NSA's role in targeted killings revealed
It was an innocuous e-mail, one of millions sent every day by spouses with updates on the situation at home. But this one was of particular interest to the National Security Agency, and contained clues that put the sender's husband in the cross hairs of a CIA drone.
Days later, Hassan Ghul - an associate of Osama bin Laden who provided a critical piece of intelligence that helped the CIA find the al-Qaeda leader - was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan's tribal belt in October 2012.
The U.S. government has never publicly acknowledged killing Ghul. But documents provided to the Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden confirm his demise and reveal the agency's extensive involvement in the targeted killing program that has served as a centerpiece of President Obama's counterterrorism strategy.
An al-Qaeda operative who had a knack for surfacing at dramatic moments in the post-Sept. 11 story line, Ghul was an emissary to Iraq for the terrorist group at the height of that war. He was captured in 2004 and helped expose bin Laden's courier network before spending two years at a secret CIA prison. Then, in 2006, the United States delivered him to his native Pakistan, where he was released and returned to the al-Qaeda fold.
Beyond filling in gaps on Ghul, the documents give the most detailed account of the intricate collaboration between the CIA and NSA in the drone campaign.
The Post is withholding many details about those missions, at the request of U.S. intelligence officials who cited potential damage to continuing operations and national security.
The NSA is "focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets, such as terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers," the agency said Wednesday in a statement. "Our activities are directed against valid foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements from U.S. leaders in order to protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
In the search for targets, the NSA has draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan. In Ghul's case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might "bed down."
The e-mail from Ghul's wife "about her current living conditions" contained enough detail to confirm the coordinates of that household, according to a document summarizing the mission. "This information enabled a capture/kill operation against an individual believed to be Hassan Ghul on October 1," it said.