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The Hidden Cost Of The Drone Program

A model of a drone is hoisted in the air at a protest of the U.S. military's use of drones during a demonstration on April 3 in New York.
Don Emmert
A model of a drone is hoisted in the air at a protest of the U.S. military's use of drones during a demonstration on April 3 in New York.

Farea al-Muslimi, from Sana'a, Yemen, testifies on Capitol Hill on April 23 before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights.
Cliff Owen
Farea al-Muslimi, from Sana'a, Yemen, testifies on Capitol Hill on April 23 before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights.

A faint light has begun to shine in recent weeks on the secretive U.S. program of drone strikes and targeted killings.


Members of Congress are making speeches and statements, writing letters to the White House and holding hearings on Capitol Hill. We know the administration is now reviewing some aspects of the program.

The story of the drone program starts after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When Congress authorized the president to use necessary force against suspected militants, drone strikes on these suspects slowly increased in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

When Barack Obama became president, he inherited the targeted-killing program from the Bush administration. Michael Boyle, Obama's counterterrorism adviser at the time, tells NPR's Kelly McEvers that the program remained one of the best options for carrying out certain operations in Pakistan and Yemen.

"You have a situation under which if you contact the Pakistani government to tell them you want to conduct an operation or engage in a strike, you often run across the problem that the information gets out to the target," Boyle says. "Drones appear to give you a very simple solution to this."

The administration's desire to move away from using detention centers, as well as the legal mess that is Guantanamo Bay, has favored the use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists, Boyle says.


"The administration essentially is operating with a 'kill-not-capture' policy," he says. "The problem with this is that you actually don't get intelligence from people you kill."

The number of targeted killings has dropped since last year, and Boyle says it could mean the administration is beginning to rethink the policy and step back from future drone strikes.

The Weight Of Drone Warfare

Although the drones that carry out these targeted killings are called "unmanned vehicles," there's always someone at the controls.

As a former sensor operator for the U.S. Air Force Predator program, 27-year-old Brandon Bryant was one of the people sitting in the pilot's seat.

Bryant originally joined the military to pay off college debt. In 2006 he found himself wearing a flight suit, sitting in a kind of trailer in Las Vegas. He was surrounded by monitors and the low hum of computers and servers.

On his very first sortie as a pilot, Bryant watched from the drone's camera as American soldiers got blown up in Afghanistan. There was nothing he could do.

Bryant's "first shot" came later, as he watched a group of insurgents who had been firing on U.S. troops. He was ordered to fire a missile at a second group of armed men standing away from the others.

"The missile hits, and after the smoke clears there's a crater there and you can see body parts from the people," Bryant says. "[A] guy that was running from the rear to front, his left leg had been taken off above the knee, and I watched him bleed out."

Bryant, who was watching on an infrared camera, says he watched the man's blood rapidly cool to become the same color as the ground. Then, he watched the man he just fired a missile at become the color as the ground he died on.

Though the men he fired on were armed, they weren't using their weapons at the time, Bryant says.

"These guys had no hostile intent," he says. "In Montana, everyone has a gun. These guys could have been local people that had to protect themselves. I think we jumped the gun."

The follow-up report simply stated that there were enemy combatants with confirmed weapons, Bryant says.

Bryant's second shot is another he won't soon forget. On a routine mission, he was ordered to fire a missile at a house with three suspected militants inside. Moments before the missile hit, Bryant says he saw something run around the corner of the building.

"It looked like a small person," he says. "[There] is no doubt in my mind that that was not an adult."

The missile hit, and afterward there was no sign of the person. It was the end of Bryant's shift, and as he walked out into the early morning sun in Nevada, he says he didn't feel distraught like he did after his first shot. He felt numb.

"This was the reality of war," he says. "Good guys can die, bad guys can die and innocents can die."

One day in 2010, Bryant was looking at a wall of top al-Qaida leaders and said he asked himself: "Which one of these guys is going to die today?"

"I stopped myself, and I said that's not me," he says. "I was taught to respect life, even if in the realities of war we have to take it, it should be done with respect. And I wanted this guy to die."

Bryant says he tried to talk to a couple of people about it, but people in the drone community don't talk about the things they've done. So, he remained silent, and then he quit.

"I couldn't do it anymore," he says.

Bryant is now going to school, and receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. But like other veterans, he's still waiting for his benefits to kick in.

An Everyday Fear

Recently, a young Yemeni man put a face to drone strikes before a Senate hearing. In April, Farea al-Muslimi got some terrible news from his village of Wessab.

"It's a very beautiful village in mountains ... suddenly something pops up and bombs form the air," Muslimi tells NPR's McEvers. "It was [a] U.S. strike drone that terrified the farmers and terrified thousands of people."

Muslimi wasn't in the village at the time, but the reaction came to him on his cell phone. He was stormed with messages from villagers wanting to know what was happening.

Witnesses say in all five people died in the attack. The target was suspected militant Hamid al Rhadmi, who Muslimi says was well known in the village. He even spent time with government officials, and Muslimi says it would have been easy to capture Rhadmi.

"I assure you it's easier to capture him than to capture a gang member in New York City," he says. "As someone who was in a great relationship with the government, that man was easy to capture."

Muslimi says people in the village are now angry, scared and wondering if they're next. He says in other Yemeni villages, this anger and fear has led people to join al-Qaida. What the U.S. and the Yemeni government should do now, he says, is focus on capturing these suspects.

"[The United States] has funded and supported ... the most elite [counterterrorism] forces in the country," he says. "All you need to do is go arrest bad people."

Until then, people in Yemen are starting to assume these drone strikes are a way of life.

"Mothers in the past used to tell their kids, 'Go to sleep or I will call your father,'" Muslimi says. "Now they say, 'Go to sleep or I will call the plane.'"

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