In 2001, the White House concluded that it was legal to use armed drones to kill senior al-Qaeda leaders. Within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, US President George W Bush signed off on an order which authorised the CIA to capture and kill al-Qaeda operatives.
I thought it was the coolest damn thing in the world. I was like ‘Oh man, I get to play a video game all day!’ And then reality hits you that you may have to kill somebody.
Michael Haas, former drone operator
For some, drones are the greatest weapon ever to be developed by the CIA; for others, they present a constant, deadly and terrifying threat.
In this two-part documentary, we go inside the CIA’s secret drone war to explore, through wide-ranging interviews spanning the US and Pakistan, what drones mean for the people who fly them and for the people who live under their constant threat.
What happens when you spend hours in a pitch-black room, day after day, shooting at “targets” halfway across the world on a pixelated screen in the hinterland of Nevada?
Why are former pilots speaking out against the drone war and is the US government attempting to silence them? And how do drone operators process killing with a joystick?
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Brandon Bryant is a former drone operator and now whistleblower who has spoken out about his role in the CIA’s covert war.
“We’re the ultimate voyeurs, the ultimate ‘peeping Toms’. No one’s going to catch us. And we’re getting orders to take these people’s lives,” Byrant says. “It was just point, and click.”
Few drone operators have spoken out. “It’s so weird … no one else has come out and talked about what they’ve done, or the things that are going on,” Bryant says. “It just blows my mind.”
Since Bryant began talking publicly about being a drone pilot, former friends and colleagues have harassed him. “What the drone community is doing right now is that they’re bashing me,” Bryant says. “They’re ripping me apart to make anyone else fear talking about anything that they’d ever done.”
Michael Haas, another former drone operator, also shares his experiences.
“In the control room they had a picture from September 11… Just to try to make you pissed off about it all over again right before you go do your job,” Haas says. “These guys have to die. These guys deserve to die and you got to make it happen.”
Living under drones
Thousands of kilometres away in the isolated territory of Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan, civilians live under the constant presence of drones, and the threat of yet another attack and the deaths of more innocent family members and friends.
“I think a lot about why they kill us innocent people,” says Zubair Ur Rehman, a young man who survived a drone strike that killed his grandmother while she was chopping vegetables outdoors. “It was a horrible day. It felt like the end of the world.
“Everything has changed. We don’t go to school or play any more.”
Three children in North Waziristan are holding remnants of a drone-fired missile and rubble from their neighbour’s house [Noor Behram Copyright @ Flimmer Film 2014]
With further advancements in drone technology, the US government is not likely to cease its drone activity any time soon, instead placing special focus on early recruitment by targeting young gamers.
Video gamers do have a skillset that is very important and enhances the skillset of drone operators. So when I talk to people about this, I say, we don’t need Top Gun pilots – we need Revenge of the Nerds.
Missy Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics at MIT and a former US Navy pilot
“There’s always been a connection between the world of war and the world of entertainment. And I call this phenomenon ‘militainment’, where the military world is actually now pulling tools from the world of entertainment to do its job better,” says Peter Singer, author of Wired for War.
“Video gamers do have a skillset that is very important and enhances the skillset of drone operators,” says Missy Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics at MIT and a former US Navy pilot.
“So when I talk to people about this, I say, we don’t need Top Gunpilots – we need Revenge of the Nerds .”
In the midst of the fast advancement of technology and lagging international legislation, this film shows how drones change wars and possibly our future. We look at the psychological implications of drones and how “distance creates indifference”.
We examine those on the different sides of the drone strikes and the consequences of dehumanising war. And we ask if the US government will ever be held accountable for the hundreds of innocent lives lost in the CIA’s drone war.