Slippery Slope: U.S. Government Aiming Missiles At Cellphones Overseas

Close up of a man using mobile smart phone

The U.S. government identifies, locates and obliterates people via drone strike using little more than the communications data that is collected en masse by the National Security Agency.

New information from Glen Greenwald, the journalist responsible for publicizing the NSA’s massive digital communications spy program, suggests that the CIA and U.S. military routinely rely on information collected by the NSA to determine where to direct overseas drone strikes.

The Intercept, a surveillance publication run by Greenwald, reports:

According to a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA, the agency often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies. Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.

Essentially, the military uses information collected through the NSA’s metadata program to target cellphones which the government believes have been used for terroristic activities, rather than relying on informants and evidence to identify individuals. Unfortunately, relying on cellphone data and geolocation has led to considerable civilian casualty.

Greenwald reports:

… [E]ven when the agency correctly identifies and targets a SIM card belonging to a terror suspect, the phone may actually be carried by someone else, who is then killed in a strike. According to the former drone operator, 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.

“Once the bomb lands or a night raid happens, you know that phone is there,” [the former drone operator says]. “But we don’t know who’s behind it, who’s holding it. It’s of course assumed that the phone belongs to a human being who is nefarious and considered an ‘unlawful enemy combatant.’ This is where it gets very shady.”

The cellphone-targeted strikes have occurred only overseas and against mostly non-citizen terror suspects. But American citizens are subject to the same digital communications surveillance domestically, presenting the frightening possibility that the Federal government or law enforcement could one day attack U.S. citizens who are determined to be threats based solely on how they use their electronic devices.

Since 2009, U.S. drones have been used to kill four American citizens overseas — all of whom were alleged al-Qaida operatives. And the Justice Department is currently working to justify another extrajudicial killing of an unnamed American citizen who is reportedly in a country that will not allow the U.S. military on its soil.

Via The Associated Press:

Two of the officials described the man as an al-Qaida facilitator who has been directly responsible for deadly attacks against U.S. citizens overseas and who continues to plan attacks against them that would use improvised explosive devices.

But one U.S. official said the Defense Department was divided over whether the man is dangerous enough to merit the potential domestic fallout of killing an American without charging him with a crime or trying him, and the potential international fallout of such an operation in a country that has been resistant to U.S. action.

Another of the U.S. officials said the Pentagon did ultimately decide to recommend lethal action.

The officials said the suspected terrorist is well-guarded and in a fairly remote location, so any unilateral attempt by U.S. troops to capture him would be risky and even more politically explosive than a U.S. missile strike.

In making the case for attack a U.S. citizen in a sovereign nation where the U.S. is not at war, the DOJ recently released a memo claiming that government “has the right to kill US citizens if they pose an imminent threat.” Furthermore, Justice cites the Supreme Court ruling in Mathews v. Eldridge, “[P]rocess due in any given instance is determined by weighing ‘the private interest that will be affected by the official action’ against the Government’s asserted interest, ‘including the function involved’ and the burdens the Government would face in providing greater process.”

According to Greenwald’s report, the military’s Joint Special Operations Command “‘acknowledges that it would be completely helpless without the NSA conducting mass surveillance on an industrial level,’ the former drone operator says. ‘That is what creates those baseball cards you hear about,’ featuring potential targets for drone strikes or raids.”

Sadly, every American citizen with a cellphone is subject to the NSA’s mass surveillance. And it could only be a matter of time before government embraces the extrajudicial targeting of citizens at home in the same way it has overseas.

Personal Liberty

Sam Rolley

Sam Rolley began a career in journalism working for a small town newspaper while seeking a B.A. in English. After covering community news and politics, Rolley took a position at Personal Liberty Media Group where could better hone his focus on his true passions: national politics and liberty issues. In his daily columns and reports, Rolley works to help readers understand which lies are perpetuated by the mainstream media and to stay on top of issues ignored by more conventional media outlets.

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