This week, members of Congress heard testimony for the first time from victims of drone attacks, including that of 13-year-old Zubair Rehman, from Pakistan, who spoke of a strike last year that killed his grandmother and wounded him and his little sister. “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey… When the sky brightens, drones return and we live in fear,” Rehman told the five members of Congress who showed up for the testimony.
The use of drones has intensified under President Obama’s leadership as the number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas has been scaled back. But the drones often kill innocent civilians, including children. That is the subject of Robert Greenwald’s new documentary, Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars. Here, we look at clips from the film, which shares testimony, stories and alarming news on the fatal impact of our drone strategy.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. “The Disposition Matrix” sounds like the title of a suspense thriller. But that’s what America’s counterterrorism experts call their database, the list of those our government believes are preparing to do America harm. From it, targets are chosen for assassination. However, the drones they use are not always so selective, and often kill innocent civilians, including children.
Last Tuesday, for the first time, drone attack victims testified at a briefing for members of Congress. Five members showed up.
The briefing coincided with the release of a new documentary, “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars,” the latest from Brave New Films, produced and directed by Robert Greenwald. It tells the story of civilians who have lost their lives to drones and includes the testimony of others. Among them, Brandon Bryant, a former American drone operator who carried out attacks by remote control from a military base in New Mexico.
BRANDON BRYANT in Unmanned: Getting into the drone program was weird. The introduction is like, “This is what we do, we kill people and break things. That is what our job is.” […]
And depending on atmospherics, if it was a completely clear day, you’d definitely get a good picture. And depending on how close you were you could probably read the license plate on someone’s car. We can see something as simple as people playing a soccer game. We can see individual players, and we can even see the ball.
BILL MOYERS: One of those featured in the film is Tariq Aziz, 16 years old. He lived in the mountainous region northern Pakistan and he loved to play soccer.
In April 2010, his 18 year old cousin, Asmar Ullah, was killed by a missile fired from an American drone as he rode his motorcycle. A year and a half later, Tariq, determined to tell his cousin’s story, made a tough, day-long journey through treacherous terrain to attend a gathering in the capital of Islamabad, where tribal elders met with Western journalists to describe the drone war being waged in their homeland by the United States.
KAREEM KHAN in Unmanned: These drones attack us and the whole world is silent.
KHUN MARJAN KHAN in Unmanned: I raise my voice to take a stand.
DR. BASHIR KHAN in Unmanned: You press a button and annihilate entire families and tribes.
CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH in Unmanned: This is a part of the drone, the missile, that was used to kill that child.
OSAMA HINJI in Unmanned: It was a gathering to get the voice of the victims of the drone attacks out to the general public as well as the rest of the world.
NEIL WILLIAMS in Unmanned: And that was the main goal. We were going to use the media to try and establish who had been killed. And also why, where and how.
JEMIMA KHAN in Unmanned: Well because of the inaccessibility of Waziristan, it’s very, very hard to compile any kind of credible evidence or evidence that others will see as credible. That was why we compiled this conference at Islamabad.
CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH in Unmanned: We called it a Jirga.
JEMIMA KHAN in Unmanned: A Jirga is a traditional tribal gathering.
CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH in Unmanned: It’s what people in that area use to settle their disputes.
MAN in Unmanned: This is simply indiscriminate bombing! There are so many women and children killed.
NEIL WILLIAMS in Unmanned: At one stage I came upon a young boy, Tariq Aziz. When I was talking to Tariq one of the first things that he did was he handed me his cousin’s student ID card. And as I looked at it I looked back at Tariq and I noticed he was crying, he started to tell me the story of his cousin who had been killed from a drone strike. He’d come to the Jirga primarily to inform us a little bit more about what had happened to his cousin to people in his local village and find out how to stop the killing. We sat together all day, we ate together at lunch time. We laughed together, we became friends. Tariq was extremely intelligent and funny to be around. He had a nice sense of humor. He was fascinated by photography and intrigued by western music, mentioning artists and one that sprang to mind was Lady Gaga. He started to talk about drone strikes in his village. How he was unable to sleep at night, he was scared he was worried about his family, his friends. Tariq was traumatized. […]
PRATAP CHATTERJEE in Unmanned: And the people who were gathered there adopted a resolution condemning the strikes. […]
Then we went together to a rally and Tariq Aziz traveled there with us. […]
NEWS ANCHOR 1 in Unmanned: Thousands of Pakistanis came to support a giant rally on Sunday.
NEWS ANCHOR 2 in Unmanned: The protest against the United States’ drone attacks in Pakistan.
MAN in Unmanned: The drones are violations of the people of Pakistan as well as their human rights.
NEWS ANCHOR 3 in Unmanned: People from all over the country irrespective of their ages and backgrounds came together to the rally.
PRATAP CHATTERJEE in Unmanned: After that Tariq Aziz and the other attendees returned to their homes.
BILL MOYERS: Three days later, Tariq and another cousin, 12-year-old Waheed Khan, were driving to pick up players for a soccer match. In a flash, both young people were killed by a CIA drone strike; the car destroyed, their bodies badly burned.
SHAHZAD AKBAR in Unmanned: Two days later I got a call […]
JEMIMA KHAN in Unmanned: I got an email.
OSAMA HINJI in Unmanned: I was at work when we found out.
PRATAP CHATTERJEE in Unmanned: We got an email and a telephone call.
NEIL WILLIAMS in Unmanned: Four days after the Jirga, I received an email from Shazhad. The email simply said “Tariq” as the heading. And I opened it instantly. To my shock I found out that Tariq had been murdered by a drone strike.
SHAHZAD AKBAR in Unmanned: And that was a shock. And we were like, how, how is it possible. Where was he? What was he doing? And it’s like, completely unbelievable.
FAISAL WALI in Unmanned: He was just an innocent student. He was my student.
ABDUL AZIZ in Unmanned: They said that Tariq has been killed. I could not believe it. […]
MAN in Unmanned: In Pashto there is a saying, “Let me be buried with your picture, in case I forget you in heaven.” […]
MARY ELLEN O’CONNELL in Unmanned: If the US had any information that Tariq Aziz was part of a criminal organization, was planning to carry out attacks on the United States, then our federal law enforcement agents should have been working with the authorities of Pakistan to arrest him.
PRATAP CHATTERJEE in Unmanned: And one really has to ask the question why the government was not able to arrest or even question him. This is Islamabad we’re talking about. It’s the capitol of the country.
NEIL WILLIAMS in Unmanned: Population is over a million people. Jirga was a real public event.
PRATAP CHATTERJEE in Unmanned: It was at a big hotel. It was advertised widely. It was an open event.
MARY ELLEN O’CONNELL in Unmanned: Tariq Aziz was plainly visible to hundreds and hundreds of people. He talked with reporters. Everything about him that the authorities could have wanted to know about his location and about his recent activities, were known to the United States.
PRATAP CHATTERJEE in Unmanned: It would have been extremely easy for them to approach him, sit down and talk to him, or for that matter, put him in jail. But instead the CIA chose to go and kill him, without giving him the opportunity to give his side of whatever it is that they thought that he had done. There is no evidence there whatsoever. And they’ve given him no lawyers, there’s no judge and there’s no jury.
PRESIDENT OBAMA in Unmanned: Our preference is always to capture if we can, because then we can gather intelligence. But a lot of the terrorist networks that target the United States, the most dangerous ones, operate in remote regions and it’s very difficult to capture them.
CORA CURRIER in Unmanned: But what we can discern from the pattern of strikes is essentially Pakistan’s been declared a no capture zone. That automatically capture is not considered feasible.
MARK MAZZETTI in Unmanned: If we just look at the numbers, there have been dramatically more people killed in recent years than have been captured. […]
CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH in Unmanned: There are no CIA agents in Waziristan, so they rely on local people.
SHAHZAD AKBAR in Unmanned: And this is where the fundamental wrong is. Because these people are working for you for money.
CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH in Unmanned: And that reliance is utterly misplaced. And what you see in Tariq’s case, and it just pains me to say this, that you know without any real room for dispute that there was someone in that room when we were having our Jirga who was an informant for the US intelligence services. And that that person picked out Tariq. I can tell you as a matter of fact that Tariq was not an extremist. And the way you know what intelligence they relied on to kill someone is what they release immediately after the killing. And in that case they said four militants were killed. And of course we know two kids were killed. That’s how it happened.
KAREN DEYOUNG in Unmanned: I asked the CIA about the strike, and their response was that on that day child was killed, in fact the adult males were supporting al Qaeda’s facilitation network. So, despite all of these technological assets and human assets, we’re not there, we don’t know. And I think there is a lot of room for error.
BILL MOYERS: You can see Robert Greenwald’s film in its entirety at the website, Unmanned.Warcosts.com. I urge you to watch it with a companion, because you will want to talk about the questions it raises concerning national security, drones, and the nature of war. Then I’d like to know what you think.
Remember that in the excerpt we showed earlier the former drone operator says: “This is what we do, we kill people and break things, this is what our job is.” It’s true. Once we insist on war as a solution, this is always the outcome. There is no way to avoid killing the innocent when you have determined to destroy your enemy.
Our own government has fought our wars by dropping atomic bombs on whole cities. By firebombing. Carpet-bombing. By spreading the poison of Agent Orange over the homes and farms of noncombatants. By splashing burning napalm on children. In this War on Terror, we are told, either we put boots on the ground and see our own young men and women killed, or we put drones in the sky firing missiles at strangers who can be seen only from a distance.
If you were President Obama, what choice would you make? I’d like to hear your succinct and considered response. Write me at BillMoyers.com or on Facebook.
I promise to read every response.