William Arkin, recently of Gawker, has had a long career of attempting to tell some of the hardest stories there are tell, and his new book Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare is no different. In it, Arkin takes the reader on a voyage through the shadowy and often misunderstood world of unmanned warfare, idealized ideas of warfare and unchecked data collection, all supposedly there to make us more safe, but the truth may be very much to the contrary. Here’s an excerpt.

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It is perhaps a minor point, but the sources are practically unanimous, and they are almost all wrong: in the first weeks of the war against terrorism, the experts and articles and studies say, a Predator drone (not just a Predator but a CIA Predator) killed — and not just killed, but “assassinated” — Mohammad Atef, the al Qaeda military operations chief and World Trade Center attack commander.

Atef was killed on November 3, 2001, or maybe it was the thirteenth or late November, or at least in the month of November; in Kabul, near Kabul, south of Kabul, in Gardez, in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan; at a house, in a hotel, while on the run. As people fled, the Predator opened fire on them as well; Atef was killed along with “close to a hundred” other al Qaeda members. So say the history and law professors; the pro-drone analysts; the anti-drone activists; the industry of terrorism authorities; the Congressional Research Service; the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the infamous lawyer John Yoo, author of the torture memos; the New York Times; and pretty much everyone else.

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Mohammad Atef did die — that we know. He was the first and highest-ranking al Qaeda man to be killed after 9/11 and the first to be killed in any kind of air attack that specifically targeted an individual. But he wasn’t killed by a drone.

Is this the way we want to leave the history of something so controversial: with wrong assumptions and messy scholarship? And even if Atef had been killed by a Predator, is it proper to call his death assassination, during a war, or to pin it on the CIA, as if the intelligence agency is somehow independent and not just some secret-agent warrior in our wholly transformed hybrid of a military? Does it matter that the story is engaged as highbrow ammunition for a particular argument or that it is mangled in rumor and a massive game of Telephone? I think it does matter, but as I tell the story, I just ask the reader to remember the telephone and not the Predator: Mohammed Atef was killed because of the black box and the phone.

Mohammad Atef was described as “a very striking-looking person, tall and slender with bright green eyes, dark-skinned, bearded, full of youth and vigour,” by Abdel Bari Atwan in The Secret History of al Qaeda. “He was modest, extremely radical and exceptionally polite.”

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A lot can be said about Atef, but the most important fact for this story is that he had a bad back, a really bad back. He was practically immobile, and US intelligence has since concluded that he was likely bed-bound, so when other al Qaeda leaders and fighters evacuated the Afghan capital, Atef stayed behind.

I’ve been to the house in Kabul where Atef was killed. I didn’t know that at the time; I had been directed to a nice residence in an upscale neighborhood by locals when I was leading a bomb damage assessment on behalf of the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch. The house had obviously been bombed, and not just promiscuously; it had been intentionally targeted and directly attacked with multiple bombs; the adjacent houses had been damaged only by the blast and flying shrapnel, the telltale signs of a precision attack. It was one of a dozen or more locations I probably visited that day in March 2002, looking for and verifying civilian casualties and trying to make sense of the targeting choices in Operation Enduring Freedom.

In Kabul, eyewitnesses said the house was hit on November 12 or 13. Taliban forces were retreating from the Afghan capital, and the Northern Alliance was coming in from the Shomali Plain to the north; there was chaos. The early-morning hours of November 13 also turned out to be the final major urban air attack of the initial post‑9/11 campaign. It was the same day, sources said, and I have confirmed, that the offices of Al Jazeera television nearby were also attacked.

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When Al Jazeera was bombed, it was immediately reported in the news media. “We had identified two locations in Kabul where Al Jazeera people worked, and this location wasn’t among them,” Colonel Rick Thomas, a Gulf-based spokesman for Central Command, told the Associated Press the same day. The attacked structure, he added, was “a known al‑Qaida [sic] facility” in downtown Kabul.

Thomas said that the United States “had no indications this or any nearby facility was used by Al Jazeera.” That morning, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral Craig Quigley happened to be conducting a briefing at the Foreign Press Center in Washington and was also asked about the attack. “I have seen the news reports . . . that some sort of weapon went awry and destroyed those facilities,” he said, suggesting a malfunction. Adding that the United States only hits “military targets,” Quigley surmised that perhaps “weapons have failed” or “human errors have been made,” with perhaps “targets being struck that we did not intend to strike.”

But Mohammed Jassim al‑Ali, Al Jazeera’s managing editor, claimed in an interview that the strike must have been deliberate. “They know where we are located and they know what we have in our office and we also did not get any warning,” he said. Colonel Brian Hoey, another spokesman for CENTCOM and located in Florida, then contradicted Quigley and said that the building in question had been deliberately attacked, but said the attack was based on “compelling” evidence that it was being used by al Qaeda and not because it was Al Jazeera. At the time of the attack, Hoey added “the indications we had was that this was not an Al Jazeera office.” The US military, he said, “does not and will not target media. We would not, as a policy, target news media organizations — it would not even begin to make sense.”

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Despite denials and explanations, to outsiders the attack on Al Jazeera looked absolutely intentional. The Arab network had become famous for reporting on civilian casualties from inside Afghanistan, a role similar to the one that Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) played in the 1999 Kosovo war. Given that NATO intentionally bombed the Belgrade headquarters of the RTS during Operation Allied Force, it was easy to speculate that Al Jazeera was targeted simply for reporting a side of the war that the United States wanted suppressed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York protested, putting out a warning that a “deliberate attack on a civilian facility is prohibited under international humanitarian law.” No less than General Tommy Franks responded to the committee by letter six months later, categorically denying that Al Jazeera facilities “have ever been intentionally targeted by coalition forces.” In a letter to Al Jazeera dated December 6, 2001, Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria (“Tori”) Clarke stated that “the building we struck was a known al‑Qaeda facility in central Kabul,” adding that “there were no indications that this or any nearby facility was used by Al‑Jazeera.”

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Around the same time, I was contacted by a team of Air Force analysts who were working on the lessons learned, trying to reconstruct and analyze the bombing campaign, what went right, what went wrong. They’d heard I had pictures; they’d heard I knew things, and they wanted to compare notes. We agreed that they would break the rules and invite me into the classified realm to combine the official target lists, pilot mission reports, and poststrike assessments with my observations and data from the ground. What we pieced together was that on the night of November 12–13, the United States undertook a meticulously planned attack on at least three dispersed houses, each coded as being associated with al Qaeda leadership. Three were identified on the target list as:

· Kabul Residence (AOM 666)

· Kabul Probable Arab Residence (AOM 532)

· Kabul Suspect Residence (AOM 597)

These were all preplanned attacks, that is, the targets were identified and selected based on intelligence reporting that associated the locations with al Qaeda at least twenty-four hours beforehand: they went on a validated target list, as opposed to being time-sensitive (or fleeting) targets chosen because conditions on the ground or contemporaneous intercepts indicated that they were active, though, as we shall see, that played a role as well.

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As best as it can be reconstructed and understood by me, as the numbers would suggest, there were hundreds of prospective targets in this category, and on the thirty-fifth day of bombing, with rapidly changing circumstances and al Qaeda leadership on the move, this was probably close to a last chance to bomb in Kabul (Kandahar in the south was still contested, as were most of the cities and villages in the east). War planners were still uncertain whether the city would indeed fall and how quickly US special operations forces (and “other government agencies,” as they like to say of the CIA) would make it into the city to reconnoiter and exploit al Qaeda and Taliban places of interest.

The squadrons and pilots in these cases received the air tasking order with their assigned targets, time of attack, designated weapons, and special instructions. Target study was done, in the sense of identifying the object to be attacked on a map and on satellite imagery and special graphics, and the planners at CENTCOM and the attacking squadron applied effectiveness methodologies to calculate the optimum angle of attack, the specific aimpoint, and the bomb and fusing that would be required to maximize the specified damage while minimizing collateral damage to adjacent areas.

According to the classified air tasking order (ATO) for that evening, three targets were attacked by US Navy F/A‑18 Hornet fighter aircraft armed with 500-pound GBU‑12 laser-guided bombs. Since all of the targets were located in densely built‑up and heavily populated areas, the smallest laser-guided bomb in existence at that time was chosen. The pilots had to locate their target through their viewing systems, align their aircraft to be able to shoot a laser beam to the intended aimpoint, and, while flying at more than 500 mph, release the laser-guided bombs in the right “envelope” in order for the weapon to detect the laser reflection, which then guided the bomb to the intended aimpoint.

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According to the classified pilot mission reports, two of the three targets — Kabul Probable Arab Residence and Kabul Suspect Residence— were hit nearly simultaneously at 14:04 and 14:20 Zulu time (Greenwich Mean Time), or 18:04 and 18:20 local time. The third target, Kabul Residence, was hit at 20:39 and 20:49 Zulu time, or 12:39 a.m. and 12:49 a.m. local time, in the early-morning hours of November 13. Kabul Residence was hit with four GBU-12s, two each separated by ten minutes.

Using the coordinates listed on the ATO and mission reports and comparing them to satellite imagery and GPS coordinates I collected on the ground, a fourth target also appeared. Air Force analysts labeled it Building 4. It appeared that Kabul Residence (AOM 666), a house quite some distance away, was not bombed by an ATO asset that night after all.

Building 4 turned out instead to be a house containing the offices of Al Jazeera television, that is, based upon the coordinates my team derived on the ground and seemingly the targets the navy fighters attacked based upon the time of attack, even if their official mission reports said they attacked AOM 666.10 AOM 592 and 597, the latter closest to the main avenue and located at Wazir Akbar Khan Street No. 13, according to my notes, were two adjacent houses practically opposite the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital complex.

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The Air Force analysts concluded that Mohammed Atef was in one of those two houses. An FBI special agent who later exploited the house confirmed the location based upon my pictures. But there was a limit to what the military records revealed, at least in Air Force and CENTCOM records outside compartmented worlds. Whether AOM 666 was bombed at all remained unclear; it was a house that once was the residence of the Kabul mayor but far away from the Al Jazeera office (Building 4) or Mohammed Atef’s house. We scoured the air tasking order to see if some other attacker, particularly a CIA Predator drone, was also flying in the area at that time. My Air Force friends made inquiries up the chain of command.

After months of work, we concluded that there was a single armed CIA Predator there that night that might have been involved in the bombing of AOM 666. It was pretty clear that Building 4 was Al Jazeera, and it was pretty clear that the F‑18 dropped at least two of its four weapons at the moment it was attacked. But how did it get on the target list? Did the navy pilots get a time-sensitive target change while they were in the air and then attack Building 4? Their postmission reports didn’t say. And what was the role of the Predator, which almost everyone claimed killed Atef?

Rear Admiral Quigley later stated that the United States intentionally targeted the residential building that housed Al Jazeera (and indeed it was just a house), the target we were now calling Building 4. He said the house occupied by Al Jazeera “had been, and was at the time, a facility used by al‑Qaida.” According to the Guardian, Quigley said its “military significance” made it a “legitimate target.” He took back his earlier presumption that there was any error, and stated that US intelligence had confirmed that the house was an al Qaeda facility. Quigley also said that the United States never knew the house was Al Jazeera’s office, and that the compound had a “different intelligence signal completely.” I visited the Al Jazeera house (Building 4) as well, and with Al Jazeera papers strewn everywhere amongst the rubble, and a large satellite dish in the courtyard, it was indeed being used by the Qatari-based network.

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But reconstructing any event is difficult, as I would find out once again, even when one has the best of information. They don’t talk about “fog of war” for nothing, and there’s always something one doesn’t know, especially in this new style of warfare, where intelligence information is as important as operations, where military and CIA overlap uncomfortably and where decisions are split second.

But remember the telephone? When Quigley and other spokesmen referred to “compelling evidence” and called the Al Jazeera office a “command and control” facility of “military significance,” this was code for an emanating signal, what Admiral Quigley elliptically referred to as the house’s “intelligence signal.” But “intelligence signature” is the correct term, and I later confirmed with the admiral that he had not misspoken, so I assumed that the Guardian reporter just got the transposition of the term wrong in his notes.

This is the world of the NSA that we have become so familiar with since Edward Snowden sprang onto the scene. But NSA is also like a character in a favorite television drama: there is a real person behind the character, and the character is also only playing a role, even if he or she perfectly inhabits that role.

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In the real world of NSA, even going back fifty years or more, history is silent on what the eavesdroppers were specifically listening to at any one time. There are incidents such as the USS Liberty or USS Pueblo or Flight 007 that are dissected (and butchered), but by and large, the most historians learn is that “a signal” or an intercept, or a decryption, provided some breakthrough. Abdel Bari Atwan, in his Secret History of al Qaeda, claims that Mohammed Atef telephoned the newspaper al‑Quds al‑Arabi before he was killed, but whether that is true or not, what seems clear is that on that day, at that moment, the center of Kabul was a pretty quiet place electronically, and the use of any satellite telephone would have been picked up by the American ear. One Air Force officer who was in the command center on November 13 said, “We sat there with report after report after report of thousands of vehicles leaving Kabul” on the southwestern road leading east, but airstrikes were restricted because of concerns that “civilians might be mixed in” with the possibly escaping al Qaeda and Taliban.

So though every possible eye was mobilized, ears proved the most revealing of a potential target in this chaotic environment, providing that “second source” or positive ID that is needed for any sensitive attack. Thus the activation of any signal, including an Al Jazeera signal, might have been, in this final night of Kabul bombing, enough of a tip-off to “flex” to the target, as they say. Especially if it is true that the United States didn’t know that Al Jazeera was at that specific structure, at that moment. Or if the United States knew, but also knew that al Qaeda was borrowing (or commandeering) Al Jazeera satellite circuits to communicate. Admittedly, that’s a lot of ifs.

Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent who was involved in postwar exploitation of al Qaeda material, says definitively that Atef was killed in an airstrike in Kabul on November 13, 2001, unable to evacuate from the city because of his chronic back problems. Peter Bergen, bestselling terrorist expert, also says that Atef stayed behind in Kabul because of a back problem, and that a prominent Pakistani surgeon, Dr. Amer Aziz, was summoned to Kabul “in early November 2001” to treat him. The 9/11 Commission lets slip in a footnote that various al Qaeda materials were “found in the rubble of Atef’s house near [sic] Kabul following a November 2001 airstrike, together with a martyrdom video of [Ramzi] Binalshibh,” one of the 9/11 key planners. Another official source refers to the success of immediate follow‑on counterterrorism operations in Malaysia and Singapore based upon the exploitation of material taken from Atef’s house. I know that his death was confirmed on the ground and that the house was exploited, and I know from my own sources that it was the exact house I later visited.

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The role Predator played that night is exquisitely dissected by Richard Whittle in his Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution. The Air Force–flown CIA Predator over Kabul that day and night, equipped literally with a Radio Shack black box receiver, picked up radio signals from an evident al Qaeda convoy and tracked it to Wazir Akbar Khan Street, the targets labeled AOM 592 and 597. Air Force F‑15Es flying in the vicinity were called to attack the target, Whittle writes, based upon his sources, and bombed it twice, contradicting what the paper trail said; but the F‑15 mission was later also lauded in a semiofficial Air Force history, “the longest fighter combat mission in history.”

The important point, though, is that the Predator didn’t fire on Atef’s house, instead going on to shoot a single Hellfire at another house—AOM 666? — that a group of people escaped to from Atef’s house, watching them as they ran through the streets of Kabul.

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For reasons that probably have mainly to do with the desire for some charmed epic, the legend would become that Predator killed Atef. The New York Times first reported it based on whichever administration or intelligence official heard the rumors and passed on the magic. Even former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dick Myers later says in his autobiography that Atef “had been killed in a CIA Predator strike that had targeted his Kabul home with a Hellfire missile.” And Peter Bergen goes even further, saying that Atef’s “death, though initially reported to have come in a U.S. air strike, was later confirmed to have been the result of a drone strike.” But manned airstrike it was; of that there’s no doubt. Though the Afghanistan war fully opened the door for our current drone wars, the lesson of the killing of Atef is once again that it is the target and not the means of attack that is the remarkable part of contemporary warfare. My Air Force analyst friends and I later marveled at how many unknowns persisted, the how and the why of the Predator rumor, and we speculated over beers whether the “information ops” types at the CIA or some other black box channel didn’t secretly borrow the navy F18s that night to intentionally bomb the news media, though when asked, a high-level intelligence source countered that it was perfectly justifiable to bomb and cut off one of the last communications paths that might be used to transmit al Qaeda’s latest orders — a justification that might hold up in the court of law and public opinion, the mere bonus being that the bombing of a “command and control” target also served to silence a disagreeable Arab station.

Though the lessons learned report I helped with was classified and never publicly released, the Air Force, like the other services, sponsored a variety of official and approved histories of the kind that tell varnished war stories, the ones that fawn over command brilliance and are filled with institutional heroics. One states unambiguously that Atef was killed in a manned strike, and not only that, but by an Air Force plane. Though I generally remain skeptical of the common assumption that the fighter pilot community that dominates the Air Force works against Predator and the unmanned, drones are second-class citizens, not just because they are not citizens at all but also because they inhabit unfamiliar space between sensor and shooter, a funny military way of describing two human attributes.

For the air warriors, it isn’t just their love affair with manned flight that tends to make them opposed to unmanned killing— it is also the universal discomfort with a process of seeing a prospective target during a war without being able to kill it. And of course, there is the unsatisfying legend that comes from the world of the unmanned: that the network killed Atef; that it was fast computer work; that it was merely the physics of triangulating a telephone call; that it could all have been done by machines.

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Excerpt from Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare By William M. Arkin. Copyright © 20015 by William M. Arkin. Used by permission of Little, Brown and Company Publishing. All rights reserved.

Photo Credits: William M. Arkin for map and Atef House, Predator at sunset via USAF/Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock

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