Former Air Force Pilot Has Cautionary Tales About Drones

Congressional hearings are beginning to shine a light on the drone program that for the past 12 years has been cloaked in secrecy. NPR's Kelly McEvers talked to a former Air Force pilot who operated drones for several years.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Let's hear another voice in the debate over drone strikes, the targeted killings of suspected militants. Critics say these strikes are immoral and ultimately harm U.S. interests abroad, where the strikes take place. Proponents argue that drones are an important tool to protect America's national security.

GREENE: Earlier this year, that debate came into sharp focus at the confirmation hearings for CIA director John Brennan. Brennan told senators that the Obama administration's drone policy was misunderstood by many.

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JOHN BRENNAN: We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives, when there's no other alternative to taking an action that's going to mitigate that threat.

GREENE: Now, Brennan also went on to say that great care is taken to minimize civilian casualties.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kelly McEvers has been to parts of Yemen, where these drones have struck. She found that while they do hit their targets, they often kill more civilians than officials claim, and relatives of the victims sometimes join al-Qaida in revenge.

GREENE: On our program WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Kelly interviewed a former Air Force pilot who operated these drones for five years. It really is a side of the story that we rarely hear. And Kelly joins us, to tell us about that. Hi, Kelly.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Hey there.

GREENE: So tell us about this pilot who we're going to hear from in a moment, and tell me how you found him.

MCEVERS: His name is Brandon Bryant. He's 27 years old. He actually operated drones for several years, so he started when he was pretty young. He lives in Montana. We first read about him in an article that ran in a German magazine called Der Spiegel. He was interviewed along with some other drone operators.

And, you know, most of these people, by and large, are people who go to work on American bases - you know, usually somewhere out west, Nevada, something like that. And they do their job. They do their shift, and then they come home. What was clear about this article was that Brandon was a little bit different.

GREENE: Hmm.

MCEVERS: He had seen a lot, in his time as a drone operator, and that he was very outspoken about it.

GREENE: Tell me a bit of what he did, when he was doing this job.

MCEVERS: His first shot, he was sitting in this trailer, and there were some insurgents on a hill who'd been firing at U.S. soldiers. There were another group of insurgents who weren't firing, but he was ordered to actually fire a missile on them. Here's how he describes it.

BRANDON BRYANT: We fired the missile, and 1.2 seconds after the missile fires, it sonic booms. And so the sonic boom gets there before the missile does. And the guy in the rear hears this, and he runs forward to the two guys in front, and then the missile hits. And after the smoke clears, there's a crater there. You can see body parts of the people.

But the guy that was running from rear to the front, his left leg had been taken off above the knee, and I watched him bleed out. The blood rapidly cooled to become the same color as the ground, because we were watching this in infrared. Then I eventually watched the guy become the same color as the ground that he died on.

GREENE: Kelly, so he's actually watching a man die and, you know, with these colors changing in infrared. I mean, what did he tell you that that was like, the emotion?

MCEVERS: This is the point when he really starts to have some regrets about what he's doing. I asked him, you know, if he reported what he saw, and the fact that he didn't think that the people he had targeted had sort of violent intent. And here's what he said.

BRYANT: In my own mind, I thought these guys could've been local people that had to protect themselves, and I think we jumped the gun.

GREENE: OK, Kelly. So this is this young man's first shot while operating a drone. I presume there were other shots that he had to take after this.

MCEVERS: His very next shot was also in Afghanistan. He was - he and his colleagues had been watching this house where suspected militants reportedly lived. And let me just let him tell the story.

BRYANT: There was supposedly three people left in the building, and all were military males. We just aim at the corner of the building. We're going to fire, and we do. And there's about six seconds left before the missile impacts, and something runs around the corner of the building. And it looked like a small person. There's no other way for me to describe it. It was a small, two-legged person. And the missile hits. There's no sign of this person. A large portion of the building's collapsed.

So we lock our camera on there, and I ask the screener, who disseminates the video feed - I asked, can you review that? Like, what was that thing that ran on the screen? And he's like, one second; reviewing - and comes back and says, oh, that was a dog. It was - it was a person. It was a small person. Like, there was no doubt in my mind that that was not a - an adult.

GREENE: OK, Kelly. So what did he do after that?

MCEVERS: Well, I mean, he said that after that shot - after he took that shot, he basically walked out of the trailer where he was working, and then walked into Nevada. And it really hit him.

BRYANT: The sun was coming over the mountains. I remember just kind of - the light was too bright, and the dark places were too dark. I felt really numb. I didn't feel distraught, like I felt my first shot. I felt numb because this was the reality of war; that good guys can die, bad guys can die, and innocence can die as well.

MCEVERS: It was a while after this that he did finally decide to leave the program. Let's listen to how that happened.

BRYANT: One day - it was late 2010 - we had a wall that had five pictures on it of top al-Qaida leaders. And I remember walking in one day, and I kind of stopped and looked at one of these guys; and I was like, man, which one of these (bleep) is going to die today? And I stopped myself and I was like, that's not me. Like, that's just not who I am.

I don't think like that. Like, I was taught to respect life; even if, in the realities of war, that we have to take it, it should be done with respect. And I wanted this guy to die. So I tried to talk to a couple people about it. And one of the weird things about the whole drone community is that you don't talk about anything that you've done. You just don't. So I just shut up and didn't talk to anyone about how I was feeling or how I was doing.

GREENE: OK, Kelly. He's telling you about these pictures on the wall that he was looking at, and that was late 2010. A few years have gone by. How is he doing now?

MCEVERS: Well, he did quit, and he's in college in Montana, on the GI Bill. Things aren't going so well for him in other ways. I mean, he doesn't have a place to live right now.

GREENE: He's homeless right now?

MCEVERS: Basically. I mean, he says he's couch-surfing - you know, he's staying with friends. But yeah, he doesn't have his own place. He's also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. I mean, I think this is something we're realizing, now, can happen even if you haven't been on the battlefield.

GREENE: OK. Well, this has been a window into, you know, one person who served in this drone program, and in the U.S. military. Update us on where things stand with, you know, U.S. drone policy. Where does it go from here?

MCEVERS: Well, I mean, what we know is that the Obama administration is reviewing certain aspects of the program, mainly - kind of the bureaucratic aspects, right? Where is this program housed? Should it all be run by the Defense Department; should part of it be run by the CIA? These are kind of the big questions they're facing now. Another thing we know is that there have been very few drone attacks this year compared to last year, where the number of attacks was well over 100. That would suggest that more scrutiny might be, you know, applied to each attack. We don't know that for sure, but we do know that there's more conversation and debate about the issue.

I think the general feeling in Washington is that, you know, this isn't something that really touches the American people all that deeply, aside from the people who are involved directly as operators, like Brandon. I think if you ask people, well, would you rather have boots on the ground, or would you rather have something that does it with such low risk? they would probably choose the latter.

GREENE: NPR's Kelly McEvers. Thanks for bringing this story to us.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

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GREENE: And you can hear Kelly's voice, and her reporting, at MORNING EDITION on one of our great public radio member stations around the country. There are also some other ways that you can follow this program - as well.

INSKEEP: That's right. We're on Facebook. We're on Twitter throughout the day. Addresses - including David's, @nprgreene. I'm @nprinskeep. You can also follow this program @morningedition. It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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