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Exclusive: 2 Air Force Vets Speak Out for First Time on Why They Want the Drone War to Stop

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In an unprecedented open letter to President Obama, four U.S. Air Force servicemembers who took part in the drone war say targeted killings and remote-control bombings fuel the very terrorism the government says it’s trying to destroy. Two of the signatories, former sensor operator Stephen Lewis and former Air Force technician Cian Westmoreland, tell us why they are speaking out for the first time about what they did. “Anybody in the Air Force knows that an air strike has collateral damage a significant amount of the time,” Westmoreland says. “I’m saying it wasn’t all enemies. It was civilians, as well.”

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StoryNov 20, 2015Exclusive: Air Force Whistleblowers Risk Prosecution to Warn Drone War Kills Civilians, Fuels Terror
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Stephen Lewis, I wanted to ask you—you made one kill, and then you immediately appealed to your superiors about—about what you were doing. Could you talk about your experience, who you killed?

STEPHEN LEWIS: It was late 2009, and I was tasked to go support a troop in contact. And that’s whenever our troops are taking fire.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this was in which country?

STEPHEN LEWIS: Oh, this is in Afghanistan. And during this troops in contact, we were told to go to this specific location. It was four guys walking down a mountain path. And I didn’t see any weapons. I didn’t see anything. About five minutes goes by, and two Hellfires come in, and they kill three people. And there was one wounded guy left. I was given clearance to—we were given clearance to fire the missile. And that guy just—he just wasn’t there anymore.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This is—you were given clearance to fire at the wounded guy on the ground.


AMY GOODMAN: So what did you do next?

STEPHEN LEWIS: Seriously re-evaluated my life. Shortly after that, I ended up writing a very, very convincing letter to my leadership and told them that I didn’t belong there, I didn’t want to do it anymore, and I wanted out.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was their response?

STEPHEN LEWIS: Six months later, I was out of the Air Force.

AMY GOODMAN: How are you chosen as a drone operator?

STEPHEN LEWIS: I was chosen basically at random. I went to imagery analysis school, which I—I wanted to look at satellite photos. That’s what I wanted to do. And about halfway through it, they come up and they say, “You’re going to Las Vegas. You’re going to go to sensor operator school, and you’re going to do this.” There’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Did they say why?

STEPHEN LEWIS: They don’t have to. There is no argument there. It’s “Yes, sir, yes, ma’am, I’ll do whatever you tell me to.”

AMY GOODMAN: And now that you’re out of the Air Force, how has what you did in the Air Force, being a drone operator, engaging in that kill, affected you?

STEPHEN LEWIS: It makes any kind of relationship difficult. I can’t—I can’t communicate properly with my friends. I have to preface it with “I’m sorry, guys. I can’t hang out with you tonight. There’s too much going on right now.” It’s, in effect, killed every single relationship that I’ve had afterwards. I can’t—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about this issue that you raise in your letter, how the drone program is actually helping to fuel or create more terrorism?

STEPHEN LEWIS: Well, it’s been noted in the film, Drone, that kids are afraid to go outside and play, or go to school during the day, whenever the sun is out, whenever the sun is shining, because they’re afraid that they’re going to get struck by a drone.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t we go to that—why don’t we go to that clip from the film? This is from the film Drone. In 2012, a 67-year-old Pakistani woman was killed by an alleged U.S. drone while picking okra in a field with her grandchildren. In 2013, we spoke to her grandchildren, Nabila and Zubair, who were then nine and 13. Both of them were injured in the strike that killed their grandmother. This begins with Zubair.

ZUBAIR UR REHMAN: [translated] I had gone to school that day, and when I came back, I had a snack, and I offered my prayers. And my grandma asked me to come outside and help her pick the vegetables.

AMY GOODMAN: You were hit by this drone that killed your grandmother?

ZUBAIR UR REHMAN: [translated] Yes, I had seen a drone, and two missiles hit down where my grandmother was standing in front of me. And she was blown into pieces, and I was injured to my left leg.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nabila, you’re nine years old. How have things changed for you since the attack? How’s your—going out again, out into the fields alone, do you fear again other possible attacks?

NABILA UR REHMAN: [translated] Ever since the strike, I’m just scared. I’m always scared. All of us little kids, we’re just scared to go outside.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Nabila and, before that, Zubair, her brother, the Rehmans, talking about the drone strike that killed their grandma in Pakistan. They also testified with their dad, who wasn’t there when they were picking okra with their grandmother. They testified in the U.S. Congress. Now, that happened in Pakistan. Your target was in Afghanistan.

STEPHEN LEWIS: I don’t think a matter of 500 miles makes a difference. The culture is very, very similar. And you’re creating an atmosphere of fear. And there’s an old saying in Texas: You don’t back a scared animal up against the wall. And if you do that, he’s going to come out fighting. And that’s exactly, I think, what’s happening now.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the VA provided mental help to you as you suffer?

STEPHEN LEWIS: I’ve been to the VA, but it seems useless. It seems useless for me. It’s been six months. They’ve said, “Hey, you need an MRI.” It’s been six months without an MRI. It’s “Hey, you need medication to manage this pain.” It’s been six months without medication to manage pain. If they’re not going to take care of you, then why should you even go?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Cian, I wanted to ask you—you were a technician in the drone program. Could you talk about what specifically you did and how your duties differed from the operators?

CIAN WESTMORELAND: Right, so we built a site that was used as a relay station while we were there. The—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: While you were in Afghanistan?

CIAN WESTMORELAND: While I was in Afghanistan, yes, at Kandahar. And we were taking in signals from all over Afghanistan, 250,000 square miles, like, essentially. And we were relaying it and sending it long haul, so from there to the Combined Air Operations Center. And, you know—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Which is located where?

CIAN WESTMORELAND: In Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and then to Ramstein. And pretty much, we had been building, you know, the site, and one day my boss came to me and everybody else, and he handed us a headset, and we were listening to, you know, an airplane talking to—it was an A-10 talking to a battle manager. And they—he smiled, and he said, “We’re killing bad guys now, boys.”

And I think—I think why it was so significant for me was my father was actually working at a headquarters in Kuwait during 9/11, and he was ordering the missile parts, too, for the initial bombing. And he was telling me some of the culture that was there and the people making command decisions. They would go after certain targets, and then they would have missiles left over, and they would find targets, which was essentially anybody who was wearing white. That was my first thought whenever he said, “We’re killing bad guys now, boys.”

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by anyone wearing white.

CIAN WESTMORELAND: Anyone wearing white.

AMY GOODMAN: Why white?

CIAN WESTMORELAND: Because of the stigma that people who wore white were Taliban. So, those were the thoughts that were running through my head while I was there. I started having nightmares about what I did, hurting children, and me trying to help them and not being able to.

AMY GOODMAN: What year was this?

CIAN WESTMORELAND: It was in 2009. And whenever—whenever we got back, we got a piece of paper. It was the enlisted performance report. And it said on it that we had supported 2,400 close air support missions and assisted in 200-plus enemy kills, which I knew was wrong, because anybody in the Air Force knows that an airstrike has collateral damage, you know, a significant amount of the time.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying you knew it was much more.

CIAN WESTMORELAND: Well, I’m saying that it wasn’t all enemies. It was civilians, as well. And when I looked at the UNAMA report that came out early the next year, it was saying somewhere upward of 350 civilian kills. So, it’s kind of—it’s made me sort of re-evaluate what I was doing there, and try and figure out, you know, exactly how we—we got that on our piece of paper.

And we—well, I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that, you know, these are the people that were actually administering the strikes. You had pilots that pulled the trigger, you had imagery analysts that picked the targets, and the—you know, the decision maker. And all within the system, it’s—the responsibility for killing the person is divided, so nobody feels the full responsibility of what they’re doing. And I think that we’re moving towards a world where—in aerial warfare, where increasingly there’s going to be more technicians and less decision makers. And I think we should open up a new paradigm of, you know, ethics and what it means to do your duty as a technician. And I think one of the more influential voices for me was Oppenheimer, the—

AMY GOODMAN: J. Robert Oppenheimer.

CIAN WESTMORELAND: J. Robert Oppenheimer, yeah, exactly, who developed the atomic bomb. And, I mean, to see the effects of that must have been devastating. He must have felt like a destroyer of worlds. And I think, for me, that’s kind of how I feel, because all the signals were coming through there, and everybody who was making that system work was responsible. And I think how this applies to Germany is that the air base in Ramstein housing that data relay station, the people there are responsible for whatever signals that are going through there. And the German government, not communicating to the public or not knowing what we were doing, it was a big disrespect on America’s part and potentially the German government’s part. I’m not saying that they knew.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break—


AMY GOODMAN: —but then we’re going to come back to your question, Juan. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s quote—I think he was quoting the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the—he was the leading scientist that created the atomic bomb in New Mexico. And you live in New Mexico, right, Cian?


AMY GOODMAN: Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis, Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas, four young men who are speaking out—between them, more than 20 years of experience operating military drones. They have all written a letter to President Obama. We urge you to stay with us as we continue this discussion. Back in a minute.

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