The US National Security Agency (NSA) has been extensively involved in Washington’s targeted killing program, collaborating closely with the CIA in the use of drone strikes against terrorists abroad, the Washington Post reported after a review of documents provided by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.
In one instance, an e-mail sent by the wife of Osama bin Laden associate Hassan Ghul contained clues as to her husband’s whereabouts and led to the CIA drone strike that killed him in Pakistan in October last year, the Post reported in its online edition on Wednesday night.
While citing documents provided by Snowden — the American is hiding out in Russia after being granted asylum there — the Post reported that it was withholding many details about the drone strike missions at the request of US intelligence officials. They cited potential damage to ongoing operations and US national security for their request, the paper reported.
The documents make clear that the CIA-operated drone campaign relies heavily on the NSA’s ability to vacuum up enormous quantities of e-mail, phone calls and other fragments of signals intelligence, the newspaper said.
The NSA created a secret unit known as the Counter-Terrorism Mission Aligned Cell to concentrate its vast resources on hard-to-find terrorism targets, the Post reported.
The documents leaked by Snowden do not say how the bin Laden associate’s e-mail was obtained or if it was obtained through the controversial NSA programs recently made public, including a metadata collection of numbers dialed by nearly everyone in the US.
Instead, the paper said its review of the documents indicates that the agency depends heavily on highly targeted network penetrations to gather information that would not otherwise be trapped in surveillance nets that the NSA has set at key Internet gateways.
The US has never publicly acknowledged killing Ghul, according to the Post. The al-Qaeda operative was captured in 2004 and helped expose bin Laden’s courier network, a key development in the effort to locate the former al-Qaeda leader.
Ghul then spent two years in a secret CIA prison and returned to al-Qaeda after the US sent him to his native Pakistan in 2006.
US forces killed bin Laden at his Pakistan hideout in 2011. That same year, the US Department of the Treasury named Ghul a target of US counterterrorism sanctions after he had helped al-Qaeda re-establish logistics networks, enabling the terrorist group to move people and money in and out of the country.
The Post said that an NSA document described Ghul as al-Qaeda chief of military operations and detailed a broad surveillance effort to find him.
Obtained during a months-long effort to find Ghul, the e-mail from his wife erased doubts over whether US forces had found him, the paper said.