Last Sunday, General Michael V. Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times called "To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare." After an opening scene of a drone operator double-checking for nearby civilians before taking out two enemy targets, General Hayden makes the case that America's program of remote targeted killings, while not perfect, is achieving results. It has disrupted terrorist plots and weakened Al Qaida, he wrote. Furthermore, according to intelligence that Hayden himself claims to have seen, public concerns of massive civilian casualties are overblown.
"Unmanned aerial vehicles carrying precision weapons and guided by powerful intelligence offer a proportional and discriminating response when response is necessary," Hayden concluded. "Civilians have died, but in my firm opinion, the death toll from terrorist attacks would have been much higher if we had not taken action."
Last week, we published a story detailing the experiences of four former members of the drone program, who have publicly criticized the manner in which the U.S. is conducting its remote control war. They describe a culture that glorified killing, even in instances when it was impossible to identify the militancy of targets, and the strange disconnect that comes with flying mission in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan from cloistered bases in Nevada. "What we did as sensor operators and pilots tears a hole in your soul," says Brandon Bryant, one of the whistleblowers profiled in the piece. "Being in the drone program is a kind of madness that sticks to you and won't come off."
The attorney representing the drone whistleblowers, Jesselyn Radack, first came to prominence over a decade ago as a whistleblower herself. In 2001, she was working as an attorney and ethics adviser at the Department of Justice, when John Walker Lindh, an American citizen who fought alongside the Taliban, was captured during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Long story short: Lindh told the FBI that anything they got from interrogating Lindh, without the lawyer Lindh's famiy had hired present, would not be admissible in court. But leading up to the trial, Radack's emails about Lindh's right to counsel disappeared and Attorney General John Ashcroft submitted evidence gathered during the interrogation, under the claim that the DOJ was unaware that Lindh had an attorney at the time. Radack went public.
She now specializes in representing whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden, and her current caseload contains about a dozen former members of the drone program. We asked for her take on Hayden's pro-done Op-Ed.
What is your response to Hayden's piece?
My main problem is that the piece is classic propaganda. You have a former government official who headed both the CIA and NSA, give biased and misleading information to promote a particular idea, namely that the drones are a panacea. If he has the information on civilian deaths, he should share it with the public, because we don't have any clear statistics. And moreover, the government has gone to great lengths to block making this information available to the public. Ironically, days before Hayden's piece came out lawyers for the Obama administration appeared in an appeals court here in DC to fight a demand for legal justification and "summary strike data" meaning the numbers and identities of people killed in drone strikes.
Why should we question what Hayden is telling us?
Because when the government does discuss drone strikes publicly, everyone, including the president, has lied. In 2011, [CIA director] Brennan said there hasn't been a single collateral death because of exceptional proficiency. In 2013 Obama said that no strike was taken without "near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured." Yet every independent investigation of strikes by journalists and by human rights organizations has found far more civilian casualties than the government admits.
What is your response to Hayden telling us that we need to embrace drone strikes to remain safe?
There is no evidence of that, in fact, quite the opposite. Drones have created far more militants than they have killed. Hayden says categorically "They work," meaning drones. I don't know how he can say that with groups like ISIS in Al Qaida's place.
How does his argument fit with the stories of the whistle blowers that you represent?
The nearly dozen drone whistle blowers I represent, including former sensor operators, imagery analysts and technicians are unanimous that 1) targeting is hardly precise, a word that Hayden uses three times, and 2) that civilian deaths are grossly underestimated, because kids are considered fun-sized terrorists and military-aged males were sometimes anyone aged over 12. His argument doesn't square at all with what any of my whistle blowers have said. They all collectively don't know each other and it's not like they had time to line up some peacenik story.
What has been the blowback for your clients from speaking out?
For a number of them, friends no longer speak to them. They have been incessantly trolled online to the point that some of them have stepped away from social media. In the past the military has told the parents of two of my whistle blowers that they are on an ISIS hit list. Other clients are under federal leak investigations.
Are drones inherently bad?
I think drones can have many good purposes, anything from crop dusting, to humanitarian aid, to disaster relief and troop overwatch. They even deliver packages from Amazon. No, drones themselves are not necessarily bad. I think the drone program and the way it is being deployed by the United States basically gives one man, the President, the ability to play prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner of anyone on the planet. I think that's problematic.