WASHINGTON -- Former U.S. drone operators and technicians spoke out on Thursday about the extensive problems with the Obama administration's lethal program in the Middle East, shedding light on civilian deaths, the callousness of the culture, and the heavy weight of responsibility.
The ex-drone program participants outlined their experiences at an event held in New York that was organized to promote the new documentary Drone.
Michael Haas, who is a former senior airman with the U.S. air force and helped guide missiles to their targets, according to the Guardian, discussed his experience serving under the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, which included working as an instructor. He said over time the quality of personnel rapidly declined, and the mentality under the Obama administration shifted to where, "a meritorious thing to do was to fire a shot, circumstances be damned."
He recalled training a new student who said he would act simply because people looked "up to no good," so he ended the training flight, pulled him out of the seat, and failed him on his ride. "This isn't a video game ... people stay dead," Haas said. But, he said, his superiors reprimanded him for holding the student back.
Haas detailed the callous terms people in the program used to describe children, such as "fun-size terrorists" and "tits (terrorists in training)," and said that one motto was that you have to "cut the grass before it grows too tall." The attitude, he said, was "anything you could do to remove their humanity." He knew heavy drinking among operators was the norm, and he eventually started using bath salts, and developed a cocaine addiction after he got out of the Air Force.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a U.K.-based nonprofit, estimates that five years of the drone program under Obama has resulted in over 2,400 deaths. The Obama administration contends that the drone program has strong oversight and only targets people who pose a "continuing and imminent threat" to Americans. But documents released by the Intercept last month paint a radically different picture. In one campaign in Afghanistan, U.S. special operations airstrikes between January 2012 and February 2013 targeting 35 people killed more than 200, the news outlet reported.
When asked to respond to defenders of the drone program, Haas acknowledged that, "drones are very good at killing people." But he added, "That's where the controversy comes in, they're good at killing people, just not the right ones."
Cian Westmoreland, who worked as a technician setting up communications infrastructure for the drone program in Afghanistan, according to the Guardian, said he once received a report noting he had assisted in over 200 enemy kills. "That's BS. Those enemies aren't always enemies," he said. Westmoreland said since coming home, he has had nightmares about being responsible for killing children, spent time in a psychiatric ward and was temporarily homeless. The piece of paper with the number of kills "weighed on me very heavily," he said.
Brandon Bryant, a former Air Force drone operator who said he took five shots that killed 13 individuals, 10 of them non-confirmed combatants, also spoke at the event. He made the case that the program helps extremist groups like the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for last week's Paris terrorist attacks that left 129 people dead. Recruiters exploit fear, Bryant said, and "we're enabling that exploitation."
"You kill 4 and create 10," he added, "is that really what you're trying to achieve?"