A top-secret NSA targeting system which dramatically increased the civilian death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq has made its way back home, according to leaked documents boasting of its use on the US-Mexico border.
The RT-RG targeting system, which sucks up and processes hundreds of millions of phone and internet records per day in order to “find, fix and finish” enemy combatants, has been deployed on the US’ southern border since 2010, according to documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
When NSA agents gave a presentation at the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) in 2008, the Drug Enforcement Administration, one of 21 law enforcement agencies with a presence at the center, dropped everything to get its hands on an RT-RG of its own.
While the NSA praised the system for boosting the military’s kill-count in Afghanistan and Iraq, the documents show it gave soldiers a false sense of certainty, leading to an explosion in civilian casualties following its deployment. Most of those kills – 90 percent, in one five-month period of airstrikes – were not the intended targets. For such a flawed system to be placed in the hands of domestic authorities already prone to itchy trigger-fingers is unsettling.
“Many called it an industrialization of warfare,” Kristian Berg Harpviken of the Peace Research Institute Oslo told the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. “The rapid turnaround made it harder to insure the quality of the intelligence, and the large number of operations meant that civilian injuries increased accordingly.”
Norway was the “guinea pig” in Afghanistan for the international intelligence-sharing that became a key aspect of RT-RG, which featured several levels of security clearance depending on how trusted a partner nation was. In the domestic arena, that graduated access has been used to share intel between the many agencies working out of EPIC.
Low-level law enforcement officers weren’t the only ones who had to be kept out of the upper echelons of the NSA’s data trove, the courts couldn’t find out about it either. Cases built on the program had to be rebuilt using so-called “parallel construction,” since the secret, and possibly illegal, methods used to collect intelligence on a suspect could not be revealed without jeopardizing the case. Fortunately, the DEA has a whole division dedicated to parallel construction from NSA intel, charmingly nicknamed the “Dark Side.”
While the initial targets of the program were Mexican drug cartels, the NSA’s approach to data collection meant everyone in San Antonio’s data ended up in their clutches.
The iron law of “mission creep,” combined with the Trump administration’s focus on illegal immigration, means it is highly likely RT-RG is also being used to sniff out people-smugglers, if not the migrants themselves. And while US law may have been mutilated to retroactively legalize the NSA’s intrusive surveillance programs after they were exposed in the Snowden leak, international law maintains that Mexican citizens still have privacy rights, which the RT-RG program seriously violates.