The Untold Casualties of the Drone War

Former members of the U.S. drone program expose the hidden price of remote control combat

Life inside the drone's ground control station can be mind-numbing until the call comes to commit violence. Whistleblowers have revealed the hidden price of the U.S. drone program. Credit: Don Bartletti/Getty

Early one evening in November, Brandon Bryant, a former Air Force officer and perhaps the world's most famous drone program whistleblower, sits on the sofa in a Manhattan hotel suite, writing a letter to President Obama. A grey hoodie is pulled over his baseball cap, the sleeves half-covering a red dragon and Nordic tribal tattoos on his arms and hands. For three years, he's spoken critically about his time flying drone missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — where he helped kill 1,626 people, according to his own performance review — but now he can't seem to find the right words. Between sips of water and occasional requests for feedback, Bryant furiously crosses out lines in the notebook he typically uses to write poetry. "I don't want it to sound too formal," he says. "It needs to read like it's coming from us and not from our lawyers."

His former colleague, Michael Haas sits on the floor, fiddling with a replica skull that another former drone operator in their midst, Stephen Lewis, plans to turn into a bong. At the room's breakfast bar is Cian Westmoreland, a tall, slightly morose-looking veteran, and their lawyer, Jesselyn Radack, who specializes in representing whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden. All of them are in town for the U.S. premiere of a Norwegian documentary about U.S. drone warfare that features the testimonies of Bryant and Haas. Their letter to Obama, which they plan to deliver to the U.S. offices of the Guardian newspaper the next day, explains how the four of them came to regard the drone program as a wasteful abuse of power, promoted on lies, and, in practice, a cause for more enemy combatants than it could ever kill.

Bryant finally offers his notebook to the group. "I feel like it conveys what we're trying to say, doesn't it?" he asks. "Basically that we feel like we were treated like shit and that the drone program needs transparency."

Haas readily agrees. "Yeah, that's what I want," he says.

Haas and Bryant have stayed in touch since leaving the Air Force, mostly emailing about nerdy things like their common love for the animated show Metalocalypse, but also occasionally to reflect on their time in the service. Westmoreland, who maintained the drones' communications, joined their crusade after seeing Bryant interviewed on the news program Democracy Now! Westmoreland travels with a battery of pills, lithium among them, meant to keep him on an even keel, the nightmares and other symptoms of mental stress at bay. "I have blood on my hands," he says, "and I want to know what it was all for."

The final whistleblower in the group, Stephen Lewis, worked on "signature strikes," where a target is chosen based on behavior rather than identity. Basically, if it looks like a combatant and acts like a combatant, the CIA will launch a Hellfire missile at it. "It wasn't very accurate," Lewis tells me. More than any of them, Lewis is nervous about this week's events. In addition to flying regular missions with Haas and Bryant in established theaters of war, Lewis also worked as a private contractor, aiding the CIA in choosing targets for the highly secretive and legally ambiguous killings in Pakistan.

"Lewis has to be careful," Haas told me earlier. "The CIA doesn't like it when former employees talk about what they do."

The entire week has been shrouded under a cloud of paranoia. All four whistleblowers — each honorably discharged from the Air Force — have endured threats from strangers, and been called traitors by former friends and colleagues. Each is convinced the NSA is keeping tabs on them. Haas and Bryant have even developed a private code for all digital communication. A year ago, Bryant says, the FBI contacted him to tell him that he was on an ISIS hit list; bragging on social media, they said, only put him at greater risk. "My computer isn't clean at all," he says, referring to his belief that almost anything he touches connected to the Internet is compromised.

A 2013 study conducted in part by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that remote piloted aircraft officers experience mental health problems, including PTSD, in much the same way as traditional fighter pilots. But while the Predator and Reaper drones have been favored weapons of two administrations, surprisingly few former operators have detailed their experiences in the program. The next day, the four former officers in this room will become the most visible faces of anti-drone sentiment in the U.S. They hope that there is strength in numbers, that by speaking out about matters of incompetence and disregard for human life, and in an open appeal to the president, they can alter what is likely to be a central military strategy for generations to come.

"What do you think of this paragraph?" Bryant asks, before reading: "We came to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay. This administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilizations around the world."

As much as anywhere else, the War on Terror is being fought from a sprawling collection of squat buildings at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. Situated 40 miles north of Las Vegas — past vast stretches of sagebrush and sandstone, the Paiut Reservation and the High Desert maximum security prison —the town consists of a couple dozen trailers nestled against the highway, a Shell gas station and a dive bar open 24 hours a day, serving beer and greasy food beside counter-top slot machines. There used to be another gas station and casino on the other side of the highway, but the Air Force took over the land in 2014 and placed it all behind barbed wire and heavy barricades. Most of the time nothing moves around the base, save for the odd Air Force security SUV making its patrols or an alien-grey drone practicing takeoffs and landings.

Creech's three runways form the shape of a cross lying on the ground. Off to one side sit the motor pool, dorms, gym, mess hall, the closed-down casino, and the command stations of the 17th and the 11th Reconnaissance Squadrons. The 11th oversees training exercises; the 17th flies top-secret missions, carrying out the CIA's campaign of targeted assassinations. "The squadron buildings for the 17th had walls built around it so no one knew what was going on in there," says Michael Haas, on his first trip back to the base in years. "Of course we all knew because the operators in the 17th were douches who would constantly brag about the shit they did in Pakistan and the people they killed. But in theory we weren't supposed to know."

Haas, who is tall and heavyset, with longish red hair that frames a freckled and boyish face, worked at Creech off and on between 2006 and 2011. When he first arrived, all the new officers were ushered into a large assembly hall. Haas had been sent up from San Angelo in Texas, where he was trained in imagery intelligence, examining satellite photos to spot enemy movements on the ground. He still had not been told what his job would be on his new base. "I heard whispers that it had something to do with drones, but nothing more than that," Haas says. "They had told me I needed to get a flight physical, so I assumed I was going to fly planes."

Haas had signed up for the Air Force two years earlier during his senior year of high school. Operation Enduring Freedom was well underway, and despite President Bush's claims of "Mission Accomplished," the US invasion in Iraq had turned into a bloody occupation. Haas however, had very little patriotic fervor. "I joined for the GI Bill," he says. "I didn't want to put my parents into debt for me to go to college, and the recruiter promised me a desk job where I'd never have to fight."

Next to him in the assembly hall was Brandon Bryant, whom Haas had befriended at San Angelo — he didn't know what they would be doing at Creech either. The lights went down and the first five power chords of Metallica's "Creeping Death" blasted out from the speakers. A large screen in front flickered to life with images of massive explosions. Cars, buildings and people were swallowed up in sweeping crosshairs, as whoops and cheers rose from the audience in the auditorium. Haas and Bryant looked at each other. A tall, heavyset officer with a large square jaw switched off the screen. "Gentlemen!" the officer boomed. "Welcome to Creech. While here, it will be your job to blow shit up and kill people!"

Both Haas and Bryant met with their commanding officers shortly after. "I went to him straight after the presentation," says Haas. "I said, 'Sir, I don't think I can do this. I don't think I'll be able to kill people.' I'd signed up for imagery intelligence not combat ops. He basically told me tough shit, and to shut up and do my job."

Bryant, who everybody called Church because he was then a devout Christian (he has since left the faith), had taken his qualms to a military chaplain, telling him that it didn't feel right killing people. The chaplain told him that if he killed people with a drone, it was probably because God wanted them dead.

A day shift at Creech started at 0730. After a morning briefing and short safety quiz — What do you do if the motor cuts out? — pilots and sensor operators headed off to their ground control station, which was little more than a shack with two seats and a bunch of screens. Oftentimes the AC would sputter-out, leaving the operators baking in the heat. All the operators got call signs, much like fighter pilots do. Haas got his after a particularly scorching shift: SMOB, as in, "It's so hot in here I can Smell My Own Balls."

Most shifts were uneventful, spent watching a drone circle a featureless landscape. "You knew you were in for a shitty shift when you saw the chairs already reclined," says Haas. "That meant you were probably going to be spending the day watching nothing on the screen. Or if you came in when it was morning in Afghanistan you basically got to sit there and watch as guys went into their backyards to take a dump. I must have watched 400 guys take shits."

In the ongoing war on terror, armed drones provide the peace of mind that comes with raining down fiery death on whoever you want, wherever you want, without the concerns of putting troops at risk. In recent years, however, the effectiveness of drones, as a strategy for undermining terrorism, has fallen into question among the highest ranks of the U.S. military. In a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2013, retired general James E. Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and advisor to Obama, said, "We're seeing that blowback. If you're trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you're going to upset people even if they're not targeted."

Accurate numbers on drone strikes in Afghanistan are largely unknown, but according to the most recent numbers released by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), 245 strikes were launched in 2012. Between 2004 and 2016, the CIA's drone program claimed between 2,000 and 4,000 lives in Pakistan, as many as 965 of them thought to be civilians, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The U.S. has also killed several of its own citizens with drones, most notably American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, taken out in Yemen in 2011, along with his 16-year-old son, who died in a drone attack two weeks later. Last year, a CIA "signature strike" in Pakistan accidentally killed Warren Weinstein, an American aid worker held captive by Al Qaeda.

According to retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a Vietnam veteran who served as chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell and is now a visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary, America's drone wars are a call to arms for its enemies. "The way we operate now, it is difficult not to conclude that drones feed terrorist recruitment," he says. "There is a cowardly empire killing them from the skies and the only way for them to fight back is asymmetrical. The things they do seem like heinous acts of terrorism to us, but in fact that is the only option we've left them with.'"   

There is abundant anecdotal evidence to support the claim. During the trial of Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American found guilty of attempting to detonate a bomb in Times Square in 2010, the judge asked how he could be willing to kill so many innocent civilians. Shahzad replied, "Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq… they kill women, children, they kill everybody." In June of 2013 after Taliban gunmen killed nine visiting climbers and their guide in the mountains of northern Pakistan, a Taliban spokesman told a French reporter that the group had deployed a squadron "to attack foreigners and convey a message to the world against drone strikes." According to Shahzad Akbar, a human rights lawyer in Pakistan, "Taliban leaders have said that every drone strike gets them more suicide bombers… As we speak, there is an operation taking place in North Waziristan where the Taliban are handing out free DVDs containing footage of drone strike victims."

Not even two months into the year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Pakistan has seen one drone strike, killing five people, Yemen has had four strikes and Afghanistan over 50. The Air Force and the CIA have also flown missions in Syria and Iraq, targeting ISIS. Obama, with almost five times the number of drone strikes under his belt than any previous administration, is unlikely to reverse the strategy.

Few leading presidential candidates seem interested in curtailing their use either. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describes targeted strikes as one of the nation's most effective counter-terrorism strategies. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have expressed some concerns about killing U.S. citizens, but their larger issue seems to be with losing an opportunity to interrogate suspected terrorists. Bush wants to expand their use. Carson would like to see armed drones on the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump, stereotypically lacking on specifics, has only promised a heavy bombing campaign in Syria and elsewhere. Only Bernie Sanders has expressed doubts about the program. In an interview with ABC, he acknowledged that drone strikes have some strategic advantages, but added: "There are times and places where they have been absolutely counter-effective and have caused more problems than they have solved. When you kill innocent people, what the end result is that people in the region become anti-American who otherwise would not have been."

Of course, drones have killed many more militants than civilians — and saved the lives of countless American troops. Last fall, Jihadi John, the ISIS member known for beheading hostages on YouTube, was killed in a drone strike. Drones played a key surveillance role in discovering the Abbottabad compound where SEAL Team Six eventually killed Osama bin Laden. And numbers show that the CIA is getting better at avoiding non-combatant deaths, especially compared to ground campaign's like Sharp Cutting Strike, the Pakistan military's attempt to rid the country of terrorism that displaced over a million of its own residents. "Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes," Obama said in a 2013 speech. "So doing nothing is not an option."

Most critics don't oppose drones wholesale, just the frequency of strikes and the incompetency of the program that launches them. During the Vietnam War, Wilkerson logged 1,000 hours doing low sweeps over the jungle canopy in a small observation helicopter. He knew he had found something when shots fired at him through the trees. Such was the nature of aerial surveillance before the drone took to the skies. But even as he acknowledges the tactical benefits of unmanned aircraft — in fact, his son now serves as a drone operator — he opposes the extent to which they have become a central and secretive part of American warfare."I was especially troubled when I saw Obama tripling the use of armed drones because he was reluctant to put troops in harm's way," he explains. "It diminished in the minds of Americans the fact that we were still killing people."

Bryant and Haas both transferred to Nellis Air Force Base, on the outskirts of Las Vegas, in 2007. On one of Bryant's first missions there, an army convoy he was observing on a deserted road in the Iraqi countryside hit an IED. Bryant watched helplessly as three Americans bled to death. "That made me want to kill," he says. "I still remember that rage."

He got his chance a few weeks later. On his screen, three insurgents were heading to reinforce Taliban soldiers in a firefight against American troops. Bryant placed the laser between the two in front and the one bringing up the rear. The sensor operator doesn't actually fire the missile — the pilot does that — but the missile can't leave the rail unless the sensor operator is holding the guiding laser. Brandon squeezed the trigger until his knuckles whitened. A Hellfire missile breaks the sound barrier almost immediately after launching, so the sonic boom can be heard on the ground before impact. Bryant saw the man in the back try to get the others' attention, then the missile hit.

"Their infrared screen went black because of the heat from the explosion," Bryant says. "When it cooled, all that was left of the two men in front was a smoking crater. The guy in the back was on the ground. I'd shot off his leg and you could see the warm blood pump onto the cold ground. I watched him bleed out on the IR-camera until his body cooled and became the same color as the ground he died on."

It was Bryant's first kill, but there would be others. Once he killed a small group of suspected insurgents and their camel as they slept. After that he went out to his car and cried. Haas only had to shoot once, but he remembers others in his squadron taking shots that felt problematic. Once he watched a video of a colleague launching a Hellfire on an injured combatant, killing him as he was crawling on the ground.

Over the course of a month, Lewis was tasked with surveilling a man whose son had been taken out in a CIA strike. "I had no idea who he was," Lewis says. "Only that he was fat, bald and walked with a waddle." The man spent most of his time at home with his wife and two daughters, or hanging nearby with neighbors. "You could tell he was well liked," Lewis says. "He was a real popular guy." The first Friday of every month, after midday prayers, the man rode his moped to pay respects to his son. During one visit to the gravesite, Lewis was asked by his commanders to confirm the target's identity. The missile struck as the man was riding home. "His legs had caught fire," Lewis says. "He turned around and at that moment the second missile caught him right in the face."

Of the thousands of hours a drone operator spends in the GCS, though, very few of them are kinetic — military lingo for actual combat. "You spend a whole lot of time watching buildings spinning on a screen," says Haas. "Enough to make you crazy." Most operators found ways to fight the boredom. Haas and his pilot made up games of battleship on Excel spreadsheets. A lot of times they slept in their chairs. Bryant, who found himself unable to sleep at home because of nightmares, discovered that the GCS was one of the few places where he slept soundly. Once, during a two-week stretch, he read a dozen books in the Dresden Files series.

Sometimes, in order to cut a shift short, operators took matters into their own hands. Both Haas and Bryant would jerk the camera from side to side until it jammed. "If you yanked it way past 120 degrees so the picture went upside down, it would screw up the gimbal," Bryant says. "I did that whenever I could." Other operators figured out that drones burn more fuel, and thus return to the ground more quickly, with the landing gear down.

But while some drone operators began to crack under the strain of waging a remote control war, others seemed to relish the work. "One guy I knew tattooed a Hellfire missile on his ribs for every shot he took," Bryant says. "Another tattooed the word 'Infidel' around his neck. I mean there were some real, honest-to-god psychos in that program who wanted nothing more than to kill people on the ground. Anytime someone had fired off a shot that had killed someone — and remember, most of the time we weren't 100 percent sure who we had killed — there was a celebration. People were high fiving and cheering. It was disgusting."

One of the more bizarre aspects of manning a drone is that you are, in a way, in two places at once. While you spend the majority of your day flying 25,000 feet over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen or Syria, when you leave the GCS you are in a desert just outside Las Vegas. It is quite possible to go from killing people on the ground in Afghanistan to getting toilet paper at Costco. Bryant spent much of his downtime playing World of Warcraft. Haas drank so heavily that he got worried phone calls from his parents who saw his daily bar tabs on his monthly credit card statements. "The job wore you down," Haas says. "There were limits as to how much you could fly in a week and in a month, but nobody got to keep within those limits. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, it didn't matter to us because we were technically in a theater of war. Everybody was tired and out of shape because the crazy schedule completely messed up our sleep cycles."

Haas' means of coping became increasingly destructive. "It was a pretty fucked up time," he says. In addition to a heavy consumption of alcohol, he took to sniffing bath salts before, after and even during shifts. He also discovered that if he drank enough during his downtime he would be too intoxicated to be called into work. "There was a lot of coke, speed and that sort of thing," he says. "Everyone drank. We used to call alcohol drone fuel because it kept the program going. If the higher ups knew, then they didn't say anything, but I'm pretty sure they must have known. It was everywhere."

Eventually, Haas too succumbed to the mindset that allowed his peers to kill with glee. "The feeling of power that comes with watching someone without their knowledge, knowing that you could kill them in an instant, is immense," he says. "You stopped seeing the people on the screen as people. You couldn't for your own sanity's sake. On the screen they were dots. Ants. Have you ever stepped on an anthill and not giving it a second thought? That is what our job was like. We called kids 'fun sized terrorists' or 'terrorists in training.' We talked about mowing the grass so the weeds don't grow. We all talked like that. People say that drones take away the humanity from the people they target, but they also took away ours. I mean, what kind of people say shit like that?"

The government first found a use for drones under President Bill Clinton, when CIA director James Woolsey got a tip about a couple of brothers out in California who had managed to come up with a working unmanned eye in the sky. Brothers James and Linden Blue had tried their hands at a host of ventures, from cocoa farming in Nicaragua to real estate and resource extraction, before purchasing the defense contractor General Atomics in 1986. At the time, James had been trying to figure out how to defeat the socialist Sandinistas by sending GPS-equipped unmanned planes on kamikaze missions, but failed to come up with a working prototype. A few years later, General Atomics successfully tweaked the design of Israeli engineer and inventor Abe Karem's two working unmanned aircraft prototypes — the Amber and the Gnat — to provide a better alternative to traditional spy planes. It was only then that Woolsey came calling, and the Blue brothers began supplying spy drones to the U.S. government.

The drone's debut as a weapon, however, came years later. "In the early days of the George W. Bush administration, there were a lot of discussions happening on whether or not to arm these things," says retired Colonel Wilkerson, who was then an advisor for Secretary of State Powell. "These things were principally ISR — intelligence, surveillance and recognizance — and the discussion was whether or not arming them would be right ethically, morally and legally. What everybody did agree on however was that this was a decision that should not be taken lightly, and that we should all take our time with it."

Both the Pentagon and the White House had essentially decided against it, until a drone found Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the summer of 2001. "At that point, a lot of people were saying, 'Look, we know where he is. Let's arm this thing and kill him,'" says Wilkerson. "But we missed the opportunity and he got away. That kind of brought the discussion to a head. Then, of course, 9/11 happened and everything changed overnight. Suddenly everybody wanted to arm them and everyone wanted to control them. The CIA had them, and the Air force wanted them. There was no squabbling anymore."

Now, fifteen years later, launching drone strikes is common practice. Last year, the website The Intercept released a trove of documents detailing the current chain of command: Joint Special Operations Command develops a target; CENTCOM or AFRICOM — whichever is in charge of the region in question — passes it to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Secretary of Defense hands off to a group of cabinet members, as well as heads of the NSA and CIA, called the Principals Committee. Finally, a recommendation is brought to the President who grants final permission to engage a target. But, according to the documents, the President does not approve every strike. This can give JSOC and its drone operators up two months to fire as much as necessary to take down a suspect.

But even as launch orders hum at the top, problems persist within the ranks of the Air Force. According to a memo from senior military officials acquired by the Daily Beast last year, "outflow" of personnel — the number of drone operators leaving the Air Force — is threatening the readiness of the program. Early last year, General Mark A. Welsh III, chief of staff of the Air Force, said the Air Force was loosing 240 operators per year, while only training 180. "We were on a breaking point," says Benjamin Newel, a public affairs officer at Air Combat Command. "In order to supply enough personnel we got into a vicious cycle of borrowing from our schoolhouses and adding them to operations."

In September of last year, the Air Force instituted a new program called CPIP — Culture and Process Improvement Program — in an effort to assuage some of the stress and grievances felt by drone personnel. The program is essentially a big suggestion box, and was inspired by a similar effort implemented within Global Strike Command's beleaguered nuclear missile corps. Changes made as a result of CPIP, according to Air Force Staff, include reducing the number of missions and providing counselors with top-secret clearance. The Air Force has also begun offering drone operators six-figure salaries. None of it seems to have stanched the "outflow." "The latest retention numbers I've seen for 2015 were about the same as earlier," says Newell. "Perhaps slightly worse."

On November 18th, the four whistleblowers publish their letter to Obama in the Guardian. The next few days are a whirlwind of press appearances and interviews. They speak before a full house at FitzGibbons Media. The Intercept takes them out for drinks. Haas, Lewis and Westmoreland tape a special segment for NBC News. Still, there is no response from the government, although incredibly, fifteen minutes after one interview, Lewis receives a job inquiry from the Office of Naval Intelligence. "They were bugging our phones and heard the whole thing," Westmoreland says. "They're trying to buy back his loyalty."

Other signs of unofficial blowback are hastily perceived. At the documentary premiere, which is sold out, only a quarter of the seats are full, fueling speculation among the whistleblowers that the government has bought up tickets to undermine the event. That is, until latecomers file in. After Haas' debit card is declined, Radack, their lawyer, tweets at WikiLeaks: "My #drone #whistleblowers went public this wk & now their #CreditCards + #BankAccts are #frozen. Advice?" It turns out Haas failed to notify his bank about his travel plans; his account was frozen as a security measure. And then, two days after the Guardian story appears, a mass funeral in Pakistan for as many as 20 local militants killed by an American drone strike draws hundreds of mourners. 

At the end of the week, everyone goes their separate ways. Lewis, who says he's still struggling with PTSD, lives with his girlfriend in San Antonio, where he works at Walmart. Westmoreland recently quit his job as a ski lift operator in Taos, New Mexico to advocate full-time for greater transparency and accountability in the drone program. Haas, who now lives near his his parents in Nevada, has closed his Facebook account and stopped giving out his email or phone number due to the constant threats of trolls. Bryant moved to Norway to find solace; he still has nightmares where the people he killed surround his bed. "What we did as sensor operators and pilots tears a hole in your soul," Bryant says. "Being in the drone program is a kind of madness that sticks to you and won't come off."