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Documents from Whistleblower Show ‘Targeted Killing’ Operations Killed Hundreds Who Weren’t Targets

A whistleblower within the United States intelligence community has provided secret military documents to The Intercept, which reveal key details about worldwide assassination operations which President Barack Obama’s administration has kept concealed from the public.

In particular, as Obama announces plans to leave thousands of troops in Afghanistan, documents show how the military has designated unidentified men as “Enemies Killed in Action” without confirming whether “targeted killing” operations killed their specific targets or others entirely. Over 200 individuals killed by an operation in Afghanistan, known as “Operation Haymaker,” were marked as EKIAs.

The identity of the whistleblower is unknown. The Intercept granted “the source’s request for anonymity because the materials are classified and because the U.S. government has engaged in aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers.” Reports published at The Intercept refer to the whistleblower as “the source.”

The source reportedly blew the whistle because the source is outraged at the “explosion of watchlisting—of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield. It was, from the very first instance, wrong.”

“I would like to think that what we were doing was in some way trying to help Afghans,” the source explained, but the notion “that what we were part of was actually defending the homeland or in any way to the benefit of the American public” evaporated long ago. “There’s no illusion of that that exists in Afghanistan,” he said. “It hasn’t existed for many years.”

Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux wrote an analysis of the documents on “Operation Haymaker,” which include details on missions from 2011 to 2013 launched to root out the Taliban and al Qaeda.

“Operation Haymaker” involved the development of a “robust network of intelligence sources, including informants on the ground.” The military focused on the Kunar and Nuristan provinces. Operators relied on the “most highly trained military units” and the support of “the world’s most powerful electronic surveillance agencies, equipped with technology that allowed for unmatched tracking of wanted individuals,” according to Devereaux.

Over a period of five months, about nine out of 10 of the people killed in airstrikes in “Operation Haymaker” were not “direct targets.”

Even if someone was not an intended target of a strike and “evidence posthumously emerged to prove the males killed were not terrorists or ‘unlawful enemy combatants,'” they remained “enemies killed in action.”

The source found this to be “insane,” but told The Intercept, “We’ve made ourselves comfortable with that. The intelligence community, [Joint Special Operations Command], the CIA, and everybody that helps support and prop up these programs, they’re comfortable with that idea.”

Oftentimes, the source explained government officials will exaggerate if not outright lie about the number of civilians killed by drone strikes.

When a specific target is killed, the military calls this a “jackpot.” There were only around 35 “jackpots” by February 2013. In contrast, during the same time frame, over 200 people were “enemies killed in action” who apparently were — as the U.S. military might put it — not specifically targeted in the strikes.

The source expressed concern over this process of assuming the dead were “enemies,” especially if they are “military-age males” (MAM).

…Confirming a chosen target was indeed killed can include days of monitoring signals intelligence and communication with sources on the ground, none of which is perfect 100 percent of the time. Firing a missile at a target in a group of people, the source said, requires “an even greater leap of faith” — a leap that he believes often treats physical proximity as evidence.

The secret military documents from the source show one airstrike was launched as part of “Operation Haymaker” in 2012. It killed two people. By May 2012, the pace of attacks increased “dramatically.” And, as Devereaux noted, “drone strikes in Afghanistan increased by 72 percent” between 2011 and 2012.

One particular document highlights Task Force 3-10 mission statistics from between September 2011 and September 2012. Despite requests from Afghan President Hamid Karzai to halt night raids by U.S. forces, there were more than 1,800 night raids conducted, with 1,239 “targets” captured or killed and 709 “associates” of “targets” captured or killed.

Astonishingly, only “14 civilian casualty ‘events’ for the year.”

After looking over “after-action reports on raids and other operations in Afghanistan,” the source told The Intercept “14 civilian casualties is highly suspect.”

“I know the actual number is much higher,” the source stated. “But they make the numbers themselves so they can get away with writing off most of the kills as legitimate.”

The cache of documents provided included “records of condolence payments,” which the U.S. military disbursed to Kunar in the fiscal years 2011 through 2013. Forty-five disbursements totaling more than $118,000 were issued to Kunar to cover injuries as well as the deaths of 27 people, including four children.

Remarkably, the military’s own assessment seems to suggest “Operation Haymaker” indicates strikes “successfully killed one [al Qaeda] target per year.” The organization was easily managing to reconstitute itself in the face of U.S. attacks.

Why has the U.S. military remained committed to these kinds of assassination operations, which are not defeating al Qaeda or the Taliban once and for all?

“The military is easily capable of adapting to change, but they don’t like to stop anything they feel is making their lives easier, or is to their benefit,” the source suggested to The Intercept. “This certainly is, in their eyes, a very quick, clean way of doing things.

The source added, “It’s a very slick, efficient way to conduct the war, without having to have the massive ground invasion mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan. But at this point, they have become so addicted to this machine, to this way of doing business, that it seems like it’s going to become harder and harder to pull them away from it the longer they’re allowed to continue operating in this way.”


While the military was not overly reliant on drone strikes, in 2010, U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning released military incident reports to WikiLeaks, which largely affirm many of the concerns of this new national security whistleblower.

“In attempting to conduct counter-terrorism (CT) and counter-insurgency (COIN) operations, we became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and not being suspicious of and avoiding cooperation with our host nation partners, and ignoring the second and third order effects of accomplishing short-term goals and missions,” Manning declared in a statement during her court-martial.

She believed if the public had access to these reports it might cause American society to “reevaluate the need or even the desire” to “engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the affected environment everyday.”

The “Afghanistan War Logs,” as WikiLeaks labeled them, contained details about Task Force 373, an assassination squad. On one particular day, October 4, 2007, the squad confronted Taliban fighters and then called in air support to drop five hundred pound bombs.

The carnage that resulted included: “12 U.S. wounded, two teenage girls and a 10-year-old boy wounded, one girl killed, one woman killed, four civilian men killed, one donkey killed, one dog killed, several chickens killed, no enemy killed, no enemy wounded, no enemy detained.”

Classified lists of enemies led to a mission on June 17, 2007, to target “prominent al Qaeda functionary Abu Laith al-Libi.” The squad staked out a “Koran school where he was believed to be located for several days.” An attack was ordered. The squad ended up killing seven children with five American rockets. Al-Libi was not killed.

This tactic of warfare continues to have devastating consequences. In 2014, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported civilian drone deaths had tripled since 2013. The UN agency expressed particular concern about specific operations in the Kunar province, including one drone strike on September 7, 2013, which killed four women, four children, two drivers, a merchant, and three alleged insurgents.

Most recently, on October 3, 2015, U.S. military officers followed a “rigorous” procedure and sent an order to launch air strikes on a part of a hospital compound in Kunduz operated by Doctors Without Borders.

The strikes were approved, possibly to attack Taliban fighters, who Afghan forces believed were using the hospital to coordinate attacks. Staff and patients at the hospital were never warned they would be bombed, and twenty-two staff and patients, including three children, were killed.


As journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, wrote, “Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an over-reliance on signals intelligence, an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and — due to a preference for assassination rather than capture — an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects.”

“They also highlight the futility of the war in Afghanistan by showing how the U.S. has poured vast resources into killing local insurgents, in the process exacerbating the very threat the U.S. is seeking to confront.”

To read more reporting on the secret documents, go here.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."