US drones use phone signals for targeting, new site Intercept reports

News site debuts with report that NSA is using electronic tracking rather than human intelligence to mark people for lethal attacks

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 1:29am

The online news venture backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar has debuted, featuring fresh revelations about US intelligence from investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald.

The news site dubbed
The Intercept launched on Monday with two articles, including one co-authored by Greenwald stating that the US National Security Agency is relying on electronic surveillance, such as mobile phone location, rather than human intelligence to locate targets for lethal drone strikes.

The report said the NSA "geolocates" the SIM card or handset of a suspected terrorist's mobile phone for raids and drone strikes to capture or kill them.

Citing a former drone operator and supported by leaked NSA documents, the report said this method had been effective in many cases in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, but that innocent people had been killed by the tactic.

The article, with co-authors Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, said the Taliban in Afghanistan were increasingly aware of the geolocation and had been taking actions to thwart the tactic, such as switching SIM cards.

The former drone operator was quoted as saying the NSA unit known as Geo Cell sometimes orders strikes without knowing whether the individual in possession of a tracked cellphone or SIM card is in fact the intended target of the strike.

"They might have been terrorists," the ex-drone operator was quoted as saying. "Or they could have been family members who have nothing to do with the target's activities."

Responding to a query, an administration official said the report was misleading and offered a distorted picture of how the intelligence agencies reviewed information about terror suspects before any drone strike.

Prior to a possible drone operation, the administration carried out an elaborate assessment of an array of intelligence reporting, and only gave a green light when all the information was carefully weighed, the official said.

"This is somewhat selective reporting," the official said.

"When we make a decision to take any sort of action, we look at multiple streams of information. Any suggestion that we use only one source . . . shows just a total misunderstanding of how the intelligence community operates."
The Intercept is the first publication to come from Omidyar's First Look Media announced last year.

The entrepreneur and philanthropist has pledged US$250 million for the venture and has allocated the first US$50 million to start operations.

According to the website, the "short-term mission" is to provide a platform to report on the documents previously provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"Our long-term mission is to produce fearless, adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues," according to the website.

First Look Media includes a non-profit journalism entity and a for-profit company to develop new media technology, according to Omidyar.

A second article on the site by photographer and artist Trevor Paglen includes previously unpublished aerial images of the NSA, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.