Who is flying the CIA's drones over Pakistan? It might not be who you think it is—it turns out it's not CIA pilots, or civilian contractors under the auspice of the CIA, but rather conventional US Air Force pilots.
That's according to multiple former drone pilots featured in a new Norwegian documentary, aptly titled Drone, which cites both on- and off-the-record interviews with one-time operators of the Pentagon's Predator and Reaper drone. In the film, the whistleblowers allege that regular Air Force pilots, not the CIA proper, are doing the heavy lifting in the CIA's shadow wars over Pakistan.
"The CIA might be the customer but the Air Force has always flown it," Brandon Bryant, one of the pilots who appears in Drone, told The Guardian.
You might be saying, so what? It's common knowledge that the CIA is no longer just any old intelligence agency, and that drones, more than any other hunter-killer technology, have turned the CIA into a full-on paramilitary force. It probably comes as little surprise to hear someone like Brady, a guy who logged countless hours flying lethal drone missions over the Middle East from an air conditioned trailer at Creech Air Base in Nevada (and who's become arguably the most vocal critic of the American drone program), testifying that the CIA is overextending its traditionally spy-based MO. Of course, Obama has been urging the CIA to turn over drone duties to the Pentagon, which owns most of America's drones.
Is the US military violating the same international guidelines on extrajudicial killing that critics of the CIA's program say the agency has undercut? What rulebook is the CIA using anyway?
But what's crucial here is that if indeed the claim is true—and it's hard to say 100 percent if it is, as the CIA, operating with near impunity in Pakistan over the last year, doesn't talk much about the campaign—it suggests that the CIA is ordering the military to engage in acts of war. The revelations would thus raise "a host of additional pressing questions about the legal framework under which the targeted killing program is carried out and the basis for the secrecy that continues to shroud it," Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, told The Guardian.
From just the top level of those additional knotty questions: If true, is the US military violating the same international guidelines on extrajudicial killing that critics of the CIA's program say the agency has undercut? To that point, what rule set is the CIA adhering to when it comes to using drones to track and kill suspected terrorists abroad, anyway? Because of the secrecy, political vacuums and legal maneuvers used to carry out these strikes, we don't know, and may not ever fully know. For now, we're left with the journalistic forensics of a drone strike to paint a macabre picture of what's actually going on.
But we do know that a revelation affirming that the CIA has in fact tapped the Air Force to do its drone bidding could very well subject personnel with the flying service to blowback by sheer virtue of their involvement in such a hot-button program. And we do know, based on interviews with Bryant and Mike Haas, another former drone pilot in Drone, the Air Force wing selected by the CIA is Creech's 17th Reconnaissance Squadron. (The National Security Council, the CIA and the Pentagon declined to comment last week when contacted by Guardian reporters.)
Regardless of who's at the joystick, the CIA's covert drone actions, which are also devastating parts of neighboring Yemen, have upended data analysis and threat assessment, the two pillars of what was once the CIA's wonky bread and butter. Which is to say, we should not expect the agency to, as Obama ordered last year, give up its drone war any time soon.