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New Documents Call The U.S. Drone Program Into Question


The online publication The Intercept has released a series of classified documents that provide new details on America's use of drones. The documents include internal government studies of counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen and a granular look at drone strikes and the government's process of choosing who to kill.


The Intercept was founded by journalists who obtained leaked documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. And these latest documents come from another person, an anonymous source in the intelligence community. Earlier today, I spoke with Jeremy Scahill from The Intercept, and I asked him why the source decided to provide these documents now.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Our source was someone who is directly involved with the assassination program. And this person got to a point where they felt like they couldn't not speak out. And so they provided documents to us that they believe were in the interest of the public to see because they cut to the heart of the most serious decisions a president can make and the power of the state over life and death.

MCEVERS: According to your reporting, the documents reveal that in one period in Afghanistan, 90 percent of the people who were killed in drone strikes were not the intended targets. Tell me about that.

SCAHILL: What it says, basically, is that each operation has only one target. And if you kill that target or that person, it's called the jackpot. And anyone else who is killed in pursuit of that person is automatically categorized as an enemy killed in action. Now, some of those people may well be Taliban members or they may well be sort of al-Qaeda-affiliated characters, but some of them may well be civilians.

MCEVERS: How many people are we talking here?

SCAHILL: Well, you know, in one of the documents, it says that they killed 35 jackpots, as they call them - people that they were trying to target. And there were 219 people that were killed that they didn't know the identity of. And what the documents also reveal is that the U.S. wasn't just taking out al-Qaeda and Taliban figures, but they got embroiled in what was a domestic conflict between various kind of gangsters, warlords, tribes and ended up being used by warring factions in Kunar to kind of kill their own enemies. So the U.S. got in the middle, with our most elite forces, the kinds of people that killed Osama bin Laden, in timber wars and resource wars and tribal wars in Afghanistan, raising questions of whether or not they were just creating enemies out of people who actually, historically, were opposed to the Taliban.

MCEVERS: According to your reporting, I mean, these documents confirm that some in the U.S. military and intelligence community actually think that we should capture people rather than kill them. Just describe sort of what the documents talk about in terms of kill-versus-capture.

SCAHILL: Well, you know, what the documents state clearly - and this is almost verbatim - is that drone strikes hurt intelligence-gathering. And what they mean by that is, if you're killing someone based on their metadata or their - the intercept of their signals intelligence, you can't ask that person questions. So you can kill the number-three guy repeatedly, but unless you sort of can talk to the number-three guy, your chances of finding number one are very slim.

MCEVERS: I mean, one of the justifications for this program, right, is that fewer Americans will die fighting if there aren't any boots of the grounds. I mean, the calculus is very straightforward, right? Not very many U.S. casualties, and while there are some casualties of the drone strikes, it's fewer than if you had full-on ground force, right?

SCAHILL: Well, you know, that's sort of a false, you know, choice where, you know, people will say, oh, well, if you don't want drones, what do you want us to do, invade? I mean, there's a whole other option here, which is to ask the question - if we kill innocent people, if we're perceived as a force that believes that it can just assassinate people anywhere we want, is that going to result in more attacks against American civilians? Michael Flynn, who was the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and was one of the main figures in JSOC at the height of their kill campaign in Iraq, told us that, you know, he thinks that these drone strikes make a martyr out of people that are relative nobodies and encourages the enemy to, quote, "fight us even harder." So I think we have to have a different discussion in this country that takes into account the possibility that we should approach terrorism and terrorists as criminals and try to put much more of an emphasis on arresting them or capturing them and bringing them to justice.

MCEVERS: That's Jeremy Scahill. He's a journalist and co-founder of the website The Intercept. The series is called "The Drone Papers." Jeremy, thanks so much for your time.

SCAHILL: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: A Pentagon spokesperson did not respond to our request for comment on this story. But the Defense Department told The Intercept, quote, "we don't comment on the details of classified reports." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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