Since June, the documents released by Edward Snowden have revealed the vast extent of the NSA's surveillance regime and raised concerns about the legal basis of the NSA's programs. The Washington Post recently published another set of documents from Snowden that expose a new side of the NSA and its role in the war on terror. These documents show how the NSA's participates in the targeted killing program that utilizes drones to attack terrorist groups -- as well as many civilians -- in countries like Yemen and Pakistan.
The drone campaign was previously thought to be solely the responsibility of the CIA, but it is now clear that the NSA and CIA collaborate closely on gathering information about targets. The documents detail how the NSA intercepted electronic communication about Hassan Ghul, an associate of Osama Bin Laden who had been released from detention in Pakistan. In this case, the NSA acquired an e-mail from Ghul's wife, which helped pinpoint his location and facilitated a drone strike shortly afterwards, resulting in his death.
The Washington Post notes that the documents describing this mission are "self-congratulatory in tone, drafted to tout the NSA’s counterterrorism capabilities." Explaining the significance of this counterrorism success story, The Post writes,
At a time when the NSA is facing intense criticism for gathering data on Americans, the drone files may bolster the agency’s case that its resources are focused on fighting terrorism and supporting U.S. operations overseas.
This self-congratulation is misplaced and deceptive as it distracts the public from the real issues of illegality and secrecy that are at the heart of the drone campaign. While drone attacks have killed some key operatives like Ghul, they have also killed hundreds of civilians. In reference to the thousands of people killed by drones, Naureen Shah of Columbia Law School points out that “it’s hard to believe all of these people are senior operational leaders of Al Qaeda.” Two new reports support Shah's theory, providing evidence of civilian deaths and violations of international law. A report by Human Rights Watch describes how two such attacks in Yemen in 2012 clearly violated international law by only striking civilians and using indiscriminate weapons. In its own investigation of drone strikes in northwestern Pakistan, Amnesty International warns that many of these attacks could constitute war crimes and extrajudicial killings.
Despite President Obama's assurances of greater transparency on the administration's use of drones, basic legal justifications and even explanations of who the United States is attacking remain secret. This secrecy precludes accountability and reform while also denying reparations to victims of the attacks. The NSA's role in halting a real terrorist threat may seem like an exception to the recurring pattern of abuse and illegality that have come to define the NSA in recent months. In reality, the NSA participates in a targeted killing program based on secret legal interpretations that frequently misuses its resources to target innocent civilians. Therefore, this recent revelation about the NSA fits squarely with what the public has learned since the leak began: this agency and the administration it represents continue to disregard the rule of law and ignore the principles of openness and accountability.