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Truthdiggers of the Week: Former Air Force Pilots Who Blew the Whistle on U.S. Drone Program

Posted on Dec 12, 2015

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

Would you blow the whistle on your boss if you believed he or she was engaged in wrongdoing? You’d probably sabotage your livelihood, because what self-interested employer would hire someone who had exposed a previous boss to public scrutiny and even judicial punishment? Moreover, if you were a grunt in the empire’s war on terror, would you risk prosecution by one of the most antagonistic Justice departments in U.S. history?

Meet Brandon Bryant, Michael Haas, Cian Westmoreland and Stephen Lewis. In an open letter published in mid-November, the four former Air Force servicemen accused President Obama of creating and carrying out a “drone program that is one of the most devastating forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.” Nearly 90 percent of people killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia between January 2012 and February 2013, for example—more than 160 people—were not the intended targets. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the United States has killed up to 1,240 civilians across those countries, including 251 children, since the early 2000s.

WATCH: Bryant, Haas, Westmoreland and Lewis give their first broadcast interview, on “Democracy Now!”

“We joined the Air Force to protect American lives and to protect our Constitution,” the four wrote in the open letter, addressed to Obama, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and CIA Director John Brennan. “We came to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like [Islamic State], while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay,” the notorious prison in Cuba where foreigners suspected of being threats to the U.S. have been kept.

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“When the guilt of our roles in facilitating this systematic loss of innocent life became too much, all of us succumbed to PTSD,” the whistleblowers continued. “We were cut loose by the same government we gave so much to—sent out in the world without adequate medical care, reliable public health services, or necessary benefits. Some of us are now homeless. Others of us barely make it.

READ: “The Drone Papers,” published in October by The Intercept with the cooperation of an unnamed whistleblower.

“We witnessed gross waste, mismanagement, abuses of power, and our country’s leaders lying publicly about the effectiveness of the drone program. We cannot sit silently by and witness tragedies like the attacks in Paris,” in which anti-Western militants killed 130 people in November, “knowing the devastating effects of the drone program has overseas and at home. Such silence would violate the very oaths we took to support and defend the Constitution.

“We request that you consider our perspective, though perhaps that request is in vain given the unprecedented prosecution of truth-tellers who came before us like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden. For the sake of this country, we hope it is otherwise.”

To give one’s full attention to those words, to the interviews Bryant, Haas, Westmoreland and Lewis have given in the new documentary “Drone,” on “Democracy Now!” and major broadcast organizations, and to the history of gratuitous waste, death, pain and hatred that characterize the policy Obama inherited but made his own, is to feel a tremendous sense of betrayal by leaders who have cynically decided to do whatever they can to justify their actions. You’ve heard it all before. “War cannot be avoided.” “If we don’t fight them over there, we’ll fight them over here.” “Drones keep our soldiers out harm’s way.”

But when the faithful execution of policy exacerbates the problem the policy is supposed to resolve, we have not leadership but the abdication of leadership, the surrender of power to indifferent forces. In this instance, to uniformed hawks, chauvinistic elements of the public and well-financed military industrialists. Bryant, Haas, Westmoreland and Lewis—with their flat, solemn voices and downcast, sometimes deadened eyes—know this. Rather than give themselves over to fear, despair and cynicism, they are using their most powerful tool as witnesses of injustice: their voices. For that, they are our Truthdiggers of the Week.


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