NSA Collaborates with CIA in Drone Assassination Program; Post Redacts Details at Obama Administration’s Request

Sunday, October 20, 2013
NSA's Keith Alexander and CIA's John Brennan (photo: Bebeto Matthews, AP)

Long characterized as merely a collector of intelligence to protect the United States, the National Security Agency (NSA) has played a key role in the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) drone program to assassinate overseas targets.


Documents provided to The Washington Post by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the agency has been extensively involved in the CIA’s targeted killing program “that has served as a centerpiece of President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy,” according to reporters Greg Miller, Julie Tate and Barton Gellman.


A key demonstration of this NSA-CIA collaboration involved the killing of Hassan Ghul (aka Mustafa Khan), a Pakistani associate of Osama bin Laden who, following his 2004 capture by U.S forces, provided a critical piece of intelligence that helped the CIA find the al-Qaeda leader.


Ghul spent three years in CIA custody and was released in Pakistan in 2007, at which time he took up with his al-Qaeda colleagues. He was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan last year, but only after the NSA intercepted an email from Ghul’s wife, which helped the CIA determine his location and launch the attack.


The NSA was able to capture the email because it had focused its many surveillance powers on dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan. The email itself dealt with “living conditions” described by Ghul’s wife, which provided enough details to allow the agency to pinpoint the coordinates of the couple’s home.


The year-long operation to find Ghul relied on a secret NSA unit dubbed CT MAC (Counter-Terrorism Mission Aligned Cell), whose mission is to use the agency’s extensive database to zero in on shadowy, un-locatable terrorist targets. Ghul indirectly provided the CIA with information about his courier network, which included the name al-Kuwaiti, a courier who U.S. intelligence tracked to an Abbottabad compound that proved to be bin Laden’s hiding place.


In reporting the story, the Post disclosed that it withheld “many details” about NSA activities that help the CIA. This was done, they said, “at the request of U.S. intelligence officials who cited potential damage to ongoing operations and national security.”


When asked about its CIA collaboration, an NSA spokesman said in a statement that the agency is “focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets,” adding that its operations “protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Documents Reveal NSA’s Extensive Involvement in Targeted Killing Program (by Greg Miller, Julie Tate and Barton Gellman, Washington Post)

Federal Appeals Panel Orders CIA to Reveal Info about Drones (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)           

Secret U.S. Government Memo Justifies Assassinations of American Citizens (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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