Drone Strikes Fuel the Hatred that Led to Paris Attacks, Ex-Drone Pilots Say

Four former US drone operators are speaking out against the remote assassination program.

Nov 19 2015, 9:15pm

The former drone operators at a press conference in New York City. Photo: Joshua Kopstein

In the past week, hawkish politicians and government officials have seized on the terrorist attacks that killed 129 in Paris in a renewed push for various counterterrorism agendas.

Now four former US drone operators who took part in remote assassination missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are pushing back, describing in intimate detail the inner workings and culture of the US drone program, which they say is fueling the resentment that drives the kind of violence recently seen in Paris.

"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," the former operators wrote in an open letter to President Obama, CIA director John Brennan, and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. "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."

Thursday morning at a cramped press conference in the heart of New York City's financial district, the group spoke of a "dehumanizing" culture within the program and their personal struggles before and after leaving their droning days behind.

"It became really apparent as an instructor under the Obama administration that the mentality had shifted away from intel-building."

Among them was Brandon Bryant, a former sensor operator for the elite US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), who has been speaking out against US drone operations since quitting the job in 2011. Joining him were three senior airmen formerly from the US Air Force: Michael Haas, Stephen Lewis, and Cian Westmoreland, who spoke to the public as whistleblowers for the first time.

Despite the US government's depiction of drone strikes as surgical and precise, independent observers have counted thousands of people killed by US drones under both the Bush and Obama administrations, including hundreds of civilian casualties, many of them children. According to secret US documents published by The Intercept, as many as 9 out of 10 people killed are not the intended targets–yet the Pentagon indiscriminately marks those killed with the uniform label "EKIA" (Enemy Killed In Action).

According to Bryant, many of those "EKIAs" were innocent civilians who bought used SIM cards traded off by suspected militants. According to the Snowden documents, SIM cards are one of the primary identifiers the NSA uses to help drone operators track and locate their targets. But many times, targets will simply flip their card on the black market, said Bryant, causing an innocent person to unknowingly place a giant metadata target above their head.

"This happens pretty often," said Bryant. "They're pretty wise to it."

Michael Haas says that drone pilots have colorful terms of their own for people who appear under their crosshairs: In his squad, children spotted from a Predator drone's high-resolution camera were called "fun-sized terrorists." Other times they were called "TITs," for "Terrorist In Training," while the act of launching a strike at them was "cutting the grass before it grows too tall" or "pulling the weeds before they take over the lawn."

"At the time you're so immersed in the culture that you just kind of go along with it," said Haas. "It was anything you could do to remove their humanity, but in the process you lose your own humanity."

Haas, who was responsible for training new recruits at Creech Air Force Base just outside Las Vegas, says he observed "a rapid increase in quantity and a rapid decline in the quality of students" in the drone program. At one point, Haas says he was reprimanded after taking a rookie operator off a training mission, when the operator kept trying to justify a missile strike on a hunch that the target was "up to no good" rather than searching for solid intelligence.

"It became really apparent as an instructor under the Obama administration that the mentality had shifted away from intel-building," said Haas. "Firing a Hellfire [missile] became the ultimate goal."

The operators also spoke frankly about their personal struggles. Haas noted "alcoholism wasn't considered a problem" among drone operators at Creech because "everybody drank." He admitted he and a half-dozen other squad members also started heavily using cocaine and other drugs that couldn't be detected in their urine tests, bath salts in particular. It was "anything you could do to defend that reality and not picture yourself being there," he said.

When a moderator asked how many of the operators suffered from PTSD, all four raised their hands. Several have been intermittently homeless or unable to obtain proper care from the office of Veteran's Affairs.

Like other whistleblowers, the former operators have come out of the shadows of the military intelligence world at enormous personal cost to themselves. The operators' lawyer, Jesselyn Radack, says that Bryant and many of her other former drone operator clients have been intimidated, receiving anonymous death threats and phone calls from the FBI claiming that they are on an "ISIS hit list" and should "tone down" their presence on social media and not speak about drones.

"This needs to be addressed," said Bryant. "Every veteran deserves to have their story shared, no matter what role they played in the military industrial complex."