Last month, The Intercept uncovered a trove of classified documents relating to the United States’ drone programs in Yemen and Somalia. Originating from a study by a Pentagon Task Force on Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), these documents shed light on the process by which Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, tracked targets for lethal missions between January 2011 and summer 2012. The ISR report indicates that there have been critical shortfalls in the technology and intelligence the U.S. military utilizes in these “find, fix, finish” operations. Although much has changed in the United States drone program since 2012, these details demonstrate that the Obama administration has been acting with less legitimacy than it originally claimed in public statements about the program.
The first concern relates to the U.S. military’s inability to conduct full-time surveillance of its targets in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Because of a deficit in the number of drones available, and the unique challenges posed by the distance between U.S. airbases and targets in Somalia and Yemen, JSOC was unable to maintain constant surveillance of targets in these regions. In doing so, the United States has run the risk of violating the principle of distinction. This principle requires international actors to ensure that civilians are not the object of an attack. Interruptions in surveillance could cause military actors to misjudge the presence of individuals within a targeted location, making civilian deaths far more likely.
The deficits in intelligence gathering were not limited to airborne surveillance. A key component of the find, fix, finish cycle is the process is the use of materials collected on the ground and from detainee interrogations. However, there are usually no operatives on the ground to collect any remaining intelligence after a deadly strike, which comprise 75% of the operations in Yemen and Somalia. To compensate, the military has begun to rely heavily on local security forces and the host governments for support. These entities have a history of unreliability and are known for misleading the U.S. military into eliminating political enemies. Even if the U.S. military killed only its targets, these intelligence issues show that it may be targeting civilians instead of combatants, further eroding the principle of distinction in the drone program.
The U.S. military’s response to its limited ability to obtain ground-level intelligence, increasing its reliance on signals intelligence, further jeopardizes the legitimacy drone strikes. Signals intelligence, or SIGINT, consists of the monitoring of electronic communications to discover and locate targets. Documents in the ISR report, however, state the SIGINT is an inferior form of intelligence, even though it comprises more than half of the intelligence collected on targets in Somalia and Yemen. Besides the relative ease with which targets can fool SIGINT, a problem is that the military lacked the requisite technology to capture SIGINT effectively. Even though the main components of SIGINT are video footage and cell phone data, only some of the Reaper drones could record high definition video and most of the aircraft lacked the ability to collect “dial number recognition” data. This creates an even more serious problem for the principle of distinction. These inadequate identification systems may cause the U.S. military to mistake civilians with similar physical characteristics to combatants for the combatants themselves. This increases the likelihood of civilian deaths even more, yet again showing the Obama administration’s disregard for the principle of distinction.
The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to justify its increasing reliance on drone strikes to engage with threats abroad. President Obama and his advisers have characterized the drone campaign as a precise and effective tool to protect United States’ national security interests, especially in remote locations like Somalia and Yemen. However, the revelations in the ISR report demonstrate that intelligence and technology constraints have prevented the U.S. military from following through on this promise. International court cases regarding the principle of distinction have found that the responsibility to protect civilians lies with the attacking force. The United States, as the attacking force in this conflict, must do more to ensure the safety of civilians if it is claim that its actions are legitimate. Until then, by disregarding them when it is inconvenient, the Obama administration is undermining the principles it wishes to protect.