The trouble with drones

As the U.S. questions its strike protocols, we interview director of new film, Drone, screening at the Hot Docs Festival.
By: /
April 24, 2015
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‘Drone’ is one of more than 200 documentary films from 45 countries screened this week and next, as part of this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Director Tonje Hessen Schei spoke to OpenCanada from her home in Norway before making her way to Toronto, where the film will be screened on April 24, April 25 and May 2. The film highlights the psychological toll on drone pilots, the impact on communities living under drones, and the few officials who have spoken openly on the potential for error. 

Here, just one day after the White House admitted a drone attack killed two al-Qaeda hostages in January, including an American aid worker, director Hessen Schei discusses the real casualties of the CIA's use of drones, how other groups and states are following suit, and the difficult task of convincing those to speak out for her film.

Tell me about your reasons for making Drone or the statement you wanted to make with it.

I got the idea while I was working on my last film, Play Again. It looks at how kids in the States are growing up behind screens and spending most of their time in virtual world and I came across this story of this gamer who dropped out of high school and became a drone pilot because of his skills from gaming. And when he was 19, he was an instructor for other drone pilots and the thought of young kids going from getting points per kill to actually killing real people on the other side of the world really was very concerning to me.

And then when I saw how Obama went from the promise of closing Guantanamo to basically just assassinating people with their families based on suspicion of an imminent threat without accountability and no transparency and the rest of the world just being silent around this. That’s really when I decided to make this film.

What has been so surprising to me, in all of this, is looking at how drones have changed warfare and probably our future and the U.S. setting such a dangerous example with the CIA use of drones, where they’re killing people outside of declared war zones and we’re looking at the incredibly fast spread of this technology.

How are we going to point our finger at Russia or China or Iran when they start taking out people that they see as imminent threats around the world? There are 100 countries that have military drones or are developing military drones right now. So [it’s about] setting a standard for what kind of warfare we want to have.

So many people are being killed without us really stopping to ask the questions like, is this effective, is this in fact making the world a safer place? I just feel like the drones are sold as these perfect weapons in the war on terror — they are surgical, precise; they can just limit civilian casualties. Yes they are better than, you know, carpet bombing a place but that wouldn’t happen the way drones are used anyway so that comparison falls very short to me.

You bring up the fact that those targeted by drones are not being tried legally. There was criticism for the lack of due process in Guantanamo but here you do not have any semblance of a legal process at all. And in addition, it seems those justifying the use of drones say militants are the target, not civilians. Yet the way to distinguish between those groups seems somewhat arbitrary, sometimes based on behavioral patterns, age or gender. Is that a false distinction they are making?

Yeah. We’re focusing on Pakistan [in the film] and the numbers there are really dark. There are some estimates from the New America Foundation; they say that in Pakistan there have been 64 high-level militants that have been taken out and there has been over 3,000 people killed in Pakistan [by drone strikes]. Percentage wise, it comes down to between two and four per cent of the people killed are what they call high-level militants. So what kind of threat are the other 96 percent of people that have been killed? And living under the drones — I don’t think we here in the West are really aware of how we’re actually terrorizing a whole population with this. The drones are sold are these very easy, cheap, sexy tactic to deal with terrorists, risk free. But we’re not having a proper discussion on the long-term consequences of this strategy. Colonel [Lawrence] Wilkerson says this so well in the film — how can we win this war when with every time we kill four, we create 10? I feel like we’re just putting fuel on the fire.

It is mentioned in the film that enemies always adopt the others' technology, eventually. You have to wonder if officials sanctioning drones fear that idea — that there may be drones, operated from somewhere else in the world, flying over somewhere in the U.S. at some point.

It surprises me over and over that it seems that our leaders don’t learn from history. I was listening to a recent interview with Obama and he was blaming the Bush administration for creating the Islamic State. He said, ‘it’s important to aim before you shoot,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, Mr. President, a very good point.’

I really hope we get to push this film out in the States and I’d love to do something to fuel that discussion up again because I think the numbers are right now that 66 percent of Americans are in support of drone strikes. And I do think that is because of a lack of information really. I do think that they are being sold a very ,very simplified notion of the effects of drone strikes.

When you say other countries are developing this capability, are there many that are using it at the moment?

It all started in Israel. England is using them but that’s in declared war zones. It’s not like I am anti-drone in general, what I’m mostly concerned about is the CIA's use of drones, where you have warfare outside of declared war zones, with no transparency and no accountability, so I think that’s an important distinction.

Both Pakistan and Somalia are very interested. In Pakistan, they have started using drones themselves after getting training from the States. And some might say that’s a good development but when you all of a sudden have governments that are so unstable in charge of this technology, I mean that’s also entering a different grey zone. Who’s going to be then monitoring violations of human rights and what is going on? Personally I think it is just a matter of time before China and Russia and Iran for example start using the technology that we do know that they have.

And where does the use of drones fall into international law — is that declared versus non-declared war zone relevant there? Does it violate current international law?

They are still debating this [at the UN]. The number one thing we really need is more transparency from the States about what they are doing. We just have the numbers on the ground of civilians that have been killed. Through the production [of this film], just talking to the researchers on the forefront of this warfare, there’s pretty strong evidence that there are possible war crimes being committed with the drone strikes, the attack of rescuers [of the wounded] called ‘double tap’ is definitely against the laws of war and then you have the whole notion of the signature strike where you kill people based on behaviour like being in a group or carrying a gun.

And then for a long period of time, the Pakistani government claimed that these strikes were illegal, that there were no agreement with the States. Now what has happened after the horrific terrorist attack in Peshawar, things have gotten a little bit more murky. But when Pakistan comes to the UN and says these strikes are illegal, please help us stop these, it is up to the international community to also take action.

Also, a very basic law in war is that you should be able to surrender. That’s very difficult when it comes to a drone. So I think the drones just sort of came in through the back door and became our new normal without us having a proper debate on the legal, ethical and moral challenges that this new technology or new use of the technology is raising.

Because these are unmanned machines, you almost feel the machine itself carries a lot of responsibility — has there been any accountability toward the manufacturers, who are around the world, including in Canada? There are many other uses for drones but if military contracts are the most lucrative… The film follows one legal case in Pakistan against CIA officials, have there been any cases against manufacturers?

[Human rights group] Reprieve was working on Corporate Social Responsibility during the production [of the film]. I’m not exactly sure where that stands now. One interesting development was just [this month] that Shahzad [Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer] actually won his case with Kareem Khan his client that we see at the beginning of the film. The high court in Islamabad ruled that they will pursue a case against the two CIA officials that were in charge of the CIA operation in Pakistan in 2009 and they [may be] charged with murder, war crimes and terrorism. So that just shows that maybe it is possible for some kind of accountability and some kind of justice. Who knows, it might just be symbolic but it is the first case of a drone victim that’s actually gone through to this point.

We’re looking at this in Norway too. We have a Norwegian version of the film coming out that’s looking at the Norwegian role and responsibility in this, in sharing of intelligence and that goes for so many [countries], the weapons industry — here in Norway we are making the fuel for Hellfire missiles — and also just investments in drone companies.

What I feel is the most depressing is our silence — the lack of ability to really criticize the States for what they’re doing.

And speaking of silence, how difficult was it to make this film, to get people to speak to you?

It took a lot of time and perseverance and probably a little bit of madness. We’re a small team but we built up this production pretty fast so we went from being three main people to I think were 42 people in our team in the heat of it all. But also it was very important for us to talk to people at the frontline of this drone war. It was important for us to speak to drone pilots who are struggling with this way of killing. It was important for us to speak to people in the ground. It definitely took a lot of time, a lot of networking.

Did you encounter a lot of closed doors?

Yeah. It was very, very hard to get the Obama administration to come with any sort of statement or agree to any interviews, and getting access to U.S. air force took a long time. In fact, they did not open their front door until [former drone pilot] Brandon Bryant agreed to meet with us and be part of the film. It definitely took a lot of time. A lot of phone calls.

Beyond the fight against al-Qaeda, where are drones being used — in the current war on ISIS, for instance.

Absolutely. [Journalist] Chris Woods has just done an extensive study on this and what he has found is that yet again the U.S. is saying there are no civilian causalities, and what he has found is that there are a lot of civilian casualties. But they are not being counted and they are not being mentioned in any media coverage.

I definitely think that drones are here to stay. It is where we are going in the future of warfare. It is just the beginning. In the weapons industry, things are becoming more automated and I think it is a question of time before humans are more out of the loop. There’s a lot of focus on this in the United Nations and there are a lot of NGOs that are working against this, I just worry how the weapons industry and the U.S. is going to respect these institutions and warnings.

What part are you hoping the film plays in those discussions; will it be screened in the U.S.?

That’s one thing that we really hope to establish more when were at Hot Docs — how to release this film widely in North America, so hopefully that’s coming very soon.