With the U.S. “reasonably certain” that a drone strike killed the much reviled Jihadi John and a wave of recent attacks boosting our worst fears about ISIS, the timing isn’t exactly great for a documentary that questions the wisdom of targeted killings. But two former drone operators who appear in Tonje Hessen Schei’s Drone are sticking to their guns.
“These missiles can’t kill the enemy faster than we’re creating them with each and every shot,” Michael Haas, a former drone-sensor operator at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base, told Bedford + Bowery after a screening of the film on Saturday.
Brandon Bryant, a former sensor operator at Nellis Air Force Base who says he helped kill 1,626 people over the course of about five years, agreed that recent attacks in Paris and elsewhere shouldn’t justify our current strategy in the War on Terror. “Killing people – the innocents that die without any reparations, any justice for the victims – causes people to seek vengeance in any way, shape and form that they can,” he told me. “And if someone [like ISIS] is going to give them power to carry out their vengeance, then they’re going to join up with them. It’s standard psychology.”
Drone is currently playing in just one theater in the United States. As luck would have it, that theater is in the heart of Times Square, which was threatened by ISIS (albeit via stock footage) in a recently released video. But that’s probably not the reason only a handful of people showed up to Saturday’s screening. Outside, New Yorkers and tourists were going about their usual business (in fact, about 150 Muslims were defiantly protesting ISIS). More likely, the low attendance was because Americans are exceptionally supportive of drone warfare.
Bryant and Haas are trying to change that. Together with Stephen Lewis and Cian Westmoreland, who also participated in the drone program and spoke after the screening, they’ve penned a letter to President Obama calling the program “one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.”
Change won’t come easy. In the film, Bryant says that former friends have threatened his life; during the q&a, he reiterated that he had received “a lot of threats” and “a lot of hate” from fellow veterans. His lawyer, Jesselyn Radack (who also represents Edward Snowden) told me that Bryant had twice been warned, by the FBI and the Air Force Office of the Special Investigator, that he was on an ISIS hit list.
Both Bryant and his lawyer believe the warnings are a government intimidation tactic to get him to stop speaking out against targeted killings. “I think they’re playing stupid games and they don’t want to be exposed,” Bryant said. “The more they continue doing this, they just look really, really dumb.”
Bryant and his fellow drone operators insist that extrajudicial killings have caused more civilian deaths than the US government has acknowledged. Haas offered an example: “You’re going after one guy who got in a car and three other guys got in a car,” he told me. “That right there, the shot isn’t valid because we don’t know who those guys are. But that very rarely ever stops the order from going through anyway. And even if you voice your concern— ‘I don’t feel comfortable with the shot, I don’t think the shot should be taken’— you just get taken out of the seat and they put somebody else in who will do it.”
Haas’s assertions are backed up by intelligence documents published by The Intercept last month; the so-called Drone Papers show that nine out of 10 people killed over the course of five months in the Hindu Kush were not the air strikes’ intended “jackpots.” Last year, a study conducted by anti-drone organization Reprieve indicated that attempts to kill 41 men caused the deaths of some 1,147 people. The Times has noted that every independent investigation of drone strikes in general has found “far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit.”
In the hallway outside of the screening room, Bryant recalled his second kill: moments after he and a colleague fired a missile into a building in Afghanistan, what appeared to be a child ran inside of it. Bryant believes the child was seeking shelter after hearing the sonic boom from the missile.
Bryant has been telling this story since 2012, in multiple forums including his own Project Red Hand. The truth is, much of the material in Drone has been covered by documentaries like Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars and Madiha Tahir’s Wounds of Waziristan, and by some of the journalists and activists who are interviewed in the film (among them are Chris Woods, author of Sudden Justice, and P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War).
There’s the obligatory clip of President Obama insisting, in his 2013 State of the Union address, that drones “have not caused a huge amount of civilian casualties.” That assertion is contested by journalist Jonathan S. Landay, who in 2013 exposed U.S. intelligence reports indicating that the United States had “made mistakes by the hundreds,” as he puts it in the film.
Even if Drone has little to offer those who, say, hang out at Mayday space, it’s not without its chilling moments. We meet the son and grandson of Momina Bibi, a woman in her late 60s who in 2012 was blown up in front of her family while she was gathering vegetables. Her grandson Zubair, whose leg was injured by shrapnel in the drone attack, says that he can no longer stand to go to school or go out to play. Summoned to a Congressional hearing, he says he no longer loves blue skies. “I prefer gray skies,” he says through a translator. “The drones do not fly when the skies are gray, and for a short period of time the mental tension and fear eases. When the sky brightens, the drones return and so does the fear.”
Schei, a Norwegian documentary filmmaker who believes drone warfare has raised “urgent issues of possible war crimes, human rights and international laws of war,” pays special attention to Reprieve, a London-based organization of human rights lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay prisoners and drone-strike targets. Shahzad Akbar, a legal fellow at the organization who started the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, is one of the film’s more charismatic figures.
Akbar is an advocate for drone victims such as Kareem Khan, whose son and brother were killed in a North Waziristan drone strike in 2009. About a year later, Akbar filed lawsuits demanding $500 million in reparations from the U.S. and outing a CIA station chief allegedly responsible for the murders. (The U.S. government claimed Khan was housing a Taliban leader, Haji Omar Khan, who was killed in the attack; Khan denied it.)
Akbar is somewhat of a grandstander – he shows the camera remnants of Hellfire missiles he has collected in order to go after their manufacturers. But he has had his successes. In 2013, a Peshawar High Court judge ruled that a 2011 air strike that killed dozens in North Waziristan, including women and children, was a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and international law. Akbar filed a contempt petition against Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif to insure that he obey the judge’s order to take the issue up with the UN and demand compensation from the US. But as of August, the Pakistani government was still “dragging its heels about complying,” according to an Al Jazeera America profile of Akbar.
Still, Akbar continues to wage a PR war against targeted killings with his colleagues at Reprieve. Drone shows the organization’s founder, British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, convincing Pakistanis to plaster gigantic photos of drone victims on the roofs of their houses, “so that the American drones flying overhead, with their cameras, can see the children they’re going to kill.” The photos are also held up during a protest march to Waziristan, a sparsely populated borderland that has often been targeted as a Taliban sanctuary. When Smith’s convoy is inevitably prevented from entering, he stands atop a vehicle. “Until America sees your children as they see my children, we will never get justice in the world,” he declares, leading a chant of “No More Drones.”
One of the haunting photos displayed at the demonstration shows three children in the rubble of a 2010 drone attack. Noor Behram, the Waziristan-based photojournalist who took the photo, recounts how he came upon the surviving children playing at the blast site, unaware that the remains of their parents were therein.
According to Pakistani intelligence officials cited in media reports at the time, the strike killed 13 Taliban members. Akbar notes in the film that, without due process, there’s no way to know whether such targets are actually guilty. “Where is the evidence that these people are militants?” he asks. “The whole western world has the presumption of innocence, that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But in Waziristan, everyone is guilty until proven innocent.”
According to some reports, the fallout from that 2010 attack caused the United States to take greater care in avoiding civilian casualties; earlier this month, The Hill reported that the White House is still determined to increase transparency about the drone program. But Bryant isn’t convinced the US is doing enough. “1,626 people were killed in operations I took part of,” he says in the film. “How could we know that all those people that were killed and wounded were really bad guys?”
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an oft-cited non-profit that tracks drone strikes, anywhere from 488 to 1,132 civilians have been killed by strikes in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, from 2002 to the present (keep in mind, those numbers do not include strikes in Afghanistan, which the Bureau only started tracking this year).
Bryant says that when he was given a document showing the number of people he had killed, he was “ready to put a bullet in my brain.”
According to the former drone operator, those who expressed qualms about their orders were told to shut up and do their job. “If you wanted to go talk to a therapist about it, they would say, ‘Well, if you do, your security clearance is going to get taken away.’ That scared a lot of people. But you could go see a chaplain. The general response that you would get is, ‘It’s part of God’s plan.’”
In 2011, Bryant was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and he’s not alone. Bryant’s lawyer told me that she represented “a number of people involved in the drone program” (she declined to say how many, but said it was “a lot more” than the four who spoke after the film). All of them, Radack said, “are suffering from PTSD, half of them are homeless, most of them are unemployed, almost all of them have dealt with addiction. You’re ruining a whole generation, also, of young men who enlisted in the military and when they try to get benefits from the VA they’re denied because they’re not boots on the ground.”
One former Marine infantry officer has argued that drone operators shouldn’t be considered to have PTSD because their lives aren’t at risk. Whatever the label, military studies have shown that almost half of drone pilots report “high operational stress,” and they experience mental health issues at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft. In the film, Bryant and Haas touch on some of the challenges – including 12-hour shifts, and the inability to go from work to civilian life – that are causing drone operators to burn out at such a high rate that the Air Force has been forced to cut down on the number of drone missions it flies.
And yet, if a significant number of the Air Force’s 1,200 drone pilots are opting not to renew their contracts, why are relatively few of them coming forward to criticize the program? During Saturday’s q&a, Haas said the relative silence “should tell you something about what kind of hostile atmosphere you’re walking into when you come out and speak about these sorts of things.”
He also said the targeted killing program was such a “closed and secretive subculture of the military” that people on his own base didn’t realize drones were being operated from it.
There’s a “culture of don’t come forward, don’t say anything, just let it keep going,” Haas said.
All four veterans stressed that it was up to the American public to change this. Bryant, in particular, alluded to the upcoming election. “I can’t stand seeing these people that are running for my presidency saying shit like, ‘We need to kill people to stay safe.’ They don’t understand what that does to that person that kills another individual. Whether it’s on the air, or in the ground, or 10,000 miles away, there’s still a cost to us.”