by Sam Rolley
When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you’re piloting a lethal drone, everyone looks like a dangerous militant. That is, according to a former employee of the U.S. drone program.
In a commentary published in Sunday’s The Guardian, former U.S. Air Force imagery analyst Heather Linebaugh offers a firs-hand account of the moments of uncertainty drone pilots face as they decide whether the people on their computer screens will live or die.
Drone operators and analysts routinely make life or death decisions while sitting thousands of miles away from targets that they cannot always clearly identify even under the best operating conditions, according to Linebaugh. The former drone analyst contends, despite the claims of politicians and military officials, that civilian casualty rates from drone strikes are high because the pilots are often unable to get a clear picture of the targets they kill.
She writes: “What the public needs to understand is that the video provided by a drone is not usually clear enough to detect someone carrying a weapon, even on a crystal-clear day with limited cloud and perfect light. This makes it incredibly difficult for the best analysts to identify if someone has weapons for sure. One example comes to mind: ‘The feed is so pixelated, what if it’s a shovel, and not a weapon?’ I felt this confusion constantly, as did my fellow UAV analysts. We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle.”
Linebaugh says that the underreported shortcomings of drones have disastrous consequences not only for the civilians killed in strikes but also for the people operating the drones.
“UAV troops are victim to not only the haunting memories of this work that they carry with them, but also the guilt of always being a little unsure of how accurate their confirmations of weapons or identification of hostile individuals were,” she writes.
“Of course, we are trained to not experience these feelings, and we fight it, and become bitter. Some troops seek help in mental health clinics provided by the military, but we are limited on who we can talk to and where, because of the secrecy of our missions,” Linebaugh continues. “I find it interesting that the suicide statistics in this career field aren’t reported, nor are the data on how many troops working in UAV positions are heavily medicated for depression, sleep disorders and anxiety.”
A report released in October by Human Rights Watch titled “Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda: The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen” examined six U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-2013. The report found that two of the drone strikes killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war. The other strikes, according to the report, targeted people who were not legitimate military targets and caused avoidable civilian deaths. The Human Rights Watch report also provided grisly details and firsthand accounts of botched U.S. drone operations in the region in which it says at least 57 of the 82 people killed were civilians. One 2009 attack noted in the report claimed the lives of 41 civilians.