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2016 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom winner

The Drone Papers

An unprecedented look at the military’s drone-based assassination program

Judges comments

An all-around, first-rate example of investigative data journalism, reporting on a story few, if any, other organizations could.

About the Project

The story of The Drone Papers began, as national security exposés often do, with a reporter and a source. Jeremy Scahill, whose previous books penetrated the secret world of government security contractors and special ops, was approached by an intelligence community whistleblower whose conscience demanded that he reveal to the public the true nature of the covert war being waged in the name of their security.

Published on October 15, 2015, The Drone Papers provide an unprecedented look at the military’s drone-based assassination program. From hundreds of pages of highly technical documents, Scahill and The Intercept’s team of reporters tell a gripping story about the culture that celebrates targeted kills with terms like “jackpot” and “touchdown.”

Key revelations in The Drone Papers include:

  • Assassinations have depended on unreliable intelligence. Most of the intelligence used to track potential kills in Yemen and Somalia was based on electronic communications data from phones, computers, and targeted intercepts (known as signals intelligence), which, the government admits, it has “poor” and “limited” capability to collect. By the military’s own admission, it was lacking in reliable information from human sources.
  • Administration claims that operations against high-value terrorists are limited and precise are false. Contrary to the assertion that these campaigns narrowly target specific individuals, the documents show that airstrikes under the Obama administration have killed significant numbers of unnamed bystanders. Documents detailing a 14-month kill/capture campaign in Afghanistan, for example, show that while the U.S. military killed 35 of its direct targets with airstrikes, 219 other individuals also died in the attacks.
  • Assassinations hurt intelligence gathering. An internal Pentagon study included in the documents finds that killing suspected terrorists, even if they are legitimate targets, “significantly reduce[s]” the collection of evidence and further hampers intelligence gathering.
  • The “kill chain” reflects a bureaucratic structure, headed by President Obama, in which U.S. government officials have selected and authorized targets for assassination outside traditional legal and justice systems, with little transparency. The process included creating a portrait of a potential target in a condensed format known as a “baseball card,” which was passed to the White House for approval; other officials often authorized individual drone strikes.
  • Publicly available White House statements about targeted killings are inconsistent with the treatment of the subject behind closed doors. Administration policy standards issued in 2013 state that lethal force will be launched only against targets who pose a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” yet documents from the same time period reveal much more vague criteria, including that a person need only present “a threat to U.S. interest or personnel.”
  • The 2012 killing of Bilal el-Berjawi in Somalia, as well as other high-profile drone kills, raise questions about whether the British government revoked his citizenship to facilitate the strike.
  • The U.S. military is quietly expanding its footprint across the African continent, through a network of small, low-profile airfields in Djibouti and other African countries.

The Drone Papers earned extensive broadcast coverage and was the focus of over 275 follow-up stories worldwide. Most major newspapers covered the story, with many declaring the emergence of a “new Edward Snowden.” Within weeks, more than 4.5 million people read the articles. Published the same day President Obama declared that US troops would remain in Afghanistan, The Drone Papers framed the reception of that announcement and sparked debate about America’s role in the world.

Two weeks after the publication of The Drone Papers, The White House promised new “transparency efforts” around the U.S. drone program, meeting with legal experts and human rights advocates to explore ways to improve information-sharing with the public. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has called for an investigation into the drone program based on The Drone Papers, a call echoed by multiple regional editorial pages and by Foreign Policy.

The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan noted that the story “says so much that is troubling about how our government functions — and yes, kills — in secret and often without adequate oversight.”

This was groundbreaking reporting under extremely sensitive circumstances, on an issue of profound importance to The Intercept’s readers and the global community. Together, this body of reporting provides an unparalleled glimpse into the shadowy world of extrajudicial assassination that promises to be Barack Obama’s most troubling legacy.