The 5 biggest takeaways from leaked documents about America's drone war

A U.S. "Predator" drone.
(Image credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

Classified documents detailing the Obama administration's process of creating kill lists and initiating drone strikes were leaked to The Intercept by "a source within the intelligence community" and published online Thursday.

"This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them 'baseball cards,' assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong," the source, who remained anonymous for fear of prosecution, told The Intercept.

The Intercept presented its findings in 10 parts, including a glossary and file of the documents themselves. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the leak:

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1. An administrative "kill chain" decides and approves who is a drone strike target. Ultimately, President Obama "signs off" on a target, but does not actually approve every individual strike. According to the documents, it took Obama an average of 58 days to sign off on a target, at which point the military has 60 days following to conduct a strike. (Read more)

2. Targets are assigned "baseball cards," or short profiles that justify their threat. The Obama administration has claimed it follows guidelines including that strikes would only be against those who posed "a continuing, imminent threat to the American people," who could not be captured, and who could be killed with the "near certainty" that civilians would not be killed or injured in the process. Documents, however, reveal that the campaign in Afghanistan isn't limited to al Qaeda and the Taliban, but also seeks to target members of local armed groups. (Read more)

3. The documents also offer support to the theory that the Obama administration categorizes civilians killed in drone strikes to be "enemies" even when they were not intended targets. The source who spoke with The Intercept called this "exaggerating at best, if not outright lies." (Read more)

4. During Operation Haymaker in northeastern Afghanistan, the U.S. only had 35 intended targets — but ended up killing over 200 people. Ninety percent of people killed in airstrikes were not the intended target. (Read more)

5. Intelligence is often incorrect due to a heavy reliance on technology and interpretation. "There's countless instances where I've come across intelligence that was faulty [...] It's stunning the number of instances when selectors are misattributed to certain people," the source told The Intercept. (Read more)

For the whole report, head over to The Intercept.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.