November 3, 2021

Edward Snowden and the targeted drone killing campaign

Two weeks ago, on October 22, a new document from the Snowden files was published for the first time in over two years. It's an entry from Intellipedia about the American drone killing campaign that was released by journalist and writer Spencer Ackerman.

While the content of the document is hardly significant, it's form is remarkably similar to an Intellipedia entry that was published in 2015, which leads us to Snowden's interest in the drone killings and The Drone Papers that Daniel Hale leaked to The Intercept.

Ackerman's publication

Except for five new partial documents published in Barton Gellman's book Dark Mirror in May 2020, the last release of files from the Snowden trove was in May 2019, when The Intercept and the Norwegian broadcaster NRK published a range of documents about NSA's Real Time Regional Gateway (RT-RG) collection system. Two months earlier, the publisher of The Intercept had already decided to shut down the Snowden archive.

The new document comes from the cache of Snowden documents that is kept by the American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who now lives in Berlin. According to Ackerman, Poitras was preparing for her exhibition Parallel Construction that marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, when she "came across the Intellipedia entry and realized no one had ever published it" and then gave him a copy of it.

Ackerman published the document on Substack, an online platform for journalistic articles and newsletters, where he has an account called Forever Wars to "chronicle, investigate and interrogate the continuities, departures and permutations of the War on Terror". There he discusses the Intellipedia entry in an article titled "On U.S. Intelligence’s Wiki, Anxiety About Legal Challenges To Drone Strikes".

The Intellipedia entry (full document) published by Spencer Ackerman

The Intellipedia entry provides a summary of policies and opinions about the issue of targeted (drone) killings, mostly based upon public news reports and therefore almost all the content is unclassified. What Ackerman thinks is newsworthy is "the document's occasionally alarmist depiction of legal and political challenges to the strikes" and that it shows a "paranoid" feeling among US intelligence analysts.

Apparently this is only based on the following sections in the Intellipedia entry, which actually hardly support Ackerman's interpretation:

- "Those opposing targeted killing are increasing their organization and activities. If timing is more than coincidental, activists may coordinate their opposition efforts."

- "The effort may indicate a concerted effort by human rights organizations, activist international lawyers and opposition forces to undermine the use of remotely piloted vehicles, targeted killing, preemption and other direct action as elements of Uniited States policy."

Ackerman also argues that the way the Intellipedia entry places "legal and political challenges to drone strikes on a continuum with warfare is of a piece with how U.S. intelligence can also view journalism on a continuum with espionage" - which refers to the prosecution of Julian Assange, who by his supporters is seen as an innocent journalist, while he actually engaged in acts of espionage and conspiracy against the United States.

A similar Intellipedia entry

More interesting than the content, is the form of the newly disclosed document, because it turns out that it's very similar to another Intellipedia entry which is titled "Manhunting Timeline 2008" and was published by The Intercept in July 2015, along with a report about Israeli assassination operations:

Intellipedia entry (full document) published by The Intercept in 2015

This earlier Intellipedia entry is less blurry and has some additional details compared to the one published by Ackerman. First, it has all the navigation menus, including the one that's usually in the upper right corner of the browser window and includes the user name, something The Intercept forgot to redact in this case:

Another interesting detail is a message that appeared on top of the article to announce Intellipedia users that they should expect maintenance of the Intelink Instant Messenger (IIM) service on January 3, 2013.

This indicates that this document was viewed, stored and/or downloaded shortly before that date - a period when Snowden was a SharePoint systems administrator in the Office of Information Sharing at the NSA's regional Cryptologic Center in Hawaii.

Some details of the Intellipedia entry titled Manhunting Timeline 2008
(click to enlarge)

Even more interesting are the markings at the very top and bottom of each page, which appear when an article is printed or saved through the "Printable version" option in the wiki interface: at the bottom of each page there's the URL (redacted, but remarkably long) and the page number, while at the top of the page there's the date and the title of the article, in this case "Manhunting Timeline 2008 - Intellipedia".

The date on this document is "6/2/2015" or June 2, 2015, which is more than two years after Snowden left the NSA, but just a month before The Intercept published it. Because one of the URLs has not been completely redacted, we see that when the file was printed, it was not on an internal US government network, but on a local computer drive:

This indicates that Snowden provided the entry in a digital form and that The Intercept read and printed it using a locally installed Wiki engine. For publication the print was scanned to turn it into a digital file again, which now included the printing marks. Was this to make the Intellipedia entry look like other drone documents provided by Daniel Hale?

On the Intellipedia entry published by Ackerman we see a similar page title ("Targeted Killing: Policy, Legal and Ethical Controversy - Intellipedia") but no date and also no URL and page number, but maybe that's because the bottom parts of the pages have been cut off ("some excisions for caution that do not affect the document’s narrative" according to Ackerman):

Therefore, it's not clear when this document was printed, but given the fact that it's also a sub-topic of Intellipedia's main article about Manhunting, we can assume that Snowden provided it in digital form, just like the Manhunting Timeline 2008. So was the new document also printed to look like the earlier ones, or was it just a safer way to hand it over to Ackerman?

Documents in a printed form immediately remind of the series of classified documents that were leaked by other sources than Edward Snowden. Most, but not all of them were eventually traced back to former NSA and NGA contractor Daniel Hale, who was arrested in May 2019. It turned out that in 2014 he printed a range of classified documents which were subsequently published by The Intercept.

Snowden and the drone killings

Daniel Hale's aim was to provide information about the drone strikes in order to end these lethal operations and it seems that Snowden was interested in this issue too, besides his main goal of fighting mass surveillance by the US government.

Already in October 2013, The Washington Post reported about a file which was "part of a collection of records in the Snowden trove that make clear that the drone campaign — often depicted as the CIA's exclusive domain — relies heavily on the NSA's ability to vacuum up enormous quantities of e-mail, phone calls and other fragments of signals intelligence, or SIGINT."

This sounds like Snowden had made a folder with various documents about drone killings, similar to the folders he had created about other topics that had his special interest, like operations of the NSA divisions TAO (hacking) and SSO (cable tapping). Journalist Barton Gellman confirms that the encrypted archive with some 50.000 documents he and Laura Poitras received in May 2013 was "neatly organized in folders".*

Revelations about targeted drone killings

Despite this apparently special collection of records, there have been only very few revelations about the NSA's involvement in targeted drone killings:

- The first one was on October 16, 2013, by The Washington Post, titled Documents reveal NSA’s extensive involvement in targeted killing program, but this piece only refers to documents instead of publishing them.

- On February 10, 2014, The Intercept came with an article called The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program, which is based on accounts by "a former drone operator for the military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA" (Daniel Hale?) with some additional snippets from the Snowden trove.

- On July 15, 2015, The Intercept published the Intellipedia entry with the Manhunt Timeline 2008 as part of a report titled Israeli Special Forces Assassinated Senior Syrian Official.

That's not much, although Snowden's selection of drone-related documents may also have included files about NSA programs in support of the drone killings, like systems for tracing potential targets by geolocating their mobile phones, or the role of Menwith Hill Station in the United Kingdom, for example.

The drone killings as a trigger for Snowden?

According to Glenn Greenwald's book No Place to Hide from May 2014, Snowden was already confronted with drone operations during his job at the NSA's Pacific Technical Center (PTC) at Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo in Japan, where he worked as a systems administrator from August 2009 to September 2010:

"The stuff I saw really began to disturb me", Snowden said, and: "I could watch drones in real time as they surveilled the people they might kill. You could watch entire villages and see what everyone was doing. I watched NSA tracking people's Internet activities as they typed. I became aware of just how invasive US surveillance capabilities had become" (p. 43).

According to Greenwald, Snowden then began to feel an increasingly urgent obligation to leak what he was seeing, which makes it remarkable that this experience isn't mentioned in his own book, Permanent Record, which was published in September 2019.

In this book, Snowden only presents the press reports about the drone killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi as an example of how the US government itself is also leaking classified information when it serves its own interest (p. 237-238).

And instead of the drone campaign, Permanent Record comes up with two other "atomic moments" which Snowden experienced while he was in Japan: learning about the domestic mass surveillance of the Chinese government and the STELLARWIND report about president Bush' warrantless wiretapping program.

Later, however, Snowden said that he discovered the STELLARWIND report only much later, somewhere in 2012, when he was working at the NSA in Hawaii. It was actually several times that Snowden changed the narrative about what the decisive moment for his actions was (another one was the Clapper testimony), but when there's indeed a separate folder with drone killing documents that would confirm a special interest in this topic.

Daniel Hale's leaks

Daniel Hale had a similar experience as Snowden in Japan, but only in March 2012, a few days after he arrived in Afghanistan to work as a intelligence analyst at Bagram Airfield. There he witnessed how a group of men were killed by a drone strike, just because one of them carried a targeted cell phone. Since then he had increasing moral objections against these operations.

In April 2013, Hale attended a presentation of Jeremy Scahill's book Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield about the drone killings program under president Obama. As of June they contacted eachother by phone and by e-mail and in September Scahill asked Hale to set up a Jabber account for encrypted chat conversations.

On October 16, 2013, The Washington Post published its piece about how documents provided by Snowden revealed the NSA's involvement in the targeted killing program. This article may have provided additional inspiration to Hale, because in December 2013 he accepted a new job at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

Although he felt uneasy, Hale said he took the job because "the money I could make was by far more than I had ever made before" - but maybe it was also an opportunity to get access to classified military information again, similar to Snowden who took his job at Booz Allen to get access to additional documents.

Between February and August 2014, Hale printed 23 mostly classified documents, 17 of which he provided to Jeremy Scahill, who then worked for Greenwald's new online news outlet The Intercept. Somewhere in the same period Greenwald traveled to Moscow and informed Snowden about a new source with important information about the drone program, which was shown in Laura Poitras' film Citizenfour from October 2014:

Glenn Greenwald informing Edward Snowden about The Intercept's new source
(still from the documentary film Citizenfour)

In the Summer of 2014, The Intercept had already published two of Hale's documents about NCTC watchlisting, but it took until April 17, 2015 for The Intercept and Der Spiegel to publish a Top Secret diagram about the drone operations and on October 15, 2015, The Intercept finally released four classified documents along with eight articles as "The Drone Papers".


For Snowden, who called it "the most important national security story of the year", The Drone Papers must have been a triumph because finally someone had followed in his footsteps and leaked details about the drone program which he was apparently also concerned about for years.

However, it was also a bitter defeat, because just three days after Daniel Hale had printed out his last document, the FBI had already tracked him down and raided his home (he was arrested in May 2019 and eventually sentenced to 45 months in prison). Is this why there's nothing about Hale, nor about the NSA's involvement in drone killing operations in Snowden's book Permanent Record?

Another question is why Laura Poitras thought Spencer Ackerman should publish a rather uninteresting Intellipedia entry. Was there really nothing more interesting about this topic among the Snowden files? Or was it a signal that, unlike The Intercept, she is still willing to publish things from the Snowden archive?

Links and sources
- Forever Wars: On U.S. Intelligence’s Wiki, Anxiety About Legal Challenges To Drone Strikes (2021)
- CNN: A 'second Snowden' leaks to the Intercept about 'drone wars' (2015)
- Zone d'Intérêt: U.S. Intelligence Support to Find, Fix, Finish Operations (2015)
- The Washington Post: Documents reveal NSA’s extensive involvement in targeted killing program (2013)


Cryptome said...

Well done, congratulations. Keep up the probing of what information is not being published, and perhaps, why not? Any sign of consultation with authorities to avoid prosecution or other favors?

Anonymous said...


1 202-456-1111 said...

What is the procedure for operation/project codeword/names that become inactive, outdated or incorporated?

P/K said...

Those procedures are classified, but in some cases the responsible authorities can decide to declassify the mere existence of a certain codeword, or in very rare cases even information about a whole program.

In Dutch: Meer over het wetsvoorstel voor de Tijdelijke wet cyberoperaties