Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Israeli Drones, Benghazi, and the NSA

by Micah Zenko
February 14, 2014

Israel Aero Space Industries (IAI) Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicle at the airbase in Switzerland on September 20, 2012 (Wiegmann/Courtesy Reuters). Israel Aero Space Industries (IAI) Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicle at the airbase in Switzerland on September 20, 2012 (Wiegmann/Courtesy Reuters).

Jim Garamone, “Special Ops Forces in Transition, Pentagon Official Says,” U.S. Department of Defense, February 12, 2014.

Network threats present new challenges and require new ways of planning, the assistant secretary told the audience, and cyber operations come to mind first. “As we continue to work our doctrine for response in the cyber realm,” he said, “it is entirely possible that SOF units, or even individuals, would be called upon to act online or offline to address these threats.”

(3PA: Note that the NSA is already creating thirteen offensive cyber teams. Overlapping missions and redundancy is quickly defining the U.S. military’s approach to the cyber realm.)


Ken Dilanian, “Sen. Levin’s bid to boost drone oversight falters in Congress,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2014.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, held a joint classified hearing Thursday with the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA and military drone strikes against suspected terrorists…But the White House did not allow CIA officials to attend, so military counter-terrorism commanders testified on their own. Levin’s plan ran aground on the Washington shoals of secrecy and turf, according to congressional aides and other U.S. officials, none of whom would be quoted by name discussing classified oversight matters.


Tamir Eshel, “IAI Designed its New Drone to be an MTCR Compliant Platform,” Defense Update, February 11, 2014.

Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) unveiled today at the Singapore Air Show an enhanced design of its Heron I unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called ‘Super heron’. The new drone offers improved payload capacity and optional Heavy Fuel Engine configuration. Its weight/range characteristics position it below the MTCR export control threshold, thus improving its competitive advantage…

The drone weighs 1,450 kg (3,197 lbs) and can carry a payload of 450 kg (992 lbs), positioning the platform 50 kg below the MTCR limits imposing export restrictions on guided platforms capable of delivering payloads (a.k.a warheads) of 500kg (1,102 lbs) weight over distances of more than 300km (162 nm).


Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald, “The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program,” Intercept, February 10, 2014.

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…

In one tactic, the NSA “geolocates” the SIM card or handset of a suspected terrorist’s mobile phone, enabling the CIA and U.S. military to conduct night raids and drone strikes to kill or capture the individual in possession of the device…

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…

What’s more, he adds, the NSA often locates drone targets by analyzing the activity of a SIM card, rather than the actual content of the calls. Based on his experience, he has come to believe that the drone program amounts to little more than death by unreliable metadata.

(3PA: For earlier reporting of how the NSA supported the first ever drone strike, see James Bamford’s groundbreaking 2006 article in the Atlantic.)


Danielle Douglas and Craig Timberg, “Experts warn of coming wave of serious cybercrime,” Washington Post, February 9, 2014.

Only 11 percent of businesses have adopted ­industry-standard security measures, said a recent report by Verizon Enterprise Solutions, and outside experts say even these “best practices” fall short of what’s needed to defeat aggressive hackers lured by the prospect of a multimillion-dollar heist.

(3PA: On February 12, the White House launched the Cybersecurity Framework that presented voluntary guidelines for industry. During a background briefing on the framework, a senior administration official said: “Voluntary standards are a tradition in the United States because they work.  When industries get together and determine for themselves what standards describe a quality of a product, these standards are much more likely to be adopted quickly and implemented fully.” Clearly 89 percent of firms do not believe this. Also, review the history of voluntary commercial airline security before 9/11.)


Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, “Majority Interim Report: Benghazi Investigation Update,” U.S. House Armed Services Committee, February 2014.

Immediately after the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012, the Committee on Armed Services began an ongoing extensive effort to evaluate the response of the Department of Defense (DOD). In addition to assessing how the Department reacted, the committee seeks to determine what preparations the U.S. military had made for the possibility of an attack in Libya, and what arrangements have subsequently been put into place to minimize the possibility of a similar recurrence.

The U.S. military’s response to the Benghazi attack was severely degraded because of the location and readiness posture of U.S. forces, and because of lack of clarity about how the terrorist action was unfolding. However, given the uncertainty about the prospective length and scope of the attack, military commanders did not take all possible steps to prepare for a more extended operation.

As the result of a specific request from the committee, DOD accounted for the location of each of its AC-130 aircraft in the military’s inventory. DOD reported to the committee that no AC-130s were in the region in the days before the Benghazi attack, including for maintenance, crew rest, or merely transiting through the area.

(3PA: There is a great summary of potential military responses on pages 15 to 30.)

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thanks for the update,

    “What’s more, he adds, the NSA often locates drone targets by analyzing the activity of a SIM card, rather than the actual content of the calls. Based on his experience, he has come to believe that the drone program amounts to little more than death by unreliable metadata.”

    Right, which is another example of moral hazard. If U.S. soldiers lives were at risk in these operations and the very likely danger of killing non-combatants existed, the call to strike would not have been made based on such flimsy data.

    This is the moral hazard of automated warfare. It removes any semblance of restraint and allows people to justify lethal action on the flimsiest of knowledge (forget about evidence). Ironically, the possible death of U.S. servicemembers and civilians in these attacks is the moral agent that normally prevents this; that is, enlightened self interest.

    And it is ubiquitous in western, neo-liberal culture. We now have universities that can expel a student and ruin their educational career entirely based on the accusation of a single person in a zero due process hearing run by teenagers. It’s amazing what breadth this moral hazard has taken in this country. This country is PWND by an organic power structure that has over-reached its reasonable limits and is putting humanity itself at risk.

    The examples are literally in the hundreds and I do believe that future observers will identify these acts exactly as I have. And that’s because objective fact backs what I’m saying. Excuses 10 years later won’t be heard. If USG wants to come out on top around the globe it needs to get a handle on this cancer.

    - kk

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