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What You Need to Know About the Latest Drone Revelations

Last week, The Intercept published a sweeping series of stories based on secret documents involving the U.S.’s drone strike program. We sat down with two reporters on the project, Cora Currier and Ryan Devereaux, to talk about what they found. Here are a few of the key takeaways:

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

  • The U.S. often doesn’t quite know who’s been killed. During an operation a few years ago in Afghanistan, nearly 90 percent of those killed in strikes weren’t the intended target. The documents show about 200 people killed over one five-month period – just 35 of them were the men the U.S. meant to kill. That doesn’t mean everybody else was innocent. It’s just not clear who they were.

  • The Intercept’s source — who leaked the classified documents — said that men killed in drone and other airstrikes are classified as the enemy unless evidence emerges otherwise. That is in line with previous reports about so-called “signature strikes,” in which the U.S. doesn’t actually know the identity of men being killed.

  • One study by a Pentagon think tank found that drone strikes in Afghanistan were actually far more likely to kill civilians than conventional airstrikes. Part of the explanation for that is the “soda straw effect,” which refers to the fact that drones’ cameras can actually give a quite limited view of what’s happening on the ground.

  • An internal Pentagon study noted that drone strikes have a big downside. Basically, if you kill people, you can’t ask them questions later. Or as the the study put it: “Kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees.”

The Pentagon and White House both declined the Intercept’s requests to comment on the documents.

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more on the U.S. drone program read Currier’s Firing Blind: Flawed Intelligence and the Limits of Drone Technology and Deveraux’s Manhunting in the Hindu Kush: Civilian Casualties and Strategic Failures in America’s Longest War.

Previous ProPublica coverage: Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes | How the Government Talks About a Drone Program It Won’t Acknowledge Exists | Obama Administration’s Drone Death Figures Don’t Add Up

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