NSA: You Can’t Drone Kill Without Us

Hassan Ghul may sound like a Batman villain but he was supposedly an affiliate of Osama Bin Laden before we supposedly killed him using a drone. The Washington Post has released a story about how the NSA intercepted an email from him to his wife which allowed them to determine his location and give the CIA the information they needed to send a drone after him. The documents came from Edward Snowden but this is one secret that the NSA will certainly try to use to their own advantage.

The NSA is “focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets,” an NSA spokeswoman said in a statement provided to The Post on Wednesday, adding that the agency’s operations “protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

By some weird coincidence (?), Ghul has already been used as a case study in another covert government program.

When Ghul made another attempt to enter Iraq in 2004, he was detained by Kurdish authorities in an operation directed by the CIA. Almost immediately, Ghul provided a piece of intelligence that would prove more consequential than he may have anticipated: He disclosed that bin Laden relied on a trusted courier known as al-Kuwaiti.

The ripples from that revelation wouldn’t subside for years. The CIA went on to determine the true identity of al-Kuwaiti and followed him to a heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed in 2011.

Ghul was also put in a secret prison and “interrogated.” Politicians tried to claim that those methods brought them the intel that led to the killing of bin Laden (conveniently leaving no evidence at all). But others “including former CIA operatives directly involved in Ghul’s case,” verified that Ghul gave up his information in response to direct questions from the Kurdish authorities without and “stress positions,” etc.

Then what happened? “Then, in 2006, the United States delivered him to his native Pakistan, where he was released and returned to the al-Qaeda fold.

The rationale for returning him to Pakistan or the Pakistani ISI’s reasons for releasing him is left rather murky. Pakistan was still working with the US when they released him so I wish I could find out more of the story.

But the documents show the NSA is thoroughly involved in the drone program. What are we to think?

First of all, no one denies that, in addition to illegally spying on Americans and doing industrial espionage against Brazil, etc, that the NSA might actually spy on foreign terrorists from time to time. Nothing in the story shows it was necessary for the NSA to involve illegal domestic surveillance to do that job.  The problem is that the NSA has proven they have no intention of restricting themselves to legal operations overseas.

Secondly, this seems like a really unimportant killing. If Ghul were important we wouldn’t have allowed him to be released. Furthermore, no one considered killing bin Laden with a drone. When we really want to confirm a kill, we send special forces in to do it personally. In Ghul’s case, the CIA didn’t even know if they killed the right guy for awhile:

Even after Ghul was killed in Mir Ali, the NSA’s role in the drone strike wasn’t done. Although the attack was aimed at “an individual believed to be” the correct target, the outcome wasn’t certain until later when, “through SIGINT, it was confirmed that Hassan Ghul was in fact killed.”

Finally, what about the American citizens on Obama’s “kill list”? What about the Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16 year old son who was an American citizen, and who was killed by a drone? Did the NSA determine that he was a worthy target because he didn’t have a responsible father?

(See especially the question and answer at 1:56)

The bottom line is that, no matter how much good the NSA can claim to have done, we still need to get them to stop illegally and unconstitutionally spying on us. Taking out a minor operative that the CIA let go doesn’t matter much. And it raises questions about the NSA’s involvement in hundreds of killed civilians.