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.”