By Murtaza Hussain
U.S. DRONE OPERATORS are inflicting heavy civilian casualties and have developed an institutional culture callous to the death of children and other innocents, fourÂ former operators said at a press briefing in New York.
The killings, part of the Obama administrationâ€™s targeted assassination program, are aiding terroristÂ recruitment and thus undermining the programâ€™s goal of eliminatingÂ such fighters, the veterans added. Drone operators refer to children as â€œfun-size terroristsâ€ and liken killing them to â€œcutting the grass before it grows too long,â€ said one of the operators, Michael Haas, a former senior airman in the Air Force. Haas also described widespread drug and alcohol abuse, further statingÂ thatÂ some operators had flown missions while impaired.
In addition to Haas, the operators are formerÂ Air ForceÂ Staff Sgt. Brandon Bryant along withÂ former senior airmen Cian Westmoreland and Stephen Lewis. The menÂ have conducted kill missions in many of the major theaters of the post-9/11 war on terror, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
â€œWe have seen the abuse firsthand,â€ saidÂ Bryant, â€œand we are horrified.â€
An Air Force spokesperson did not address the specific allegations but wrote in an email that â€œthe demands placed on theÂ [drone] force are tremendous. A great dealÂ of effort is being taken to bring about relief, stabilize the force, andÂ sustain a vital warfighter capability. â€¦Â Airmen are expected to adhere to established standards of behavior. BehaviorÂ found to be inconsistent with Air Force core values is appropriately lookedÂ into and if warranted, disciplinary action is taken.â€
Former drone operators Brandon Bryant, Michael Haas and
Cian Westmoreland. Photo: Joe Fionda
At the press conference, Bryant said theÂ killing of civilians by drone is exacerbating the problem of terrorism. â€œWe kill four and create 10Â [militants],â€ Bryant said. â€œIf you kill someoneâ€™s father, uncle or brother whoÂ had nothing to do with anything,Â their families are going to want revenge.â€
The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to keep details of the drone program secret, but in their statements todayÂ the former operators opened up about the cultureÂ thatÂ has developedÂ among those responsible for carrying it out. Haas said operators become acculturated to denying the humanity of the people on their targeting screens.Â â€œThere was a much more detached outlook about who these people were we were monitoring,â€ he said. â€œShooting was something to be lauded and something we should strive for.â€
The deaths of children and other non-combatants in strikes wasÂ rationalized by many drone operators, Haas said.Â As a flight instructor, HaasÂ claimed to have been non-judicially reprimanded by his superiors for failing a student who had expressed â€œbloodlust,â€ an overwhelming eagerness to kill.
Haas also described widespread alcohol and drug abuse among drone pilots. Drone operators, he said,Â would frequently get intoxicated usingÂ bath salts and synthetic marijuana to avoid possible drug testing and in an effort to â€œbend that reality and try to picture yourself not being there.â€ Haas said that he knew at least a half-dozen people in his unitÂ who were using bathÂ saltsÂ andÂ that drug use had â€œimpairedâ€ them during missions.
The Obama administrationâ€™s assassinationÂ program has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months. This October, The Intercept published a cache of classified documents leaked by a governmentÂ whistleblower thatÂ showed howÂ the programÂ killed people based on unreliable intelligence, that the vast majority of people killed in a multi-year Afghanistan campaign were not the intended targets, and that the military by default labeled non-targets killed in the campaign as enemies rather than civilians.
The operators said that they felt increasing urgency to speak out in the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last week; they believe drone assassinations have fed the rise of the extremist group the Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Westmoreland said of drones: â€œIn the short term theyâ€™re good at killing people, but in the long term theyâ€™re not effective. There are 15-year-olds growing up who have not lived a day without drones overhead, but you also have expatsÂ who areÂ watching whatâ€™s going on in their home countries and seeing regularly the violationsÂ that are happening there, andÂ that is something that could radicalize them.â€
In their openÂ letter to Obama, the former drone pilots made a similarÂ point, writing that during their service they â€œcame to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS,â€ going on to describe the program as â€œone of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.â€
At theÂ press conference today, the pilotsÂ echoed these sentiments. â€œIt seems like our actions of late have only made the problems worse. â€¦Â The drones are good at killing people, just not the right ones,â€ Bryant said.Â â€œHave we forgotten our humanity in the pursuit of vengeance and security?â€Î¦
Murtaza Hussain is a journalist and political commentator. His work focuses on human rights, foreign policy, and cultural affairs. Murtazaâ€™s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, Salon,and elsewhere.