Drones in 2015: Operators Charge US Drones 'Recruit' Enemies
January 4, 2016 Ed Pilkington and Ewen MacAskill / The Guardian & Charles Pierson / CounterPunch
Four former US service members who participated in the Pentagon's drone assassination programs have issued an emotional plea to rethink an airstrike strategy that has 'fueled feelings of hatred' toward the US. So far, eight US citizens have been killed in US drone strikes. The Obama Administration has easing restrictions on the sale of US-made drones. Purchasers must promise to use the drones only in accordance with international law -- just like the US does.
Extract from Drone:
'The first kill is horrible . . . the third is numbing.'
Obama's Drone War a 'Recruitment Tool'
For ISIS, Say US Air Force Whistleblowers Ed Pilkington and Ewen MacAskill / The Guardian
NEW YORK and LONDON (November 18, 2015) -- Four former US air force service members, with more than 20 years of experience between them operating military drones, have written an open letter to Barack Obama warning that the program of targeted killings by unmanned aircraft has become a major driving force for ISIS and other terrorist groups.
The group of servicemen have issued an impassioned plea to the Obama administration, calling for a rethink of a military tactic that they say has "fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantánamo Bay".
In particular, they argue, the killing of innocent civilians in drone airstrikes has acted as one of the most "devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world". The letter, addressed to Obama, defense secretary Ashton Carter and CIA chief John Brennan, links the signatories' anxieties directly to last Friday's terror attacks in Paris. They imply that the abuse of the drone program is causally connected to the outrages.
"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," they wrote.
The joint statement -- from the group who have experience of operating drones over Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones -- represents a public outcry from what is understood to be the largest collection of drone whistleblowers in the history of the program. Three of the letter writers were sensor operators who controlled the powerful visual equipment on US Predator drones that guide Hellfire missiles to their targets.
They are Brandon Bryant, 30, who served in the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron and 3rd Special Operations Squadron from 2005 to 2011; Michael Haas, 29, who served in the same squadrons during the same period; and Stephen Lewis, 29, who was with the 3rd Special Operations Squadron between 2005 and 2010.
The fourth whistleblower, Cian Westmoreland, 28, was a technician responsible for the communications infrastructure of the drone program. He served with the 606 Air Control Squadron in Germany and the 73rd Expeditionary Air Control Squadron in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The four are represented legally by Jesselyn Radack, director of national security and human rights at the nonprofit ExposeFacts. "This is the first time we've had so many people speaking out together about the drone program," she said, pointing out that the men were fully aware that they faced possible prosecution for speaking out.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, Obama has stuck firm to his determination to avoid sending large numbers of US troops to Syria, beyond the limited engagement of special forces. The natural, though unspoken, consequence of such a strategy is a deepening reliance on aerial attacks in which unmanned drones increasingly play a leading part.
The number of lethal airstrikes has ballooned under Obama's watch. The Pentagon has plans further to increase the number of daily drone flights by 50% by 2019.
From its inception, the drone program has been troubled by reports of mistaken targeting. Classified government documents leaked to the Intercept revealed that up to 90% of the people killed in drone strikes may be unintended, with the disparity glossed over by the recording of unknown victims as "enemies killed in action".
In one of the most widely publicised errors, the US government was accused by one of its own officials of making an "outrageous mistake" in October 2011 when it killed the US citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader who was also a US citizen and was killed by a CIA drone two weeks previously.
One of the four drone operators who signed the letter to Obama, Brandon Bryant, was part of the team that tracked Anwar al-Awlaki by drone for 10 months shortly before he was killed. In an interview with the Guardian, Bryant said that he was not opposed to drone technology per se, which he saw as having beneficial uses.
"We just understand that in its current form the program is being abused, there's no transparency, and we need to be open to other solutions."
Bryant said that in his view he had been made to violate his military oath by being assigned to a mission that killed a fellow American. "We were told that al-Awlaki deserved to die, he deserved to be killed as a traitor, but article 3 of section 2 of the US constitution states that even a traitor deserves a fair trial in front of a jury of his peers."
Two of the four drone operators have also spoken out in a film about the US program, Drone, that premieres theatrically in New York on Friday. The other two are going public for the first time, having just come forward in the past few weeks.
Obama this week made clear that he would continue to resist putting more boots on the ground in Syria following the Paris attacks. Speaking at the G20 summit in Turkey, he said "part of the reason is that every few months I go to Walter Reed [military hospital] and I see a 25-year-old kid who is paralysed or has lost his limbs, and some of those are people who I have ordered into battle".
But the former drone operators argue that the strategy is self-defeating, as the high number of civilian casualties and the callousness of drone killings merely propagates anti-US hatred. "Right now it seems politically expedient," said Cian Westmoreland. "But in the long term the bad side of a Hellfire missile and drones buzzing overhead is the only thing that a lot of these people know of the United States or Britain."
Bryant accepted that there was no negotiating with extreme, violent terrorists of the type that carried out the Paris attacks. "But you have to prevent such people being created," he said. "We validate them, we keep this cycle going. Their children are afraid to play out in the sun because that's when the drones are coming."
(January 1, 2016) -- 2015 was another glorious, blood-soaked year for US killer drones.
One story began in 2014, but it was not until 2015 that we knew how it ended. In February 2014, the Associated Press reported that the Obama Administration was contemplating a drone strike on a US citizen, an al-Qaeda member living in Pakistan and known by the nom de guerre Abdullah al-Shami (Abdullah the Syrian). Al-Shami had been born in Texas, but had not been in the United States since he was a toddler.
We did not hear of Al-Shami again until the following April. Al-Shami still lived but had been captured by Pakistani security forces and turned over to the United States. In April, al-Shami (now identified by his real name, Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh) was arraigned on terrorism charges in federal court in Brooklyn.
Other US citizens have been less fortunate than Al Farekh. On January 14, a 73 year old aid worker, Warren Weinstein, was killed in a US drone strike on an Al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan. His family had been trying to negotiate ransom for Weinstein who had been abducted from his home in Lahore in 2011. Also killed in the strike were an Italian aid worker, Giovanni Lo Porto, and an American member of al-Qaeda, Ahmed Farouq.
Eight US citizens have been killed in US drone strikes. The best known is Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born high-profile al-Qaeda spokesman. Al-Awlaki was killed by a US drone in Yemen on September 30, 2011. Al-Awlaki's 16-year old son, Abdulrahman, was killed in a separate drone attack a month later. All other US citizens killed by drones have been members of Al-Qaeda. Al-Shami's tale proves that the Obama Administration continues to be willing to execute Americans without due process of law.
Israel is the world's number one exporter of drones, followed by the US, then China. (US companies sell more drones than does Israel, but Israel exports more.) Israeli and Chinese success is due to US restrictions on selling drones abroad. Export restrictions mean that US drone manufacturers have to sell most of their armed drones to just one customer: the Pentagon.
On February 17, the Obama Administration announced that it was easing restrictions on the sale of US-manufactured drones abroad. Prior to this, only the United Kingdom had in 2007 been allowed to purchase armed drones from the United States.
Purchasers must promise to use the drones only in accordance with international law, just like the US does. Purchasers must also promise not to use killer drones against their own people. Ignore these unenforceable restrictions. More encouraging is the fact that it was not until November that the US State Department approved the first sales of killer drones to Italy. Included in the deal are 156 Hellfire missiles. All this for a low, low price of $126 million.
In the past, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had all asked the US for armed drones. All were rebuffed. Since then, Saudi Arabia has reportedly purchased armed drones from South Africa and China. Turkey announced on December 21 that it had successfully tested an armed drone developed by Turkish defense companies.
Pakistan has developed its own armed drone, the Burraq, which it unveiled in March. By September, the Burraq had tasted blood. Pakistan's military announced on September 7 that the Burraq had taken out three Islamist militants in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Pakistan joins a short but growing list of nations which not only possess armed drones but have killed with them. The US is in the forefront. Britain has made drone kills in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq has killed ISIS fighters with the Chinese-manufactured CH-4B "Rainbow" armed drone.
Israel has used armed drones against Gaza. Hamas claims that it possesses armed drones, although what Hamas has displayed in videos may not be a drone, but rather a small single-use missile, which can only be controlled while within the operator's line of sight.
Iran's so-called "suicide" or "kamikaze" drones are similar. Iran, however, also has developed an armed drone similar to the Predator or Reaper which it calls the "Ambassador of Death." You have to hand it to the mullahs: we may not like them, but they do have a flair for the dramatic.
The race for killer drones is on!
"The entire program was diseased"
In 2015, The Intercept broke two important stories on drones. In February, Jeremy Scahill reported on the US base in Ramstein, Germany. Leaked US slides and their confidential source confirmed what had long been suspected: that Ramstein Air Base is the global hub for relaying signals which allow pilots in the United States to control US drones in South and Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and Africa.
The slides put the lie to US and German attempts to minimize Ramstein's crucial importance to the drone war. The slides raise the possibility of US personnel at Ramstein facing prosecution under German law for assisting drone assassinations in violation of international law.
Then in October, The Intercept published The Drone Papers: a series of classified documents on the US government's drone assassination program. The Drone Papers were leaked to The Intercept by an unidentified source inside the intelligence community who is being called the new Edward Snowden.
The new source can look forward to getting his face on the cover of Time and his ass in a prison cell -- that is, unless he gets out of the US before the Obama Administration finds out who he is.
The Drone Papers confirm every horrifying thing we have learned about drones' indiscriminate killing. For every intended target, about six unintended targets are killed. Civilians killed by American drones are counted as enemies killed in action (EKIA), unless they are subsequently proven not to be militants. Internal criticism of the drone program is rife. Insiders say that drones are successful only at boosting terrorist recruitment.
Four other whistleblowers -- former drone operators in the US Air Force -- went public in an open letter to President Obama in November. The four lashed out at the drone program's callous disregard for human life.
Drone operators call children "fun-size terrorists" and refer to killing children as cutting the lawn before the grass gets high. One of the whistleblowers, former Staff Sergeant Brandon Bryant has said: "We killed people who we really didn't know who they were, and there was no oversight."
True that. After Warren Weinstein was killed the New York Times ran this headline: "Drone Strikes Reveal Uncomfortable Truth: US Is Often Unsure about Who Will Die." "The entire program was diseased," Bryant says. For speaking out, Sgt. Bryant and his colleagues have had their bank accounts and their credit cards frozen.
Perhaps the most appalling revelation in The Drone Papers was that during one five-month period in Afghanistan 90% of drone victims were not the intended target. The civilian death toll is not always that high, but it is high enough. An op-ed in the July 14 New York Times gives these figures:
In 646 probable drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen recorded by the [British NGO] Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as many as 1,128 civilians, including 225 children, were killed -- 22 percent of deaths. The New America Foundation's estimates are lower, but suggest a civilian death rate of about 10 percent.
US killer drones have taken lives in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia, Syria, and the Philippines. US drone strikes on Yemen have continued even during the country's civil war, providing de facto assistance to Saudi Arabia's criminal aggression in bombing Yemen.
Drone missions take their toll on those drone operators who still have a conscience. Substance abuse is common. So are burnout and PTSD. "Guilt-ridden American drone pilots continue to quit in unprecedented numbers," according to RT, the Russian news service.
Yet the Obama Administration wants to increase daily drone flights by 50% over the next four years. Good luck finding enough pilots.
Other veterans are also speaking out. In June, forty-four veterans representing each of the four service branches with ranks from private to colonel signed a letter urging armed forces members to refuse to fly drone missions.
The "Refuse to Fly" campaign is also running a series of fifteen-second anti-drone TV ads. The ads show graphic scenes of death and destruction taken from Madiha Tahir's documentary Wounds of Waziristan about Pakistanis killed by US drones. Each ad ends with a voice urging drone operators to "refuse to fly."
According to a poll conducted in May by the Pew Research Center, 58% of Americans support US drone strikes. The same poll shows that one-third (35%) of Americans disapprove of drone strikes, up from 26% two years ago. Americans need to learn the truth about drones. Yet coverage of The Drone Papers and the four whistleblowers in the mainstream media has been spotty to nil. The word needs to go out if there is to be the sort of public pressure that it will take to ground the drones.
 Italy already owns the unarmed version of the MQ-1 Reaper. Under the November deal, Italy will receive kits to convert its unarmed MQ-1 Reapers to armed drones. The Italians will assemble the drones themselves, not unlike buying killer drones from IKEA.
 In October 2014, human rights groups brought a civil lawsuit in Germany to force the German government to end drone strikes directed from its territory. The suit was brought on behalf of Yemeni victims of US drone strikes. The suit was dismissed on May 27, 2015. The claimants have appealed.
 Pratap Chatterjee, Our Drone War Burnout, N.Y. TIMES (July 14, 2015). Regularly updated spread sheets showing US drone kills by country for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan can be found on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's website.
Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.
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