KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.
Today, we're taking a look at drone strikes and so-called targeted killings. In recent weeks, a faint light has begun to shine on this secretive program. Members of Congress are making speeches and statements, writing letters to the White House and holding hearings here on Capitol Hill. We know the administration is reviewing some aspects of the program. And that's our cover story for today: targeted killings, the people who carry them out, the people on the ground and how we got here in the first place.
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MCEVERS: The story starts after 9/11. Congress authorizes the president to use necessary force against suspected militants. The number of drone strikes on these suspects slowly increases over the years in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Even though these drones are called unmanned vehicles, there's always someone at the controls.
BRANDON BRYANT: My name is Brandon Bryant. I'm a former sensor operator for the United States Air Force Predator program.
MCEVERS: We'll hear more from him later. Now on to 2008. Barack Obama is running for president, and he finds himself with a problem. He wants to close detention centers like Guantanamo Bay, but what to do with terrorists and suspected terrorists?
Michael Boyle was Obama's counterterrorism adviser at the time. He spoke to us from member station WRTI in Philadelphia. Mr. Boyle, welcome.
MICHAEL BOYLE: Thank you for having me.
MCEVERS: OK. So it's 2008. President Obama is about to be elected, and he's about to inherit the targeted-killing program from the Bush administration. Why, at this time, is that program still attractive to the new president?
BOYLE: Well, I think if you put yourself in the position of President Obama in 2008, you realize that the United States doesn't have a lot of very good options in places like Pakistan and in Yemen. You have a situation under which if you contact the Pakistani government to tell them that you want to conduct an operation or engage in a strike, you often run across the problem that the information gets out to the potential target, thus ruining the strike.
Drones appear to give you a very simple solution to this. You use an unmanned vehicle, you fly into the territory without notification, you take out a target, and you leave with relatively little fanfare.
MCEVERS: Now that this administration is moving away from these detention centers, these rendition sites, these black sites, you know, it doesn't want to capture these combatants, has it basically boxed itself into a corner where it's actually easier to kill these targets?
BOYLE: Yes. The administration essentially is operating with a kill-not-capture policy. It's not describing it as such, but that's effectively what the policy is. And there's a couple different reasons for this. I mean, one thing, to be fair to the administration, is that Guantanamo Bay is essentially a legal mess. And you also have a situation under which Congress has put a lot of pressure on the administration not to bring Guantanamo prisoners back to the United States.
In that context, drones appear to solve your problem. You start using drones as a way of taking out terrorist targets. The problem with this is that you actually don't get intelligence from people who you kill, right? So one advantage of capturing people is that intelligence, but dead men tell no tales.
MCEVERS: You know, there were more than 100 targeted killings last year. This year, the number has dropped considerably. Does that mean this administration is starting to get queasy about this program? Does it mean there's more scrutiny being applied to each attack?
BOYLE: There is some evidence that the administration is rethinking the policy. We know that when John Brennan was confirmed as CIA director, there was a sort of firestorm of criticism about the drones program, and he came under intense pressure from the Congress about the use of drones. It could be that the administration is beginning to rethink the policy.
We also know the administration is thinking about the kind of bureaucratic housing of the policy. Does it go to the Pentagon? Does it stay in the CIA? Where does that program properly belong? So I think a combination of those sort of factors is making the administration step back in a sense from drone strikes, which is probably a good thing.
MCEVERS: That's Michael Boyle. He now teaches at La Salle University.
Recently, a young Yemeni man put a face to drone strikes before a Senate committee hearing. Farea al-Muslimi later told me how last month he got some terrible news from his village, Wessab.
FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: It's a very peaceful, small village in the mountains where people are farming. Suddenly at night, something pops up and bombs it from the air. And it was a U.S. strike drones that terrified farmers there and terrified thousands of people.
MCEVERS: Farea wasn't in the village at the time, but the reaction came to him on his cellphone.
AL-MUSLIMI: My phone was stormed with messages, phone calls from the village, people asking me, what is this, what is happening? And people terrified on the phone speaking about this attack.
MCEVERS: Witnesses say in all, five people died in that attack. The target was suspected militant Hamid al Rhadmi, who Farea says was well known in the village. He even spent time with government officials. Farea says it would have been easy to capture al Rhadmi.
AL-MUSLIMI: I assure you it's easier to capture him than capturing a gang member in New York City. As someone who was in great relationship with the government, that man was easy to capture. As one of the villagers put it, he says, you could have just shut the door of the security department two, three days ago when he was there.
MCEVERS: He says now people in the village are reeling.
AL-MUSLIMI: People are very angry. People are scared. Am I next?
MCEVERS: Farea says in other Yemeni villages, this anger and fear has led people to actually join al-Qaida. He says what the U.S. and the Yemeni government should do is focus on capturing these suspects.
AL-MUSLIMI: United States of America has funded and supported a counterterrorism unit, the most elite forces and security forces in the country. All you need to do is take one of these soldiers, tell him, go to the village, bring me people like Hamid al Rhadmi and come. All you need to do is go arrest bad people.
MCEVERS: Until then, people in Yemen are starting to assume these drone strikes are a way of life.
AL-MUSLIMI: In areas other than that, like Rada'a, where last year - late last year, a drone killed civilians also. A man from there told me that the mothers used in the past to tell their kids: Go sleep or I will call your father. Now, instead, they say: Go sleep or I will call the plane.
MCEVERS: That's Yemeni writer and activist Farea al-Muslimi.
Now, let's hear about drone strikes from the other side, from the cockpit. Here's 27-year-old pilot Brandon Bryant speaking to us from Montana.
BRYANT: I originally joined to pay off a college debt.
MCEVERS: In 2006, Bryant found himself wearing a flight suit and sitting in a kind of trailer in Las Vegas, Nevada, surrounded by monitors and the low hum of computers and servers. On his very first sortie as a pilot, Brandon watched from the drone's camera as American soldiers got blown up in Afghanistan. There was nothing he could do. That was before he'd ever taken his first so-called shot. I asked him about that.
What was one of the more - if it's OK to talk about this - one of the more memorable moments when that - when you had to do that?
BRYANT: I'll talk about my first shot because I still think about that.
MCEVERS: This time, it was insurgents Brandon saw on the screen - one group who had been firing at U.S. troops and another group who was standing away from them. Brandon was ordered to fire a missile at the second group.
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 the 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're watching this in infrared. And I eventually watched the guy become the same color as the ground that he died on.
MCEVERS: Wow. So these guys had weapons strapped on their backs, but you did not see them using them, threatening to use them in any way.
BRYANT: Correct. These guys had no hostile intent. And in my own mind, I thought of, you know - in Montana, here, we have - everyone has a gun. Like, these guys could've been local people that had to protect themselves or something similar to that. And I think we jumped the gun, you know?
MCEVERS: Do you provide that information in any kind of follow-up reporting? You know, is there any exit interview where you report that information to your superiors?
BRYANT: There's an after-action report, but the pilots are the ones that put it together. And the only thing that was in there was enemy combatants, confirmed weapons, all three taken out by one - by AGM-114 hellfire strike. So it doesn't really go into very much detail other than to tell what happened and what was the result.
MCEVERS: I'm going to ask you one more hard question.
MCEVERS: Did you ever have to take a shot that hit someone that was clearly a civilian?
BRYANT: There was one, as actually my second shot, which was about a month after my first shot. This one was routine. We're watching this house. And end of my shift, it's coming close to being dawn in Vegas, and so it's nighttime over there. And there's very little activity. Like, every once in a while, a guy leaves the back of the house. And this guy was some sort of lieutenant of the commander of the area or something. I don't remember.
I think 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 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. There's no movement coming in and out of the building. 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.
MCEVERS: When you reviewed that tape, what did you see?
BRYANT: It was a person. It was a small person. Like, there's no doubt in my mind that that was not an adult.
MCEVERS: After the break, more about the emotional aftermath of that shot. The rest of my conversation with former drone pilot Brandon Bryant coming up. This is NPR News.
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MCEVERS: If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers. We've been talking to Brandon Bryant, who piloted drones from a kind of trailer on a base in Las Vegas. He told us the shot he'll never forget is one he thinks killed a child.
BRYANT: It was a small person. Like, there's no doubt in my mind that that was not an adult.
MCEVERS: And that was the end of your shift, so you just, like, walked out into Nevada after that, right? What did it look like? You said the sun had just come up...
BRYANT: So I was getting out. The sun was coming over the mountains off in the background. And 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 is - this was the reality of war. Like, three instances in three months showed me pretty much every aspect that there is: that good guys can die, bad guys can die, and innocents can die as well.
MCEVERS: And yet you didn't quit at that point. You kept doing it. What made you finally quit? What was it?
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 mother (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. 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 of 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.
MCEVERS: So you quit.
BRYANT: Yeah. I just - I couldn't do it anymore.
MCEVERS: So what are you up to now?
BRYANT: Now, I really have no clue what I'm doing with my life. Going to school at the university through the GI Bill trying to figure out the next step of my life at the moment.
MCEVERS: You've been diagnosed with PTSD, post-traumatic stress, yeah?
MCEVERS: So are you being treated for any of that stuff?
BRYANT: A little bit. I see a therapist. But as far as, like, my veterans benefits and stuff, they tell me it takes, like, one to two years to get anything through. So paperwork was submitted in October. So possibly by October, I'll have my benefits and a place to call my own.
MCEVERS: Brandon Bryant, thank you so much for giving us your time and telling us your story.
BRYANT: Thank you for allowing me to do so.
MCEVERS: Brandon Bryant was a drone pilot for five years. He's now part of an extreme sports program for veterans. To hear more about that and more of our conversation with Brandon, go to our website, npr.org.