The Running Imam


More tales of the drone wars.

Citizen, now you can do your part to fight international terrorism from the comfort of your own MQ-9 Reaper drone console. Citing “lack of appropriately cleared and currently qualified MQ-9 pilots,” the Air Force is now hiring civilian contractors to fly the patrols in “global hot spots,” reports the L.A. Times:

For the first time, civilian pilots and crews now operate what the Air Force calls “combat air patrols,” daily round-the-clock flights above areas of military operations to provide video and collect other sensitive intelligence.


Civilians are not allowed to pinpoint targets with lasers or fire missiles. They operate only Reapers that provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, known as ISR, said Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command.

So that’s comforting. Still:

A lengthy article in the 2013 Air Force Law Review, a publication of the judge advocate general’s office, contended that over-reliance on contractors in a combat zone risks violating international law that prohibits direct civilian participation in hostilities.

It cites a Predator missile attack that killed 15 civilians in central Afghanistan in February 2010. Although the military piloted and operated the drone, the decision to fire a Hellfire missile “was largely based upon intelligence analysis conducted and reported by a civilian contractor.”

Pardon my noticing, but the United States abandoned all pretense of following international law when it invaded Iraq on Trumped-up™ intelligence and began torturing prisoners. Now we are worried about blurring the lines between the military and civilians? Does Blackwater ring any bells?

There is a reason the Air Force is having trouble finding and retaining drone pilots for its point-and-click assassination program. Pilots are quitting in record numbers:

Some say that the drone war has driven them over the edge. “How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile? How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?” Heather Linebaugh, a former drone imagery analyst, wrote in the Guardian. “When you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience.”

“It was horrifying to know how easy it was. I felt like a coward because I was halfway across the world and the guy never even knew I was there,” Bryant told KNPR Radio in Nevada. “I felt like I was haunted by a legion of the dead. My physical health was gone, my mental health was crumbled. I was in so much pain I was ready to eat a bullet myself.”

Four former drone-team members held a press conference this month about killing by remote control and the grotesque culture of it. “We have seen the abuse firsthand and we are horrified,” said former Air Force Staff Sgt. Brandon Bryant:

The killings, part of the Obama administration’s targeted assassination program, are aiding terrorist recruitment and thus undermining the program’s goal of eliminating such fighters, the veterans added. Drone operators refer to children as “fun-size terrorists” and liken killing them to “cutting the grass before it grows too long,” said one of the operators, Michael Haas, a former senior airman in the Air Force. Haas also described widespread drug and alcohol abuse, further stating that some operators had flown missions while impaired.

Haas was reprimanded for failing a trainee who expressed a willingness to kill people spotted on the ground because “they look like they are up to no good.” But pilots are in short supply. Superiors ordered him to pass students in the future to maintain a steady supply. Bryant told reporters of a time his Predator drone crew fired a Hellfire missile at “five tribal individuals and their camel” believed to be carrying explosives from Pakistan to Afghanistan for use in attacking American troops. Bryant saw no sign of weapons:

“We waited for those men to settle down in their beds and then we killed them in their sleep. That was cowardly murder,” he said.

The group issued a public letter to President Obama about their concerns. Their bank accounts and credit cards have since been locked, alleges Jesselyn Radack, a national security and human rights attorney, known for her defense of whistleblowers, journalists, and hacktivists:

It is all pretty creepy. Like a real-life version of The Running Man, except the targets of the game show’s “stalkers” are not even convicted murderers, but people who from 20,000 feet and half a world away look like they are up to no good, people who “must have done something” to justify death. What do we call this ugly reality show, The Running Imam?

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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