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A CIA Drone Analyst Apologizes to the People of Afghanistan

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As the United States ends a 20-year occupation of Afghanistan, a former intelligence analyst for the CIA’s drone program offers an apology to the people of Afghanistan “from not only myself, but from the rest of our society as Americans.” During deployments to Afghanistan, Christopher Aaron says he was able to see “the human toll, the resource toll of these wars, as well as the fact that the policy of dropping 'guided missiles' at people from remote controlled airplanes was not allowing us to actually win the war.” We also speak with Eyal Press, who profiles Aaron in his new book, “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America.” He says the U.S. has developed a military strategy of carrying out drone strikes and wars “in the shadows: doing it out of sight, out of mind.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to one of the workers in your new book, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America: Christopher Aaron, a former intelligence analyst for the CIA’s drone program. A 2018 article that described his job opened like this: quote, “In the spring of 2006, Christopher Aaron started working 12-hour shifts in a windowless room at the Counterterrorism Airborne Analysis Center in Langley, Va. He sat before a wall of flat-screen monitors that beamed live, classified video feeds from drones hovering in distant war zones.” Christopher Aaron joins us now from Tucson, Arizona.

Christopher, welcome to Democracy Now! Describe the work you were doing in this faraway, windowless room. Well, I mean by that, far away from your targets in Afghanistan.

CHRISTOPHER AARON: Yes. First of all, Amy, thank you so much for having me on the show today.

If I could just take one moment — I’ve done this personally in the past, but I would like to take a moment, now that the war is officially over, to offer an apology to the people of Afghanistan, from not only myself, but from the rest of our society as Americans. I think there needs to be, somewhere in this dialogue, a place for the human emotion of what we have all been through. And my words are wholly insufficient to do that, but if anyone is listening on the other side of the planet, we all apologize for what we have just done.

My work was as an intelligence analyst. We were — you know, as the article says, we were behind video screens. There’s a lot that was classified that I can’t get into. I began my career working for another intelligence agency and then transferred over to this fusion cell at the CIA headquarters. This was my career out of college, you know, as a product of the 9/11 generation. And I wanted to do something for my generation that I saw that mattered, where I could do some good to try to help the world. We were behind the screens for 12 hours, you know, three to four days a week, on rotating shifts, all hours of the night and day.

After a few months, I had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan, and I served two six-month deployments, one in 2006 and then one again in 2008 to 2009. And so I was able to see with my own eyes both the human toll, the resource toll of these wars, as well as the fact that the policy of dropping, quote-unquote, “guided missiles” at people from remote-controlled airplanes was not allowing us to actually win the war. So, all three of those sides of things were failing, in my view.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris, you know, as the U.S. was pulling out of Afghanistan, and they talk about over-the-horizon capability, precisely what you’re talking about, that the troops may not be there on the ground, but drone strikes — well, in the last days of the U.S. presence in Kabul, that drone strike that killed a family of 10, seven of them children, some under 5. Your feelings as you watched that unfold?

CHRISTOPHER AARON: It’s just horrific to see this happening as we are withdrawing. You know, I don’t want to say this was commonplace throughout my time in the wars, but it certainly happened. You know, for every kill that we had of a, quote-unquote, “extremist” or “terrorist,” it’s impossible to say, but there were certainly innocent casualties the entire time. We would often see in the streets the next day — we would be going after one person with a targeted strike, and the next day we would see two or three coffins being carried through the streets.

And there was just this attitude at the time amongst the military or in the intelligence community, like, “Well, you know, this is the cost of war. This is what we have to do to get the terrorists, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, etc.” But you really start to put the pieces together and look at the cause and effect. And, for example, with this drone strike just last week, it’s not only the humans that were killed, but it’s: What about all their brothers? What about their sisters? What about their classmates in school? So, whereas maybe you did successfully kill one extremist or one terrorist, you now have five, 10, 15, 30 new ones to take their place. It’s a failing policy. It’s as simple as that.

AMY GOODMAN: And as the war comes to — this chapter of this forever war comes to an end, how representative are you, in speaking to your colleagues, the other people who were in that room, if you still do, other soldiers? In the corporate media, they have vet after soldier saying, “If we’re pulling out now, what did we do this for?” questioning the pullout, but not so much just the critical point of that question: What did we do this for?

CHRISTOPHER AARON: It’s a wonderful question. I began to ask myself that in 2006, and certainly after coming back again in 2008 to 2009. I saw with my own eyes that — not only, of course, the wasted resources, the human toll, on both sides of the fence, including the soldiers who I worked with, who suffer tremendously from PTSD — which is something that I’m passionate about, as well — but the loss of areas of control of the country in 2008, 2009, the entire region in southern Afghanistan of Kandahar.

This might sound kind of silly, but I had Thanksgiving dinner there in 2006 as we were flying into some of the remote bases. And by 2009, we could not return there. So, I was like, “Wait a minute. You know, we’re continuing this war.” This was in 2009. “We can’t go back to a base that we formerly controlled. Why were we there the entire time?”

You know, there are others. I’m not the only one who has spoken out about this. There is Brandon Bryant, Cian Westmoreland, Lisa Ling and, of course, Daniel Hale, who has just been imprisoned just a month or two ago. However, I would say that it’s few and far between, the people —

AMY GOODMAN: For releasing information about the drone program.

CHRISTOPHER AARON: Correct, correct. And there were one or two pieces in there which were classified. It’s something that I’m very careful about. However, you know, that’s what they got him for, under the Espionage Act.

Ultimately, what were we there for? I am unable to accept that, you know, me, as a 29-year-old back in 2009, that something that was so obvious to me about the failing of the trajectory of the wars — I’m unable to believe that my military superiors and the politicians way above me were not able to see the same thing. And so, when faced with those sets of facts, a thinking person has to say, “Was there not perhaps a policy in play to keep us in a state of war for one reason or another?”

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, that the questioning of why you were doing this — I mean, the apology you made at the beginning of this conversation — contributes to the horror you experience afterwards?

CHRISTOPHER AARON: It does, I know, for me, and not only for me, for a lot of other people who I’m in touch with through veterans’ retreats. And to be fully upfront, again, to state it for the record, I am not technically a veteran. I was a DOD civilian. So, it’s a question of where your paycheck comes from. DOD civilian with a gun in a war zone, you know, working on the drone program. But anyway, I am in touch with a number of people who are also — who have suffered in this way. And it’s a different kind of PTSD. There’s no way that I can compare what I went through to some of the people who saw their brothers in the military blown up in front of them or who themselves lost limbs or senses. I’m not trying to compare what we experienced to that. But at the same time, there’s something that we experienced.

And people who volunteered for this program because we love this country, we love things that this country stands for, as far as the freedoms that we have here, and then when you’re faced with the reality on the ground, through the video screen, that what is actually happening on the ground is not what is being reported in the mainstream media and is not what the higher-ups in the military structure are telling us is going to win the war, you start to feel an immense sense of regret. And that’s, you know, what I spoke with Eyal about extensively leading up to The New York Times article, is this, what they call, you know, moral injury or moral regret. And it’s for real.

AMY GOODMAN: Eyal, if you could talk about why you decided to include Chris, a drone operator for the CIA, in your profiling of essential workers? In your book, you say, “The truth is, the drone program doesn’t just serve the interests of military contractors.” Talk about who it serves.

EYAL PRESS: Well, I think that it’s so appropriate that Chris began with that moving apology, and he made it collective. He wasn’t just saying he’s sorry, but that he’s part of a society that has chosen to fight wars this way. And that’s why I focused on him and other people in the drone program.

You know, after Iraq and Afghanistan, the ground invasions, America was exhausted by those wars, disillusioned, and didn’t like the cost, the price tag, both in terms of casualties and resources. And so, what happened? Well, under Obama first, and then again under Trump, drones, fighting from a distance without any physical risk, at least, to our side, and taking these war — keeping the same right to target and kill people, even in countries with which we’re not formally at war, but doing it in the shadows, doing it out of sight, out of mind.

And the fundamental theme of my book is that those acts are not just the military’s, and they are not just Chris Aaron’s, and they are not just the current people in the drone program’s. They’re ours. We own what those — what the impact of that is, with the legal repercussions and the moral repercussions.

And I just am struck that, you know, in the beginning of the drone program, there was so much talk about this being antiseptic, and it would be like playing a video game. But then, as I researched it and also looked at what the military itself has found, you have huge rates of burnout in the program, and analysts and imagery analysts and drone operators who quit or who just are mentally and emotionally and psychically distressed. Why? Why? It’s not because they evaded roadside bombs, in the kind of the sense of injuries and PTSD that soldiers on the ground have had. It’s because they’re seeing, intimately, day after day, shift after shift, violence unfolding on screens, from a distance, for which, in some cases, they feel responsible, for things that go wrong, for things that — for a strike that happens and they’re not sure who was hit.

And so, this term “moral injury” kept coming up, not just in what I was reading, but when I actually visited some bases and talked to psychiatrists on those bases. And I think that that moral injury, again, doesn’t belong just to the people who experience it, who are seeing what is done, but it belongs to all of us, to the society that has decided this is one of the ways we will continue fighting our wars.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, very quickly, Chris, were you what many called a “joystick warrior”? And were these so-called joystick warriors, drone operators, treated differently than soldiers in the battlefield?

CHRISTOPHER AARON: I was not a joystick operator. We communicated with them directly. There’s a whole series of intelligence sources that come together to ultimately decide whether or not a strike will happen, a missile will be launched from the drone or soldiers will go in. So, where I fit in that chain was as an intelligence analyst. We essentially were providing the raw assessment as to what was happening on the ground. Are there people — so, let’s say we have the target, who would be, let’s say, the extremist inside a building that we’re watching from the drone, and then the military commanders would come to us and say, “Are there women or children in that building, as well?” And based on the answers that we would give to them, sometimes a minute later, we would see a bright flash on the screen, and you’re then counting how many dead bodies, in fact, do you see after that strike. So, I was not the joystick operator myself, but, you know, that information is basically driving what the joystick operator does.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Christopher Aaron, for joining us, former intelligence analyst for CIA’s drone program. Eyal Press, please stay with us, author of Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America. And we’re also going to link to that piece you wrote in The New York Times. And we’re going to speak, after break, to another person profiled in Dirty Work, Dulce Castañeda, the Children of Smithfield, led by family members of meatpacking workers. Stay with us.

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