The personnel behind the US drone programme and National Bird

United States (OpenDemocracy) – In this timely intervention, which is available to watch for free for a limited period, the viewer follows three whistle-blowers in discussion of their roles in, and experiences of, the programme.

The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or drone as it’s more popularly known, can be considered the military technology of the moment. Touted for both surveillance and strike capabilities, drones are being embraced by a growing number of nations, who are drawn to what former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described as “the only game in town” in the fight against terrorist groups.

In spite of their increasingly widespread adoption, the US nonetheless remains at the forefront of global operations, running the most established military drone programme. Whilst the US has a lengthy history of employing the drone as a form of target practice, a ‘flying bomb’ for the delivery of ordinance, and as a surveillance platform, the now iconic (and recently retired) Predator drone was developed for the US Air Force and subsequently armed in 2001. Shortly thereafter, the US conducted its first ‘targeted killing’ operation in a declared warzone in Afghanistan, and in an undeclared warzone in Yemen in 2002.

The Department of Defense subsequently went on to grow its inventory of aerial drones from 167 to 7,000 between 2002 and 2010, and to 10,000 platforms by July 2013. This growing embrace is further evidenced in the 2016 US Air Force-released figures revealing that for the first time in 2015, drones released more weapons than manned aircraft in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the US Air Force has since announced plans to double the number of its drone squadrons over the next several years. The drone as a tool of war, then, shows no sign of abating.

Why the growing embrace of the drone?

Piloted remotely, the drone is presented by its proponents in terms of its ability to persistently surveil distant topographies and to precisely engage with targets, whilst simultaneously lowering operational risk to service personnel. Without a pilot on-board, the drone is able to undertake so-called ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ missions. The operational arrangement required, in which a drone is physically launched from ‘local’ bases around the globe whilst being remotely piloted from domestic bases in the US, is called Remote Spilt Operations(RSO). Whilst there are a range of human and machinic nodes within the distributed apparatus that sustains the drone (including an estimated 192 personnel required to support a single Combat Air Patrol offering 24/7 coverage), the focus of commentary about drones remains on the core operational team, that is its pilots, sensor operators and mission intelligence coordinators. These personnel have become the programme’s public figureheads, and are surrounded by intrigue, as is reflected by the growing number of ‘life as’, ‘confessions of’, and ‘stories of’ press pieces. These pieces adopt a particular focus on what the job entails, and its effects on the personnel that undertake it.

Film and documentary responses to drone warfare

Engaging with this interest in the drone’s operational crew, a growing number of blockbusters (Good Kill, Eye in the Sky, and Drone) and TV series (Homeland, The Good Wife, American Dad, and Saturday Night Live) have sought to depict drone warfare, with a touch of Hollywood style. These depictions have been accompanied by documentaries taking a more sober look at the US drone programme. Beginning with Tonje Hessen Schei’s 2015 documentary Drone, the most recent arrival on the scene is Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird, which further interrogates US-led drone warfare through the eyes of those who (formerly) conducted it. In this timely intervention, which is available to watch for free for a limited period, the viewer follows three whistle-blowers in discussion of their roles in, and experiences of, the programme.

Featuring interwoven interviews with an imagery analyst and screener (Heather), technical sergeant (Lisa), and private contractor and signals intelligence analyst (Daniel), the documentary navigates each individual’s reasons for becoming involved (with Daniel’s discussion of homelessness and sheer “desperation” particularly gut-wrenching), their expectations of what the role would entail, and the reality as it hit them. Alongside persistent feelings of guilt, the theme of mental health is particularly prominent. Heather, a young woman who was enrolled into the programme after initially seeing “the posters…and thinking that it was cool – really bad ass”, would go on to experience considerable psychological distress as a direct result of her role. She painfully reveals that when her psychologist recommended she be reassigned, her first sergeant responded that “the team was undermanned” and thus “really needed” her – a statement pointing to the staffing crisis that continues to plague the programme. Speaking of her role, Heather notes that “we can’t just bomb someone and fly away, we have follow through”, that is conduct Battle Damage Assessments, in which the consequences of a strike are ascertained, including the identification of “body parts”.

Following on from Daniel describing his experience of having his home raided by the FBI, the documentary goes to on explore the consequences of the whistle-blowers speaking out, with reflections from Jesselyn Radack of the Whistleblower and Source Protection Program, detailing both her role in legal representation and the ways in which the Espionage Act is increasingly being mobilized in this context.

Operator discussions about their experiences of their roles and exits from these, are accompanied by a critical look at the drone programme more widely. Alarming original radio traffic transcripts of US drone crews in action are read aloud and re-enacted with faux drone footage, with one team’s exchange reading: “What’s the plan fellas?”/  “I don’t know, hope we get to shoot the truck with all the dudes in it” / “Yeah, sensor’s in let the party begin” – as Hellfire missiles then rain down on those below.  This brazen attitude has been both echoed and critically engaged with elsewhere, with former sensor operator Brandon Bryant remarking that “the first thing they said was that my job would be to kill people and break things”, and the documentary’s own Heather noting that more kills look “better on the resume”.

To sum up, National Bird, this “elegantly unsettling” documentary is beautifully (if eerily) shot, but, more importantly, offers a compelling and personal narration of life inside the secretive programme. The documentary’s director wanted the reaction to be discussion, rather than assumption – and this documentary excels in promoting precisely this.

Inverting the gaze

Film Poster for National Bird

Whilst concern regarding the consequences of this deadly gaze for those below it remains implicit within the documentary, which itself includes testimony from families in Kabul, Afghanistan who have been directly impacted by the drone programme, it nonetheless remains a piece predominantly focused upon understanding the drone programme through its operational personnel.

Whilst offering a valuable critical insight, there is of course a politics to this focus. As such, I’d encourage anyone watching to do so alongside additional resources which centre upon those under the drone rather than just those behind it, including: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s extensive resources – such as the ‘Naming the Dead’ project, the 2012 ‘Living under drones’ report, and Reprieve’s work with the families of drone strike victims. Together, such systematic ongoing work provides access to and insights from those most impacted by the drone, or as Lisa remarks, the people, “communities – mothers, brothers, sisters” who are all too often becoming civilian casualties of drone programme flying above them.

You can find National Bird on Twitter at: @NationalBirdDoc and can watch the full documentary for free online (until 16th May 2017) at PBS Independent Lens.

This report prepared by Anna Jackman for OpenDemocracy