POINT. CLICK. KILL. A debate on CIA’s Covert Warfare

December 11, 2014

A virtual, desert-like world comes into view. Dark orange skies loom over heavy armed  soldiers. The image closes in on a camera hanging underneath an overflying airplane and it zooms out again to show it is being controlled by an operator from across the sea. Then, the animated plane drops out of the sky and the virtual world transforms into a realistic depiction of a drone type called ‘Reaper’. The screen reads: “It’s not science fiction. It’s what we do every day”.

 These images originate from a US Air Force recruitment video that is aimed at enlisting potential drone pilots and it gives an impression of what it is we are talking about on a Sunday evening in Spui25 in Amsterdam. In the context of the screening of the documentary DRONE at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, PAX organized a debate with director Tonje Hessen Schei, former drone pilot Brandon Bryant and drone expert Wim Zwijnenburg. Although the video communicates a positive and somewhat harmless outlook on the use of drones, Zwijnenburg opens the evening by saying that there are reasons why we need to worry about drones as they are increasingly being armed.

Points per kill

The first targeted drone attack conducted by the CIA took place in Yemen in 2002, merely a year after the US started using drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes in Afghanistan. The use and deployment of drones in the War on Terror have expanded significantly ever since, up to the point that the CIA and the US Air Force not only use drones to carry out ‘high-level’ targeted killings on Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan, Yemen, the Gaza strip and Libya, but also conduct so-called ‘signature strikes’. These strikes focus on suspected terrorists or militants whose identities are unknown, but who portray behavior that may indicate terrorist activity. The US government legitimates these strikes by arguing that extremist groups pose an imminent threat and that drones can eliminate them in a very precise and effective manner. In other words: “Hit them before they hit us”.

However, it is questionable whether the drone attacks are as accurate and effective as the US claims. Studies have shown that the number of ‘high-level’ targets killed as a percentage of the total amount of casualties is only 2%. Who make up the other 98% is not hard to imagine. Available data indicates that in Pakistan from June 2004 through September 2012, 2562 to 3325 people were killed. Between 474-881 of them are known to be civilians, including 176 children. However, the precise amount of civilian and military casualties remains unclear, as there is no complete set of data available, due to the lack of transparency on the amount of drone flights and attacks.

Therefore, director Tonje Hessen Schei states, “we need to have a strict framework of laws”. She says that during the production of the documentary (spanning over three years), she was surprised at how fast technology develops and how quickly drones were transforming the ways of warfare. For example, the US Air Force not only uses movie clips to attract new drone operators, they now actively recruit young (mostly) boys who show potential to control real-life drones at game conferences. Some might not even be older than fifteen. It is not surprising that one of Hessen Schei’s biggest concerns is the blurring line between the virtual and the real world. Developments concerning the connection, or disconnection, between the virtual and the real world, raise new ethical, moral and legal questions. “Should you be able to kill people on the other side of the world?”, Hessen Schei asks herself and she invites the audience to think about this. Does the distance between operator and target lower the threshold of violence? Will we be wired to earn points per kill?

In the name of uninformed people

“People should understand what’s been done in their name.” Brandon Bryant is one of the few former pilots who has dared to step forward about the issue. One of the audience members asks Bryant whether he can tell something about his personal experience with the signature strikes. “Patterns of life is what we called them,” he answers. “We would look at groups of people, waiting for them [to do] something that warned us to go after them.” Through the lens of his drone, Bryant witnessed marriages, funerals, children playing and people celebrating, while knowing that one of them was the suspected target and that he would be the one responsible for pushing the button. Sometimes, Bryant continues, they were given the command to monitor the area after an attack. Once, he discovered a wounded man on his screen and he had to watch him bleed out and die. “I realized I was a bad guy and decided to leave”. His experiences of being a drone pilot, leaving the Army and generating publicity about the American employment of armed drones, left him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, accusations of treason and little to no support for his decision to speak out.

Film still from documentary ‘ DRONE’, depicting the work station of a drone operator.
Film still from documentary ‘ DRONE’, depicting the work station of a drone operator.

At the end of the evening, a female student asks about the hopes and objectives of the panel members. Bryant starts by saying that he doesn’t have a plan. He just wants to tell the truth. “The ultimate plan, I guess, is to stop the US from continuing this war on terror. [Because] you can’t have a war against a thought or ideology.” Hessen Schei adds that it has become too easy to go to war. “The distance that we have to the wars we fight, [means] we don’t think about the people that are being killed as people”. She hopes that the dehumanizing industry of war will change, and it starts by telling people about what is going on. “As a filmmaker I have a responsibility to tell important stories […] The least I can do is to bring the issue.” Zwijnenburg agrees with the necessity to raise awareness about the use of these kinds of weapons. International work, he adds, should focus on building a norm towards drones that addresses how they are being used inside as well as outside of conflict and the protection of civilians in those situations. Although armed drones are weapons of effectiveness and precision, that doesn’t mean it makes it right to point, click and kill.

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