How drone strikes based on NSA surveillance kill innocents

The first report from Greenwald and Scahill's new site highlights dangerous role of NSA phone tracking

By Natasha Lennard

Published February 10, 2014 3:44PM (EST)

In the first major report to appear on Glenn Greenwald's news site, The Intercept, the journalist along with Jeremy Scahill, reports that reliance on NSA surveillance data leads to imprecise drone strikes. The report, based on both testimony from an anonymous former drone operator and NSA documents leaked by whistle-blower Ed Snowden, gives the lie further to White House claims that drone killings are precise and well-targeted.

Scahill and Greenwald report that in place of on the ground human intelligence, the CIA and the military increasingly rely on NSA tracking of phones' geolocations to hunt down strike targets. While the drone operator said such a method has successfully tracked down a number of al-Qaida operatives, innocent people have also "absolutely" been killed (a fact well-established by local and human rights group reports from Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.)

The Intercept highlights a very basic pattern by which reliance on phone tracking risks innocent lives:

[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.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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