A new documentary, "National Bird," exposes the secret drone war being carried out in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere from the ground level of the strike and from the perspective of three military operators who used to pull the trigger.
"When you watch someone in those dying moments, what their reaction is, how they’re reacting and what they’re doing," Heather Linebaugh, a former drone imagery analyst, says in the film. "It’s so primitive. It’s really raw, stripped down, death."
Though unmanned systems have been used for many years to carry out surveillance, it wasn't until after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks — on February 4, 2002 — that a drone was armed and used for targeted killing. That 2002 strike apparently killed three civilians mistaken for Osama bin Laden and his confidantes, a theme that went on to play out again and again.
Armed drones have operated since in Afghanistan and many other countries in which the US is not at war, including Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. They have been used to strike militants and terror leaders over the years — a program accelerated under the Obama administration — but it has come at a deadly cost, with thousands of innocent civilians killed, to include hundreds of children.
"I can say the drone program is wrong because I don’t know how many people I’ve killed," Linebaugh says.
Linebaugh and two others, introduced only by their first names Daniel and Lisa, tell equally compelling stories from their time in the military's drone program. The film gives them a chance to shine a light on what is a highly secretive program, which officials often describe as offering near-surgical precision against terrorists that may someday do harm to US interests.
Instead, the three offer pointed critiques to that narrative, sharing poignant details of deaths they witnessed through their sophisticated cameras and sensors. The most disturbing thing about being involved with the drone program, Daniel said, was the lack of clarity about whom he killed and whether they were civilians.
"There’s no way of knowing," he says.
Though the testimony of the three operators is compelling, the documentary's most important moments come from a visit to Afghanistan, where the documentary showcases a family that was wrongly targeted by a strike. It was on February 21, 2010, when three vehicles carrying more than two-dozen civilians were hit by an Air Force drone crew.
"That's when we heard the sound of a plane but we couldn't see it," one victim says.
Filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck mixes witness statements with a reenactment of overhead imagery and voices reading from the transcript prior to the strike. A later investigation found that the operators of the Predator drone offered "inaccurate and unprofessional" reporting of what they saw.
During the incident, the drone operators reported seeing "at least five dudes so far." Eventually, they reported 21 "military-age males," no females, and two possible children, which they said were approximately 12 years old.
"Twelve, 13 years old with a weapon is just as dangerous," one drone operator says. The operators never got positive identification of the people below having weapons.
That's because the group consisted only of innocent men, women, and children, according to the documentary. Twenty-three Afghan civilians were killed, including two children aged seven and four.
"We thought they would stop when they saw women, but they just kept bombing us," the mother of the children says.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of US forces in the country, apologized for the strike. Four officers involved were disciplined.
The documentary cuts through the defense of drones as a "surgical" weapon that only kills the bad guys. As many reports have made clear, the US often doesn't know exactly who it is killing in a drone strike, instead hazarding an "imperfect guess," according to The New York Times, which is sometimes based merely on a location or suspicious behavior.
That imperfect guess has often resulted in the death of innocent locals — or, as was the case in 2015, the death of two men, an American, and an Italian, who were being held hostage by militants.
As Daniel points out in the documentary, the presence of drones on the battlefield has only emboldened commanders, who no longer have to risk military personnel in raids and can fire a missile instead. That viewpoint only seems to be growing, as the technology gets better and drones continue to proliferate around the world.
The drone may continue to be the "national bird" of the US military for a long time, but perhaps the documentary can start a conversation around their use and whether they create more terrorists, as has been argued, than they are able to take out.
"Not everybody is a freakin’ terrorist. We need to just get out of that mindset," says Lisa, a former Air Force technical sergeant, in the documentary. "Imagine if this was happening to us. Imagine if our children were walking outside of their door and it was a sunny day, and they were afraid because they didn’t know if today was the day that something was going to fall out of the sky and kill someone close to them. How would we feel?"
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