower transceivers’ – creating, in effect, a fake cell phone tower that can force a targeted person’s device to lock onto the NSA’s receiver without their knowledge.” It “allows the military to track the cell phone to within 30 feet of its actual location, feeding the real-time data to teams of drone operators who conduct missile strikes or facilitate night raids.”

The “tracking ‘pods’ mounted on the bottom of drones have facilitated thousands of ‘capture or kill’ operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan since September 11.”

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.

Reporters Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald also wrote:

In addition to the GILGAMESH system used by JSOC, the CIA uses a similar NSA platform known as SHENANIGANS. The operation – previously undisclosed – utilizes a pod on aircraft that vacuums up massive amounts of data from any wireless routers, computers, smart phones or other electronic devices that are within range. 

A top-secret NSA document leaked by Edward Snowden was “written by a SHENANIGANS operator,” who described “how, from almost four miles in the air, he searched for communications devices believed to be used by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in neighboring Yemen. The mission was code named VICTORYDANCE.” He added, “VICTORYDANCE mapped the Wi-Fi fingerprint of nearly every major town in Yemen.”

MQ-1 Predator controls

Former U.S. Air Force drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant is “haunted” by the deaths in which he played a part. He claims that he previously raised objections about ‘rushed’, ‘inaccurate’ or ‘outright wrong’ intelligence, but:

“the most common response I would get was ‘JSOC wouldn’t spend millions and millions of dollars, and man hours, to go after someone if they weren’t certain that they were the right person.’ There is a saying at the NSA: ‘SIGINT never lies.’ It may be true that SIGINT never lies, but it’s subject to human error.”

Bryant added, “I don’t know whether or not President Obama would be comfortable approving the drone strikes if he knew the potential for mistakes that are there.”

Yet as pointed out in The Intercept article, President Obama takes full responsibility for targeted drone killings. “Obama once reportedly told his aides that it ‘turns out I’m really good at killing people.’ The president added, ‘Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine’.”

While you may know most of this, there's a lot more worth reading in the article, "The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program."

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