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‘You Can’t Buy My Soul’: Drone Whistleblowers Speak Out

Four U.S. drone operators held a press conference to blow the whistle on the devastating consequences of the drone program, which has been greatly expanded by President Barack Obama’s administration and remains largely shrouded in secrecy.

Brandon Bryant, a known whistleblower who has been outspoken for about three years, was joined by Michael Haas, Stephen Lewis, and Cian Westmoreland, who spoke publicly for the first time. Their attorney, Jesselyn Radack, was also present.

“Amid the unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers,” Radack declared, “these four drone operators are taking an enormous risk to speak openly about one of America’s most secret and dark programs. They tried to complain internally to no avail. I hope raising their concerns with the public will be more effective.”

Between 2005 and 2010, Lewis was with the 3rd Special Operations Squadron. He shared a story about how he fired a missile at four men, even though he was uncertain whether they were militants or not.

“I didn’t see any weapons,” Lewis recalled. Two Hellfire missiles killed three of them, and Lewis was given an order to shoot the fourth man, who was on the ground wounded. “One second he was there lying on the ground. The next second he was not there anymore.”

Lewis did not know the identity of the man he had killed. He asked a question and was not given an answer.

Westmoreland was a technician who was part of the 73rd Expeditionary Air Control Squadron in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and the 606th Air Control Squadron in Germany. He received a performance report at the end of his tour of duty, which indicated he had assisted in 200-plus “enemy kills” and 2,400 close air missions. He knew this was not accurate.

“Enemies aren’t always enemies. Military-age male is 12 years-old,” Westmoreland stated. “If I’m being held responsible in my performance report—and I’ve thought about this a long time, if all the signals are coming through us, then that implicates anybody else who these signals are going through, including Germany, and I believe it’s immoral and just unethical to do that with a foreign country and not their citizens because we’ve broken their trust and that puts us [in] a bad position.”

Westmoreland relayed signals between the operations center, where he worked, and the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He also explained, “If you have imagery intelligence and signals intelligence, it’s very possible that whoever your target is might have traded out their SIM card on the black market and this happens quite often. There pretty wise to it.

“There’s always the off-chance that you could end up targeting somebody, who is totally innocent,” Westmoreland added. “Of course, that’s usually not counted. That’s usually confirmed as an enemy killed.” And, if the basis for a strike involves human intelligence, the informant is oftentimes lying to get money.

Michael Haas, who was in the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base between 2005 and 2011, worked as an instructor who trained pilots for drone missions. He witnessed a shift in focus from using drones to collect intelligence under President George W. Bush to using drones to kill under President Obama.

Haas also was reprimanded by his superiors for failing a student who insisted individuals were “up to no good” and kept choosing to fire missiles when there was no intelligence to support strikes.

When asked why he held the student back, Haas informed his superior he didn’t want a person in that seat “with that mentality, with his hands on those triggers. It’s a dangerous scenario for everyone, and it’s not going to do any good for anyone to have someone with that bloodlust in there.” Pilots have to understand this is not a “video game.” When you fail and kill the wrong guy, there is no check point for you to go back and start over again, Haas added.

For failing the student, Haas received a nonjudicial punishment—ten days where he was not allowed to provide instruction.

Bryant, who was also in the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron and 3rd Special Operations Squadron during the same period of time as Haas, said he took five shots, which killed 13 individuals. He highlighted each shot he had fired.

The first shot Bryant took was directed at a target ten kilometers south by southwest from where “troops” were firing at coalition forces. There were three individuals walking along the road with weapons. “That was our only clearance to shoot. [The] only reason they gave us to shoot was that these three indviduals were carrying weapons.”

Bryant killed two individuals in a house about two months after his first shot. He did not personally see them die but signals intelligence confirmed they were inside the house.

A couple months after, Bryant said he saw three individuals in Mosul, Iraq, and “they were firing a mortar out of the back of this pickup.” Those were legally combatants, and he killed them.

Bryant had human intelligence that five individuals were “coming through a pass in Pakistan into Afghanistan carrying weapons, and we found them. We waited for them at the pass, and we saw them come through.” Intelligence confirmed they laid down to sleep, and as they slept, Bryant fired a missile that killed them, even though the team had not seen the men do anything wrong.

He was also a part of the mission that pursued Anwar al-Awlaki for 10 months, but Awlaki was not killed until months after he was no longer a drone operator. And it became clear to him that targeting Awlaki because he was a traitor violated Article 3, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

“I swore an oath to defend this Constitution, and they made me break it with this action,” Bryant declared.

Drone strikes fuel the very extremism, which is behind terrorist attacks against Western countries. As Bryant put it, “We kill four and create ten [terrorists]. Is that really what we’re trying to achieve?”

“If you kill someone’s father or uncle or family member and they’re not part of the problem, then all of sudden these people want revenge,” Bryant asserted.

The whistleblowers spoke about how their teams dehumanized the people they were killing. Haas mentioned some men would refer to children as “fun-sized terrorists.” They would call individuals “tits,” or terrorists in training. They would refer to what they were doing as “cutting the grass before it grows too tall” or “pulling the weeds before they take over the lawn.”

Each of the whistleblowers suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They each have stories about what they have endured since they left the military.

Westmoreland has experienced nightmares about “being responsible for killing children.” He wants to help them out, but he is never able to help them. He just has this feeling of helplessness.

What he experienced drove him to stand on a bridge in New Mexico and consider jumping. He was fortunate enough to remember his sister and fiancé. He pulled away from the edge and went to a Veterans Affairs branch to inform them he was planning to kill himself. The V.A. put him in a psychiatric ward for five days, and he is now on medications.

“I’ve been getting ridiculed by many, many people, especially other veterans,” Bryant shared. “I’ve gotten threats from other veterans. The V.A. is trying to deny me my disability as we speak and take it away from me. I can’t get a normal job. I can’t have a normal relationship with people. I have lost friends and family over this simply for how I’ve talked and why I’ve talked about it. So, it’s destroyed my life and all aspects of it.

“It’s not fun to deal with these psychological scars when you have no physical scars to back them up because no one wants to believe you,” Bryant confessed.

Haas developed a cocaine addiction after he got out of the Air Force. He also recalled how a number of individuals in his unit suffered from alcoholism and would also experiment with drugs, like bath salts, synthetic marijuana, and other substances, which were undetectable in urine tests. This impaired operators’ abilities to execute missions.

Drone operators are informed that they can abort a strike if they object to having to kill a certain individual, however, according to Bryant, if a drone operator aborts, they are taken out of their seat and replaced by someone else, who will take the shot.

Each of these men were essentially offered bonuses to try and keep them from walking away from killing people with drones. Westmoreland was offered $50,000. Haas was offered $80,000 with $40,000 up front because he was an instructor. Bryant was offered a $109,000 bonus, along with a promotion. They turned these offers down.

Lewis was offered a bonus that was up to $100,000. He turned it down.

“You can’t buy me. You can’t buy my soul. You can’t buy my conscience,” he declared.

“I’m sick of the fact that we excuse our actions, we can’t do that anymore,” Bryant concluded. “That is why I’m here to support these men and anyone else who wants to come out.”

“Everyone should listen to each veteran’s story no matter what position they played in the entire military industrial-complex.”

File: In this October 29, 2013 photograph, a F-35 Lightning fighter jet drops a laser-guided bomb. (Flickr / Ministry of Defence Images / Darin Russell)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."