Ognen Teofilovski / Reuters

Writing in The Atlantic in May, Chris Woods highlighted two aspects of America’s first drone strike, which took place 14 years ago this month, just weeks after September 11.

The first is that the strike missed its target, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s leader in Afghanistan who lived to fight for another dozen years. The second is the strike, conducted by the CIA, set off a still-unresolved quarrel between the agency, the military, and the White House over control of the instrument, the rules that govern its use, and the chain of command in combat.

Much has been written about America’s drone campaigns in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen, where the efforts have successfully targeted terrorists, but the strikes are also thought to have strengthened groups like al-Qaeda and inadvertently killed countless civilians.

In one specific tally earlier this year, Micah Zenko of the Council for Foreign Relations told The New York Times that of the eight Americans killed by U.S. drone strikes, only one of them was identified and deliberately targeted. One of those killed was Warren Weinstein, an American aid worker, who had been kidnapped by al-Qaeda in 2011. Six of the others were thought to have affiliations with al-Qaeda.

Last year my colleague Conor Friedersdorf wrote a piece titled Drone Strikes Never Kill 'Humans' that pokes at the dynamic in which many killed in lethal drone strikes are dubbed “militants” or “suspected militants” by government officials and, subsequently, media outlets. “Applied so loosely, the term is wildly misleading,” he argues.

This guilt-by-association component of targeted killings is a key part of a series on U.S. drone policy released on Thursday by The Intercept. Using classified documents leaked by a whistleblower, the series focuses on American drone use from 2011 until 2013, and the source accuses the government of (among many things) minimizing civilian casualties.

The documents show that the military designated people it killed in targeted strikes as EKIA — “enemy killed in action” — even if they were not the intended targets of the strike. Unless evidence posthumously emerged to prove the males killed were not terrorists or “unlawful enemy combatants,” EKIA remained their designation, according to the source. That process, he said, “is insane. But we’ve made ourselves comfortable with that.

Given the popularity of drone strikes among Americans—a poll from last May shows nearly 60 percent approval—these disclosures should cause serious alarm.

Consider this assessment of Operation Haymaker, which took place in Afghanistan from 2012 until 2013. “During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets,” one report notes, adding that estimates in Yemen and Somalia, where American intelligence is more limited, may be worse.

Despite the marketing of targeted killings by drones as precision operations, from the very first strike in 2001 until now, the moral and technical legacies remain checkered. The Intercept’s source put it more forcefully:

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.

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