Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins

Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins

by Andrew Cockburn

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An essential and page-turning narrative on the history of drone warfare by the acclaimed author of Rumsfeld, exploring how this practice emerged, who made it happen, and the real consequences of targeted killing

Assassination by drone is a subject of deep and enduring fascination. Yet few understand how and why this has become our principal way of waging war. Kill Chain uncovers the real and extraordinary story; its origins in long-buried secret programs, the breakthroughs that made UAV operations possible, the ways in which the technology works and, despite official claims, does not work. Taking the reader inside the well-guarded world of national security, the book reveals the powerful interests - military, CIA and corporate - that have led the drive to kill individuals by remote control. Most importantly of all, the book describes what has really happened when the theories underpinning the strategy -- and the multi-billion dollar contracts they spawn -- have been put to the test. Drawing on sources deep in the military and intelligence establishments, Andrew Cockburn's Kill Chain unveils the true effects, as demonstrated by bloody experience, of assassination warfare, a revelation that readers will find surprising as well as shocking.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805099270
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 03/10/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington Editor of Harper's magazine and the author of many articles and books on national security, including the New York Times Editor's Choice Rumsfeld and The Threat, which destroyed the myth of Soviet military superiority underpinning the Cold War. He is a regular opinion contributor to the Los Angeles Times and has written for, among others, the New York Times, National Geographic and the London Review of Books.

Read an Excerpt

Kill Chain

The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins

By Andrew Cockburn

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2015 Andrew Cockburn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9927-0



In a cold February dawn in 2010, two small SUVs and a four-door pickup truck headed down a dirt road in the mountains of southern Afghanistan. They had set out soon after midnight, traveling cross-country to reach Highway 1, the country's principal paved road, which would lead them to Kandahar and north to Kabul. Crammed inside were more than thirty men, women, and children, four of them younger than six. Everyone knew one another, for they all came from the same cluster of mountain villages roughly two hundred miles southwest of Kabul. Many of the men, unemployed and destitute, were on their way to Iran in hopes of work. Others were shopkeepers heading to the capital to buy supplies, or students returning to school. The women carried turkeys, gifts for the relatives they would stay with in Kabul. A number were Hazaras, an ethnic minority of Shia Muslims whom the Taliban treated with unremitting cruelty whenever they had the opportunity. Now they were in western Uruzgan Province, Taliban country and therefore very dangerous for them, but they risked the shortcut because they were short on gas.

They met no other cars and little foot traffic; the world around them must have seemed empty. But it was not. Unbeknownst to them, they were being watched and their every movement—even the warmth from their bodies—transmitted across the globe. As the ramshackle vehicles—one of them kept breaking down and another blew a tire—clattered along, people they would never meet conferred across oceans and continents as to who they were, where they were going, what they were carrying, and whether they should live or die.

Unwittingly, the little group was driving toward an Operational Detachment Alpha, a U.S. Special Forces patrol dropped in with a supporting force of Afghan soldiers soon after midnight to attack the nearby village of Khod. Such raids were routine in Afghanistan, planned and executed by the semimythic Special Operations Command that specializes in the pursuit and elimination of "high-value targets." Someone thought this operation important enough to give it the code name Operation Noble Justice.

Sunday, February 21, 4:12 a.m.

Pilot of MQ-1 Predator, call sign Kirk 97: We are eyes on the first vehicle; observing to try and PID on the pax in the open; stand by for movement on the second.

The 27-foot-long Predator drone was circling at 14,000 feet. Below its belly protruded a "sensor" ball carrying a variety of cameras, including an infrared video that picked up the warmth thrown off by the vehicles and passengers 2.5 miles below. Almost in an instant—but not quite—the images flashed across the world to twin screens inside a metal box roughly the size of a shipping container at Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert. Facing the screens sat "Kirk 97," a pilot guiding the drone by remote control. Beside him sat a sensor operator who guided the cameras and weapons-targeting laser. In another room nearby a third member of the crew, the mission intelligence coordinator, was watching the same video images.

The pictures had audiences elsewhere. Hurlburt Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle is headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command and home to one station of the vast but little-known global network referred to as the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS). This is the central nervous system funneling, collating, and sharing the unimaginable quantities of imagery and electronic information collected by air force drones and reconnaissance planes (ISR for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) around the globe. In theory, anyone in any part of DCGS has access to any information that has been fed into the system, wherever they are.

Thus it was that the images captured by the Predator were being watched at Hurlburt by a dedicated team, a minibureaucracy of young men and women, each with specialized tasks. In overall charge was an intelligence tactical coordinator (ITC) supervising two "screeners." The chief screener, a civilian on contract from SAIC, a major defense corporation heavily involved in drone operations, outranked the second screener, a junior air force officer who happened to be her husband. Also present were two full-motion video analysts (FMVs). While one FMV watched the screen, the other typed "products," conclusions drawn from the imagery, which were then passed to the screeners for onward transmission via a system known as Internet Relay Chat to the mission intelligence coordinator sitting in his trailer in Nevada. A geospatial analyst tasked with generating relevant geographical information for the other analysts made up the complement.

The video had still more destinations. Special Operations, born in World War II as a term for agents sent behind enemy lines to train and lead friendly guerrillas, had by the twenty-first century ballooned into a 66,000-strong branch of the U.S. military, with an inevitably complex command arrangement. The little raiding party in Uruzgan that night was under the supervision of a Special Operations Task Force headquartered in Kandahar, which was naturally in receipt of the ubiquitous video, along with the written messages streaming back and forth between Nevada and Florida. Kandahar in turn answered to Combined Special Operations Task Force headquarters at Bagram, outside Kabul, where the video was also screening.

The ultimate beneficiary of all these complex arrangements was a sergeant attached to the raiding party. Known as a "joint terminal attack controller," he was responsible for communicating via radio with any and all air support, including the Predator, and relaying orders and intelligence to and from the young captain commanding the party. Calling himself Jaguar 25, the sergeant was the force's only link with the team in Nevada, which in turn was the sole link with the screeners in Florida.

Almost as soon as the raiding party disembarked from their helicopters shortly after midnight, someone out in the darkness had switched on a handheld radio and broadcast a general call to arms. "They are here," he said, "let us get all the Mujaheddin together and defend this place." It was a simple, uncomplicated exhortation addressed to no one in particular and audible to anyone with a radio, utterly unlike the assorted esoteric systems employed by the U.S. forces. Americans listening in were bemused by their enemy's unconcern for eavesdropping, and indeed the Taliban summons—if that was what it was—was overheard by a host of U.S. military intelligence posts on the ground and in the air. Accordingly the word was passed to look out for enemy reinforcements. Two vehicles in tandem, the pickup and one SUV, lumbering into the area easily fit that picture, and suspicions hardened when they and another SUV flashed lights at each other before continuing on together in the direction of the patrol as it waited for daylight.

4:15 a.m.

Mission intelligence controller: See if you can zoom in on that guy, 'cos he's like ...

Pilot: What did he just leave there? Is that a fucking rifle?

Sensor: Maybe just a warm spot from where he's been sitting.

Pilot: I was hoping we could make a rifle out. Never mind.

Sensor: The only way I've ever been able to see a rifle is if they move them around, when they're holding them, with muzzle flashes out or slinging them across their shoulders.

Drone operators are not in immediate contact with the real world, literally, thanks to the phenomenon known as latency, a reference to the time it takes for information to make its way from the drone to a satellite twenty-two thousand miles up in space, down again to a ground station in Ramstein, Germany, switching to a fiber-optic cable through which it travels across western Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and the continental United States, before reaching Nevada and the screen in the pilot's trailer. As the electronic pulses are split, reunited, and buffered for assembly into packages pending their dispatch to the next way station, microsecond delays steadily accumulate. It means that the scene on a pilot's screen is out of date, usually two seconds but sometimes as much as five seconds. As the crew reacts to what they are seeing, moving their controls to send an instruction to the aircraft they are "flying," that signal in turn takes two to five seconds to deliver. This time lapse is why drone takeoffs and landings must be handled by a separate team of pilots stationed close to the runway so that they can see the planes they are flying in real time. Potential targets on the ground are aware of the delay: Yemeni members of al-Qaeda reported in 2011 that when they hear a drone overhead, they move around as much as possible.

Nor do the pictures themselves necessarily always bear close resemblance to the world as the rest of us see it and sometimes are "no better than looking at Google Earth through a straw," as one veteran remarked of the plane's "spotter TV" feature. Thus for most of the time the convoy was under watch, the sensor could only focus on two of the three vehicles at a time. If the operator zoomed out even slightly, the already imperfect resolution was lost. Imagery became even less precise if there was dust in the air, if the drone was too high, at dusk or dawn (when both infrared and daylight-use electro-optical cameras lose efficiency), or when the sensor operator could not focus properly. The video as received by troops on the ground that night in Uruzgan was even poorer, described by one as "crap, full of static and crackling."

4:24 a.m.

Jaguar 25 (call sign of the JTAC, a Special Forces sergeant on the ground liaising with the Predator): What we're looking for is a QRF (Quick Reaction Force); we believe we may have a high level Taliban commander.

Pilot: Wouldn't surprise me if this was one of their important guys, just watching from a distance, you know what I mean?

Then came an unwelcome message from Florida.

4:37 a.m.

Mission intelligence controller: Screener said at least one child near SUV.

Sensor: Bullshit ... where? Send me a fucking still [picture]. I don't think they have kids at this hour, I know they're shady, but come on.

Pilot: At least one child ... Really? Listing [him as a] MAM [military-aged male]—that means he's guilty.

Sensor: Well maybe a teenager, but I haven't seen anything that looks that short, granted they're all grouped up here, but.

Mission intelligence controller: They're reviewing.

Pilot: Yeah, review that shit ... Why didn't he say possible child, why are they so quick to call fucking kids but not to call shit a rifle.

Just as the sun rose above the mountains, the convoy halted on a riverbank, and many of the passengers got out. To the watchers, the pictures revealed something ominous.

5:18 a.m.

Pilot: They're praying.

Sensor: This is definitely it. This is their force. Praying? I mean, seriously, that's what they do.

Mission intelligence coordinator: They're going to do something nefarious.

All the adults in the party, including the six or seven women, got out when the convoy stopped at the river. But to the infrared camera high above—and so, too, to the watchers far away—the men and women were merely indistinguishable blobs. Since the party was presumptively one of Taliban reinforcements, no one thought to ponder their gender.

An hour later the vehicles, which had been heading south toward the American ground unit, turned off in a different direction. This led them ultimately twelve miles away from the Americans on the ground, an indication that, whoever they were, they most likely had no hostile intent. Nevertheless the Predator pilot assessed this as merely a "flanking" maneuver to get behind the troops and cut off their escape route.

Low on fuel, the AC-130 Specter gunship that had been on the scene earlier had by now departed. However, the Predator was about to be joined by two OH-58 Kiowas, light, two-man Special Forces helicopter gunships armed with Hellfire missiles and 2.75" rockets. Back in Nevada, the crew was getting impatient.

6:59 a.m.

Pilot: Can't wait till this actually happens, with all this coordination and shit.

Sensor operator and mission intelligence coordinator: (Murmuring) Yeah.

Down on the ground, the travelers in the pickup heard the drumming of helicopter rotor blades. Several urged the driver to slow down in hopes they would look less suspicious. It was just beginning to get light.

Though far removed from the scene of the action, drone crews see themselves in the same martial tradition as the fighter pilots of an earlier age, down to the flight suits they wear to work, the combat stress they report experiencing, not to mention the combat pay and awards they have successfully demanded. Their trailer chatter that night echoed that of combat crews who are flying through a battle zone for real. Only once in a while does the record reveal that they were in fact firmly on the ground, seven and a half thousand miles away.

7:11 a.m.

Sensor Operator: Well, sir, would you mind if I took a bathroom break real quick?

Pilot: No, not at all, dude.

This particular pilot, a major who had formerly flown C-130 transport planes, was a veteran of a thousand "missions" and deemed experienced enough to train other pilots. The sensor operator, an enlisted man, was also highly experienced, and they were used to working as a team. As their commander later explained, "These two guys for the last couple of years have been together on shift, they have the same weekends together, they cycle through the schedule over and over."

The crews spoke a language almost incomprehensible to outsiders, so laden with acronyms that plain English was often supplanted. But that night's conversations show that the military jargon, like the two-second video delay, imposed another layer between them and the reality on the ground. Any MAM (military-aged male) became by definition an enemy fighter, irrespective of age, and therefore a legitimate target. Positive identification (PID) is an official U.S. military term for someone positively identified as an immediate hostile threat and therefore a legitimate target. As investigators subsequently discovered, the term meant entirely different things to different people.

7:38 a.m.

Pilot: Our screeners are currently calling 21 MAMs, no females, and two possible children. How copy?

Jaguar 25: Roger, and when we say children, are we talking teenagers or toddlers?

Sensor: I would say about twelve. Not toddlers; something more towards adolescents or teens.

Pilot: Yeah, adolescents.

* * *

On paper, the system was fail-safe. The pilot and sensor operator could check each other's assessments, and if that was not sufficient they had the mission intelligence coordinator and the safety observer right there beside them. Beyond that, the team in Florida had the full-motion video analysts and the screeners and the intelligence tactical coordinator reviewing the pictures, joined later by two immediate superiors. There were in addition the two separate Special Forces headquarters in Afghanistan itself, each with an assigned "battle captain" supervising ongoing operations.

7:40 a.m.

Pilot: Our screener identified only one adolescent, so that's one double-digit age range. How copy?

Jaguar 25: We'll pass that along to the ground force commander. But like I said, 12 to 13 years old with a weapon is just as dangerous.

Sensor: Oh, we agree, yeah.

Pilot: Hey, good copy on that. We understand and agree.

Matters were moving toward a climax. Reliant on bulletins from the Predator crew, the captain commanding the raiding party on the ground had interpreted the news that the convoy was now heading away from the Americans on the ground as confirmation not only that the enemy was "maneuvering" but that it contained an HVI (high-value individual), always a priority target for U.S. forces in this war. He gave the order to strike. The helicopters would take the first shot. The helicopter crews, who had come on the scene late, were simply informed that there had been positive identification of three weapons, at a minimum, along with twenty-one MAMs, and that they were "clear to engage." No one had told them about adolescents, still less children. Two continents and an ocean away, the Predator crew in Nevada made their own final preparations for action.

8:35 a.m.

Pilot: Alright, so the plan is, man, uh, we're going to watch this thing go down and when they Winchester [run out of ammunition] we can play cleanup.

Sensor: Initial plan: without seeing how they break up, follow the largest group.

Pilot: Yeah, sounds good. When it all comes down, if everybody is running in their separate direction, I don't care if you just follow one guy, you know like whatever you decide to do, I'm with you on it ... as long as you keep somebody that we can shoot in the field of view I'm happy.

The crew was now making final preparations for the attack, arming the missile and going through the final checklist. The sensor operator reminded his intelligence colleague to focus on the business at hand.


Excerpted from Kill Chain by Andrew Cockburn. Copyright © 2015 Andrew Cockburn. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1 | Remember, Kill Chain,
2 | Wiring the Jungle,
3 | Turning People into Nodes,
4 | Predator Politics,
5 | It's Not Assassination If We Do It,
6 | Kingpins and Maniacs,
7 | Legally Blind,
8 | Kill Them! Prevail!,
9 | Killing Effects,
10 | A Piece of Junk,
11 | Death by a Number,
12 | Drones, Baby, Drones!,
13 | One Big Robot,
About the Author,

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Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Daihrin More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very one-sided perspective from an author with a bias and an agenda. This guy doesn't even want to give Reagan credit for winning the Cold War. According to him, the US can get nothing right. Lefty...