Has the U.S. drone war “fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS“? That’s the conclusion of four former Air Force service members who are speaking out together for the first time. They’ve issued a letter to President Obama warning the U.S. drone program is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism. They accuse the administration of lying about the effectiveness of the drone program, saying it is good at killing people—just not the right ones. The four drone war veterans risk prosecution by an administration that has been unprecedented in its targeting of government whistleblowers. In a Democracy Now! exclusive, they join us in their first extended broadcast interview.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Since the Paris attacks one week ago, France has escalated bombings of Syria, and the U.S. has vowed an intensification of its war on the Islamic State. With only a small number of U.S. Special Forces on the ground, Iraq and Syria have become new fronts in a global drone war that has launched thousands of strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
But now an unprecedented group is calling for the drone war to stop. In an open letter to President Obama, four U.S. Air Force service members who took part in the drone campaign say targeted killings and remote control bombings fuel the very terrorism the government says it’s trying to destroy. The four whistleblowers write, quote, “We came to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay. This administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.”
They continue, saying, quote, “We witnessed gross waste, mismanagement, abuses of power, and our country’s leaders lying publicly about the effectiveness of the drone program. We cannot sit silently by and witness tragedies like the attacks in Paris, knowing the devastating effects the drone program has overseas and at home.”
AMY GOODMAN: On top of the toll on civilian victims, the letter also addresses the personal impact of waging remote war. All four say they have suffered PTSD and feel abandoned by the military they served, with some now homeless or barely getting by. The letter brings together the largest group of whistleblowers in the drone war’s history. Three of the signatories operated the visual sensors that guide U.S. Predator drone missiles to their targets. Two are speaking out for the first time; three in a TV broadcast; they’ve never done it before. The other two have previously raised their concerns about the drone program, including in the documentary, Drone. The film, premiering in New York City and Toronto today, reveals how a regular U.S. Air Force unit based in the Nevada desert is responsible for flying the CIA’s drone strike program in Pakistan.
BRANDON BRYANT: We are the ultimate voyeurs, the ultimate peeping Toms. I’m watching this person, and this person has no clue what’s going on. No one’s going to catch us. And we’re getting orders to take these people’s lives.
MICHAEL HAAS: You never know who you’re killing, because you never actually see a face. You just have a silhouette. They don’t have to take a shot. They don’t have to bear that burden. I’m the one that has to bear that burden.
P. W. SINGER: There’s always been a connection between the world of war and the world of entertainment. The military has invested in creating video games that they’re using as recruiting tools.
UNIDENTIFIED: War is an unbelievably profitable business.
CHRIS WALLACE: The drones have been terrifically effective. They’ve taken out a lot of the al-Qaeda leadership. It’s cheap. It doesn’t involve putting troops on the ground.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe the United States of America must remain a standard-bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight.
UNIDENTIFIED: United States is violating one of the most fundamental rights of all: the right to life.
UNIDENTIFIED: There’s a large number of innocent civilians who are being killed, and that has to be reported.
CHRIS WOODS: The majority of the secret drone strikes that have taken place have, we have always understood, been carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency.
BRANDON BRYANT: There is a lie hidden within that truth.
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the documentary Drone, premiering today in New York City and Toronto. In speaking out together, the four former service members risk prosecution under the Espionage Act by an administration that’s waged an unprecedented campaign against government whistleblowers. They also set their sights on a cornerstone of President Obama’s national security policy just as it threatens to escalate in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. After being elected to office on a platform of Iraq War opposition and a vow to bring the troops home, President Obama has quietly expanded the drone war far beyond its size and lethality under President George W. Bush.
Today, in this Democracy Now! exclusive, these four war whistleblowers join us in their first extended broadcast interview. We’re joined by Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas, who have spoken out to a certain extent before, both former sensor operators for the U.S. Air Force Predator program. Stephen Lewis, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, is also a former sensor operator for the Air Force Predator program and this week is speaking out for the first time. Also going public for the first time is Cian Westmoreland, a former Air Force technician who helped build a station in Afghanistan used to relay drone data.
But first, I want to turn to Jesselyn Radack, national security and human rights director at the Government Accountability Project, former ethics adviser to the U.S. Department of Justice. As an attorney, she is representing several former drone operators, including this group of four young men who are speaking out today.
Jesselyn Radack, how much do they risk in speaking out on Democracy Now! today?
JESSELYN RADACK: They’re taking an enormous and very brave public risk in speaking out. I have clients in the national security and intelligence communities, who have done nothing more than tell the truth about some of America’s darkest secrets, like torture and secret surveillance—and now, in this case, drones—and those clients, a number of them, have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act—and Edward Snowden, of course, another one, is living in exile—not because they’ve done anything wrong or even revealed classified information, which they’re not here to do today, but because they have embarrassed the U.S. government. All of these men—a number of them, half of them, have complained internally, to no avail. They have gone through internal channels.
And we’re hoping that today, by going public, that this will have more of an influence in the debate, because somehow there’s a complete disconnect between these terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere and the fact that the drone program has fueled ISIS and al-Qaeda and a number of terrorist groups, and that really needs to be addressed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to ask Brandon Bryant—we’ve had you on Democracy Now! a couple of years ago, and these guys here worked with you, as well. Could you talk about the decision to come out as a group, how you came to that and why at this particular point?
BRANDON BRYANT: Well, you know, when I first started talking out about my experiences, it was more to get a bunch of stuff off my chest and to actually try to come clean with what I have done and reveal what exactly is going on. And I’m actually really honored to be with these gentlemen right here, is that I trust them. And this is their decision to come out, and I’m here to support them, because I’ve already been doing this for three years, and it’s time that we just get a bigger coalition of people together to attack this issue.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you sign this letter? And what are you calling on President Obama to do?
BRANDON BRYANT: We want the president to have more transparency in this issue, and we want the American people to understand exactly what’s being done in their name. And I think that all this fear and hatred that keeps going on is just out of control, and we need to stop it somewhere.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Michael Haas, I wanted to ask you, in terms of your experience in the drone program and the culture that the military basically allowed to flourish in the drone program, you’ve talked about how your fellow service members talked about the children that they were targeting, as well.
Tabacco: Even if the White House orders this sort of ‘banter’ to cease, now YOU know how the Drone Operators feel about KILLING CHILDREN! The SMOKING GUN!
AMY GOODMAN: When did you start to have questions?
MICHAEL HAAS: Shortly after I became an instructor and I started to see how much the mentality had shifted since I had been in. And the 11th hadn’t really changed how they had trained their sensor operators from a basic-level standpoint.
AMY GOODMAN: The 11th is?
MICHAEL HAAS: The basic training squadron up at Creech. They train all the sensor operators.
AMY GOODMAN: This is at Creech in Nevada.
MICHAEL HAAS: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you were a video game addict as you were growing up. Can you talk about this whole impact of sort of the video game approach to war?
MICHAEL HAAS: The thing that makes the gamers a prime target for this job field is that ability to just multitask and do a lot of things subconsciously and just sort of out of reflex. And you don’t really even have to think about it, which is, you know, paramount to doing this job. But a lot of it is getting used to just seeing something on screen, killing it and then going about your business as though you don’t really—you don’t really pay it a second thought. It was just an objective to be completed.
“NUMBING & HORRIBLE!”
Tabacco: This part, Folks, you need to Stream the Video – Click on the URL immediately below to hear Air Force Pilot, Brandon Bryant, describe what it’s really like to
MURDER LIVING HUMAN BEINGS FROM
SAFE SPOTS IN THE NEVADA DESERT!
Former Air Force pilot Brandon Bryant is one of the first U.S. drone operators to speak out against President Obama’s global assassination program. Bryant served as a sensor operator for the Predator program from 2007 to 2011, manning the camera on the unmanned aerial vehicles that carried out attacks overseas. After he left active duty in the Air Force, he was presented with a certificate that credited his squadron for 1,626 kills. We hear Bryant’s recounting of his first-ever lethal drone strike and the impact it continues to have on him today.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip from the film Drone of our guest Brandon Bryant talking about his first fatal drone strike.
BRANDON BRYANT: I didn’t really understand what it meant to kill at first. It was horrible. The first time was horrible. The second time was horrible. The third time was numbing. The fourth time was numbing. But, of course, the first time sticks with you the longest.
So we’re looking at this thing, these people, and it was like almost instantaneous that someone was like, “Confirmed weapons. Here’s the nine line! You’re cleared. You’re cleared hot.” And we fire the missile. And the safety observer is counting down. He counts down to zero, and he says, “Splash!”
And I watched this man bleed out. The missile had taken off one of his legs right above the knee. And I watched him bleed out of his femoral artery. And he’s rolling on the ground, and I can—I imagined his last moments.
I didn’t know what to feel. I just knew that I had ended something that I had no right to end. But I swore an oath. I did what I was supposed to do. I followed through with it. It was like my image of myself was cracking and breaking apart. And the safety observer laughs, and he slaps me on the back, and he says, “You should have seen how you jumped when I said, ‘Splash.’”
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Brandon Bryant in the film Drone, that’s opening tonight in New York and Toronto. And Brandon Bryant is with us now. Do you know who you killed?
BRANDON BRYANT: No. I killed 13 people with a total of five Hellfire missile shots, and only three of them were actual combatants.
AMY GOODMAN: Who were the others?
BRANDON BRYANT: We don’t know. I don’t know. I would like to know.
AMY GOODMAN: You testified in the German Parliament, and you said also—you’ve testified before the United Nations?
BRANDON BRYANT: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: That you don’t know if you might be picked up for war crimes, but you’re willing to risk this now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And hours after you testified at the German Parliament, military showed up at your family’s house in Montana?
BRANDON BRYANT: Correct!
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about that?
BRANDON BRYANT: Yeah, they’ve—that was the second time that they had approached me, officially, actually. The first time, I was in Seattle getting healthcare at the VA, and they were like, “Mr. Bryant, this is the FBI. You’re not in trouble.” And then they told me that I was on the ISIS kill list and that I should stop my social media and stop “bragging” on social media, which means that they didn’t even read my social media stuff. And then, right after I testified in front of the Bundestag, the OSI, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, appeared at my mother’s house and told her that she was on this list. And previously, my dog had been attacked twice, as well. And it’s—I believe that these are intimidation tactics. And, you know, my mother is the strongest person that I’ve met, and she told me that she believes in what we’re doing and that I should continue. And there’s no reason that I should not.
DREAD OF THE AMERICAN
In an unprecedented open letter to President Obama, four U.S. Air Force service members who took part in the drone war say targeted killings and remote-control bombings fuel the very terrorism the government says it’s trying to destroy. Two of the signatories, former sensor operator Stephen Lewis and former Air Force technician Cian Westmoreland, tell us why they are speaking out for the first time about what they did. “Anybody in the Air Force knows that an air strike has collateral damage a significant amount of the time,” Westmoreland says. “I’m saying it wasn’t all enemies. It was civilians, as well.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Stephen Lewis, I wanted to ask you—you made one kill, and then you immediately appealed to your superiors about—about what you were doing. Could you talk about your experience, who you killed?
AMY GOODMAN: And what was their response?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Six months later, I was out of the Air Force.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you chosen as a drone operator?
STEPHEN LEWIS: I was chosen basically at random. I went to imagery analysis school, which I—I wanted to look at satellite photos. That’s what I wanted to do. And about halfway through it, they come up and they say, “You’re going to Las Vegas. You’re going to go to sensor operator school, and you’re going to do this.” There’s—
AMY GOODMAN: Did they say why?
STEPHEN LEWIS: They don’t have to. There is no argument there. It’s “Yes, sir, yes, ma’am, I’ll do whatever you tell me to.”
AMY GOODMAN: And now that you’re out of the Air Force, how has what you did in the Air Force, being a drone operator, engaging in that kill, affected you?
STEPHEN LEWIS: It makes any kind of relationship difficult. I can’t—I can’t communicate properly with my friends. I have to preface it with “I’m sorry, guys. I can’t hang out with you tonight. There’s too much going on right now.” It’s, in effect, killed every single relationship that I’ve had afterwards. I can’t—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about this issue that you raise in your letter, how the drone program is actually helping to fuel or create more terrorism?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Well, it’s been noted in the film, Drone, that kids are afraid to go outside and play, or go to school during the day, whenever the sun is out, whenever the sun is shining, because they’re afraid that they’re going to get struck by a drone.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t we go to that—why don’t we go to that clip from the film? This is from the film Drone. In 2012, a 67-year-old Pakistani woman was killed by an alleged U.S. drone while picking okra in a field with her grandchildren. In 2013, we spoke to her grandchildren, Nabila and Zubair, who were then nine and 13. Both of them were injured in the strike that killed their grandmother. This begins with Zubair.
ZUBAIR UR REHMAN: [translated] I had gone to school that day, and when I came back, I had a snack, and I offered my prayers. And my grandma asked me to come outside and help her pick the vegetables.
AMY GOODMAN: You were hit by this drone that killed your grandmother?
ZUBAIR UR REHMAN: [translated] Yes, I had seen a drone, and two missiles hit down where my grandmother was standing in front of me. And she was blown into pieces, and I was injured to my left leg.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nabila, you’re nine years old. How have things changed for you since the attack? How’s your—going out again, out into the fields alone, do you fear again other possible attacks?
NABILA UR REHMAN: [translated] Ever since the strike, I’m just scared. I’m always scared. All of us little kids, we’re just scared to go outside.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Nabila and, before that, Zubair, her brother, the Rehmans, talking about the drone strike that killed their grandma in Pakistan. They also testified with their dad, who wasn’t there when they were picking okra with their grandmother. They testified in the U.S. Congress. Now, that happened in Pakistan. Your target was in Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: Has the VA provided mental help to you as you suffer?
STEPHEN LEWIS: I’ve been to the VA, but it seems useless. It seems useless for me. It’s been six months. They’ve said, “Hey, you need an MRI.” It’s been six months without an MRI. It’s “Hey, you need medication to manage this pain”. It’s been six months without medication to manage pain. If they’re not going to take care of you, then why should you even go?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Cian, I wanted to ask you—you were a technician in the drone program. Could you talk about what specifically you did and how your duties differed from the operators?
CIAN WESTMORELAND: Right, so we built a site that was used as a relay station while we were there. The—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: While you were in Afghanistan?
CIAN WESTMORELAND: While I was in Afghanistan, yes, at Kandahar. And we were taking in signals from all over Afghanistan, 250,000 square miles, like, essentially. And we were relaying it and sending it long haul, so from there to the Combined Air Operations Center. And, you know—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Which is located where?
CIAN WESTMORELAND: In Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and then to Ramstein. And pretty much, we had been building, you know, the site, and one day my boss came to me and everybody else, and he handed us a headset, and we were listening to, you know, an airplane talking to—it was an A-10 talking to a battle manager. And they—he smiled, and he said, “We’re killing bad guys now, boys.”
And I think—I think why it was so significant for me was my father was actually working at a headquarters in Kuwait during 9/11, and he was ordering the missile parts, too, for the initial bombing. And he was telling me some of the culture that was there and the people making command decisions. They would go after certain targets, and then they would have missiles left over, and they would find targets, which was essentially anybody who was wearing white. That was my first thought whenever he said, “We’re killing bad guys now, boys.”
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by anyone wearing white.
CIAN WESTMORELAND: Anyone wearing white.
AMY GOODMAN: Why white?
CIAN WESTMORELAND: Because of the stigma that people, who wore white, were Taliban. So, those were the thoughts that were running through my head while I was there. I started having nightmares about what I did, hurting children, and me trying to help them and not being able to.
AMY GOODMAN: What year was this?
CIAN WESTMORELAND: It was in 2009. And whenever—whenever we got back, we got a piece of paper. It was the enlisted performance report. And it said on it that we had supported 2,400 close air support missions and assisted in 200-plus enemy kills, which I knew was wrong, because anybody in the Air Force knows that an airstrike has collateral damage, you know, a significant amount of the time.
AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying you knew it was much more.
CIAN WESTMORELAND: Well, I’m saying that it wasn’t all enemies. It was civilians, as well. And when I looked at the UNAMA report that came out early the next year, it was saying somewhere upward of 350 civilian kills. So, it’s kind of—it’s made me sort of re-evaluate what I was doing there, and try and figure out, you know, exactly how we—we got that on our piece of paper.
And we—well, I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that, you know, these are the people that were actually administering the strikes. You had pilots that pulled the trigger, you had imagery analysts that picked the targets, and the—you know, the decision maker. And all within the system, it’s—the responsibility for killing the person is divided, so nobody feels the full responsibility of what they’re doing. And I think that we’re moving towards a world where—in aerial warfare, where increasingly there’s going to be more technicians and less decision makers. And I think we should open up a new paradigm of, you know, ethics and what it means to do your duty as a technician. And I think one of the more influential voices for me was Oppenheimer, the—
AMY GOODMAN: J. Robert Oppenheimer.
CIAN WESTMORELAND: J. Robert Oppenheimer, yeah, exactly, who developed the atomic bomb. And, I mean, to see the effects of that must have been devastating. He must have felt like a destroyer of worlds. And I think, for me, that’s kind of how I feel, because all the signals were coming through there, and everybody who was making that system work was responsible. And I think how this applies to Germany is that the air base in Ramstein housing that data relay station, the people there are responsible for whatever signals that are going through there. And the German government, not communicating to the public or not knowing what we were doing, it was a big disrespect on America’s part and potentially the German government’s part. I’m not saying that they knew.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, OK.
AMY GOODMAN: —but then we’re going to come back to your question, Juan. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s quote—I think he was quoting the Bhagavad-Gita, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the—he was the leading scientist that created the atomic bomb in New Mexico. And you live in New Mexico, right, Cian?
CIAN WESTMORELAND: Yes!
AMY GOODMAN: Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis, Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas, four young men who are speaking out—between them, more than 20 years of experience operating military drones. They have all written a letter to President Obama. We urge you to stay with us as we continue this discussion. Back in a minute!
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