Documents Expose Predator Drones Spying Extensively in U.S.

Predator drones used by multiple agencies in domestic airspace could be armed.

Kit Daniels
July 4, 2013

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is now lending Predator drones to a wide range of federal, state, and local agencies for domestic surveillance and possible “non-lethal” strikes, according to federal documents released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Predatpr Drone

Credit: Pat Dennis via Flickr

The FBI, the U.S. Marshals and even the Texas Department of Public Safetyhave used CBP Predator drones in U.S. airspace.  In 2010, CBP reported that future drone payloads could include“non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize targets of interest.”

Last month, FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted that the FBI has used drones domestically.

The new documents expose the wide extent of domestic drone use.  The EFF released the documents after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

CBP drone use by other agencies has increased over eight times from 2010 to 2012.

By 2016, CBP wants airborne drones in domestic airspace 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure a “layered security strategy.”

Predator drone mission data can be fused into an information sharing center for federal, state, and local agencies across the country.

This drone data center would operate like current Homeland Security fusion centers which have violated Americans’ civil liberties and privacy according to a two-year Senate investigation.

The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drone, perhaps the most well-known unmanned aerial vehicle, is extensively used overseas by the U.S. Air Force and the CIA for armed drone strikes.

According to Policymic, in a four-year period drone strikes killed at least 800 innocent people in addition to 22 “suspected terrorists,” a civilian kill ratio of at least 36 to 1. Pakistani sources have claimed an even higher civilian kill ratio of 50 to 1.

In June, Brandon Bryant revealed his former career as an Air Force drone operator.

Bryant saw drone strikes kill people through a computer screen half-way across the world.

This method of killing is no doubt dehumanizing. Men, women, and children are reduced to pixelated targets for drone operators who grew up in arcades.

Near the end of his career, Bryant received a past mission “score card” showing over 1,600 deaths.

Bryant said he can still see the blood and gore when he closes his eyes.  Doctors have diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Only time will tell when Predator drones will be used to kill Americans on U.S. soil, unless they have done so already.

Source Documents:

2010 “Concept of Operations” Report to Congress

2012 CPB UAS Mission Prioritization Process Presentation

2010 Daily Flight Logs

2011 Daily Flight Logs – Part 1

2011 Daily Flight Logs – Part 2

2012 Daily Flight Logs – Part 1

2012 Daily Flight Logs – Part 2

2012 Daily Flight Logs – Part 3


Former drone operator says he’s haunted by his part in more than 1,600 deaths

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Former drone operator Brandon Bryant tells NBC’s Richard Engel that he felt like he became a "heartless" "sociopath" under the drone program.

By Richard Engel, Chief Foreign Correspondent, NBC News

A former Air Force drone operator who says he participated in missions that killed more than 1,600 people remembers watching one of the first victims bleed to death.

Brandon Bryant says he was sitting in a chair at a Nevada Air Force base operating the camera when his team fired two missiles from their drone at three men walking down a road halfway around the world in Afghanistan. The missiles hit all three targets, and Bryant says he could see the aftermath on his computer screen – including thermal images of a growing puddle of hot blood.

“The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,” he recalled. “And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.” As the man died his body grew cold, said Bryant, and his thermal image changed until he became the same color as the ground.

“I can see every little pixel,” said Bryant, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, “if I just close my eyes.”

Bryant, now 27, served as a drone sensor operator from 2006 to 2011, at bases in Nevada, New Mexico and in Iraq, guiding unmanned drones over Iraq and Afghanistan. Though he didn’t fire missiles himself he took part in missions that he was told led to the deaths of an estimated 1,626 individuals.

In an interview with NBC News, he provided a rare first-person glimpse into what it’s like to control the controversial machines that have become central to the U.S. effort to kill terrorists.

He says that as an operator he was troubled by the physical disconnect between his daily routine and the violence and power of the faraway drones. “You don’t feel the aircraft turn,” he said. “You don’t feel the hum of the engine. You hear the hum of the computers, but that’s definitely not the same thing.”

At the same time, the images coming back from the drones were very real and very graphic.

“People say that drone strikes are like mortar attacks,” Bryant said. “Well, artillery doesn’t see this. Artillery doesn’t see the results of their actions. It’s really more intimate for us, because we see everything.”

A self-described “naïve” kid from a small Montana town, Bryant joined the Air Force in 2005 at age 19. After he scored well on tests, he said a recruiter told him that as a drone operator he would be like the smart guys in the control room in a James Bond movie, the ones who feed the agent the information he needs to complete his mission.

He trained for three and a half months before participating in his first drone mission. Bryant operated the drone’s cameras from his perch at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada as the drone rose into the air just north of Baghdad.

Bryant and the rest of his team were supposed to use their drone to provide support and protection to patrolling U.S. troops. But he recalls watching helplessly as insurgents buried an IED in a road and a U.S. Humvee drove over it.

“We had no way to warn the troops,” he said. He later learned that three soldiers died.

And once he had taken part in a kill, any remaining illusions about James Bond disappeared. “Like, this isn’t a videogame,” he said. “This isn’t some sort of fantasy. This is war. People die.”

Courtesy Brandon Bryant

Brandon Bryant stands with a Predator drone in Nevada. He says that as an operator he was troubled by the physical disconnect between his daily routine and the violence and power of the faraway drones.

Bryant said that most of the time he was an operator, he and his team and his commanding officers made a concerted effort to avoid civilian casualties.

But he began to wonder who the enemy targets on the ground were, and whether they really posed a threat. He’s still not certain whether the three men in Afghanistan were really Taliban insurgents or just men with guns in a country where many people carry guns. The men were five miles from American forces arguing with each other when the first missile hit them.

“They (didn’t) seem to be in a hurry,” he recalled. “They (were) just doing their thing. … They were probably carrying rifles, but I wasn’t convinced that they were bad guys.“ But as a 21-year-old airman, said Bryant, he didn’t think he had the standing to ask questions.

He also remembers being convinced that he had seen a child scurry onto his screen during one mission just before a missile struck, despite assurances from others that the figure he’d seen was really a dog.

After participating in hundreds of missions over the years, Bryant said he “lost respect for life” and began to feel like a sociopath. He remembers coming into work in 2010, seeing pictures of targeted individuals on the wall – Anwar al-Awlaki and other al Qaeda and Taliban leaders — and musing, “Which one of these f_____s is going to die today?”

In 2011, as Bryant’s career as a drone operator neared its end, he said his commander presented him with what amounted to a scorecard. It showed that he had participated in missions that contributed to the deaths of 1,626 people.

“I would’ve been happy if they never even showed me the piece of paper,” he said. “I’ve seen American soldiers die, innocent people die, and insurgents die. And it’s not pretty. It’s not something that I want to have — this diploma.”

Now that he’s out of the Air Force and back home in Montana, Bryant said he doesn’t want to think about how many people on that list might’ve been innocent: “It’s too heartbreaking.”

The Veterans Administration diagnosed him with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, for which he has undergone counseling. He says his PTSD has manifested itself as anger, sleeplessness and blackout drinking.

“I don’t feel like I can really interact with that average, everyday person,” he said. “I get too frustrated, because A) they don’t realize what’s going on over there. And B) they don’t care.”

He’s also reluctant to tell the people in his personal life what he was doing for five years. When he told a woman he was seeing that he’d been a drone operator, and contributed to the deaths of a large number of people, she cut him off. “She looked at me like I was a monster,” he said. “And she never wanted to touch me again.”


Drone pilot burnout triggers call for recruiting overhaul

Nidhi Subbaraman NBC News

May 17, 2013 at 4:15 AM ET

MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicles sit in a clamshell at night at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, July 31, 2011.

Senior Airman David Carbajal / U.S. Air Force

MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicles sit in a clamshell at night at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, July 31, 2011.

Driving a war drone is a stressful business. Shifts up to 12 hours long are stretches of dullness, watching and waiting, interrupted by flashes of intense activity in which pilots must make life-or-death decisions. Not their own life or death, however.

Pilots may be thousands of miles away from the flying weapons system they’re operating. They often head home at the end of the day, as if returning from any other office job, maybe picking up milk on the way. But while at work, their drones’ onboard cameras put them in a unique position to watch people being killed and injured as a direct result of their actions.

As psychologists learn more about the mental scarring warfare leaves on drone pilots — caused by long shift hours, isolation, witnessing casualties and those Jekyll-and-Hyde days split between battlefield and home — experts from within the U.S. Air Force are calling for a review of drone pilot selection.

Brad Hoagland, an Air Force colonel and visiting researcher at the Brookings Institution, and a fighter-jet pilot and operations commander of 23 years himself, believes that drone pilots could be picked better, and that existing selection techniques are due to be updated now that the service has accumulated almost a decade of research into the psychological characteristics of drone pilots.

"The thrill of taking off from a runway, flying a mission and then coming back and landing at the end of the mission — that’s very exciting," he told NBC News. "But I think that’s a different type of person who can do that, than someone who is maybe wired to fly an unmanned system from a console 7,000 miles away. It’s a different psychological makeup requirement to execute the mission."

Right stuff, wrong stuff
"I think we are still trying to figure out exactly what the ‘right stuff’ is," Wayne Chappelle, a clinical psychologist consulting for Air Force Medical at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, told NBC News. "We have a general idea … but I certainly think we’re probably more aware of what the wrong stuff is versus the right stuff."

The trouble is that spotting the known positive attributes in up-and-coming drone pilots is harder than spotting the negative attributes. To begin with, Chappelle drew up a portrait of the ideal drone pilot from the recorded testimony of 82 drone pilots and their supervisors in a 2011 report.

Good drone pilots, according to Chappelle’s findings, have excellent memory for pictures and sounds. They are bombarded with sounds and images from multiple screens through their long shifts, but parse that data quickly, cutting through the noise. They’re multitaskers and collaborators.

"These guys are very smart, very bright in a wide range of areas. They are emotionally resilient and highly stress tolerant and very motivated," Chappelle said.

People who have a history of abuse or dependence on alcohol, drugs or other substances, anxiety or depression, and cognitive impairments such as learning disabilities tend to make bad drone pilots.

Although the strengths of a drone pilot differ from the strengths of a manned fighter pilot, Chappelle said the psychological screening protocol for both is the same — and hasn’t changed in a decade. "We’re still looking at ways to improve and expand upon the screening procedures."

In his research, Hoagland has found that washout rates among undergraduate pilot trainees headed to crafts like the F-16 are traditionally about 10 to 15 percent. But drone pilot trainees exit at 30 percent (though that’s down from 45 percent a few years ago). Pilots may drop out, but more often, they fail to meet some flight or academic criteria along the way, Hoagland said.

And when they do graduate, they receive mental health diagnoses at a rate on par with pilots who fly in aircraft, and at much higher rates than other non-pilot Air Force personnel, according to a February 2013 report by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center.

NBC News has requested to interview a pilot or pilot instructor at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where drone pilots are trained, but to date the Air Force has declined the request without further explanation.

pilot trainee flies an MQ-1 Predator simulator mission at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico

2nd Lt. Logan Clark / U.S. Air Force

A pilot trainee flies an MQ-1 Predator simulator mission at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico on Feb. 8, 2012.

Testing, testing
In an upcoming report headed to the Pentagon, Hoagland will suggest some fixes for his higher-ups to consider.

For one, though the Air Force has a test called the Pilot Candidate Scoring Method, not all pilot candidates — of drones or manned craft — are given the exam. (The Air Force Academy, for example, only recently started administering it, and only on an "experimental" basis.)

"I can’t believe we as an Air Force haven’t standardized this," Hoagland says. Once everyone’s taking the test, and baseline scores are set, those scores can be mined for indicators as to who might be better suited to fly an F-16 and who might be destined for a drone. "It’s a common sense approach."

Also, though it’s been standard procedure to assess concentration, attention, psychomotor skills as part of the Medical Flight Screening-Neuropsychiatric test in pre-screened pilots-to-be, that information is not used in the selection process. Tests do weed out the medically and psychologically unfit — Hoagland thinks it would be an easy next step to ask: "Is this person suited for an unmanned or manned system?"

The coming swarm
As the Air Force’s drone program grows, so does the importance of pilot selection. What started in 2004 as five drone combat patrols — four aircraft each — will to swell to 65 patrols by 2014. By 2010, Predators had logged more than a million combat hours, more than any other military bird. And today’s population of 1,300 combat drone pilots will be joined by 500 more in the next few years.

And as autonomous systems evolve, the capabilities of unmanned craft will, too. The Air Force will shift to a system with multiple vehicles flown in tandem, answering to a single pilot. These "swarm" handlers will have more complex tasks heaped on them earlier in their career.

"In terms of who we need to have, I think we’re on a learning curve there," Anthony Tvaryanas, a doctor of aerospace medicine and technical advisor with the 711th Human Systems Integration Directorate at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, told NBC News.

"If [a pilot is] operating a swarm, what are you looking for in that person? I don’t think anyone’s looking into those concepts," Tvaryanas said.

"As we get from a pilot in an airplane to a pilot outside the airplane to a pilot controlling 100 airplanes, I think we’re approaching the limits of what [prior experience and studies] can inform us. There’s a need to look back at training," he added.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow her on Facebook,TwitterandGoogle+ .


Death From Above, Outrage Down Below


Published: May 16, 2009

IN recent days, the Pentagon has made two major changes in its strategy to defeat the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their affiliates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. First came the announcement that Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal would take over as the top United States commander in Afghanistan. Next, Pentagon officials said that the United States was giving Pakistan more information on its drone attacks on terrorist targets, while news reports indicated that Pakistani officers would have significant future control over drone routes, targets and decisions to fire weapons (though the military has denied that).

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While we agree with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that “fresh eyes were needed” to review our military strategy in the region, we feel that expanding or even just continuing the drone war is a mistake. In fact, it would be in our best interests, and those of the Pakistani people, to declare a moratorium on drone strikes into Pakistan.

After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, and following much internal debate, President George W. Bush authorized a broad expansion of drone strikes against a wide array of targets within Pakistan: Qaeda operatives, Pakistan-based members of the Afghan Taliban insurgency and — in some cases — other militants bent on destabilizing Pakistan.

The use of drones in military operations has steadily grown — we know from public documents that from last September to this March alone, C.I.A. operatives launched more than three dozen strikes.

The appeal of drone attacks for policy makers is clear. For one thing, their effects are measurable. Military commanders and intelligence officials point out that drone attacks have disrupted terrorist networks in Pakistan, killing key leaders and hampering operations. Drone attacks create a sense of insecurity among militants and constrain their interactions with suspected informers. And, because they kill remotely, drone strikes avoid American casualties.

But on balance, the costs outweigh these benefits for three reasons.

First, the drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians. This is similar to what happened in Somalia in 2005 and 2006, when similar strikes were employed against the forces of the Union of Islamic Courts. While the strikes did kill individual militants who were the targets, public anger over the American show of force solidified the power of extremists. The Islamists’ popularity rose and the group became more extreme, leading eventually to a messy Ethiopian military intervention, the rise of a new regional insurgency and an increase in offshore piracy.

While violent extremists may be unpopular, for a frightened population they seem less ominous than a faceless enemy that wages war from afar and often kills more civilians than militants.

Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent — hardly “precision.” American officials vehemently dispute these figures, and it is likely that more militants and fewer civilians have been killed than is reported by the press in Pakistan. Nevertheless, every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.

Second, public outrage at the strikes is hardly limited to the region in which they take place — areas of northwestern Pakistan where ethnic Pashtuns predominate. Rather, the strikes are now exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion in Punjab and Sindh, the nation’s two most populous provinces. Covered extensively by the news media, drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused even more civilian casualties than is actually the case. The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability.

Third, the use of drones displays every characteristic of a tactic — or, more accurately, a piece of technology — substituting for a strategy. These attacks are now being carried out without a concerted information campaign directed at the Pakistani public or a real effort to understand the tribal dynamics of the local population, efforts that might make such attacks more effective.

To be sure, simply ending the drone strikes is no more a strategy than continuing them. Stabilizing Pakistan will require a focus on securing areas, principally in Punjab and Sindh, that are still under government control, while building up police and civil authorities and refocusing aid on economic development, security and governance. Suspending drone strikes won’t fix Pakistan’s problems — but continuing them makes these problems much harder to address.

Governments typically make several mistakes when attempting to separate violent extremists from populations in which they hide. First, they often overestimate the degree to which a population harboring an armed actor can influence that actor’s behavior. People don’t tolerate extremists in their midst because they like them, but rather because the extremists intimidate them. Breaking the power of extremists means removing their power to intimidate — something that strikes cannot do.

Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.

The drone strategy is similar to French aerial bombardment in rural Algeria in the 1950s, and to the “air control” methods employed by the British in what are now the Pakistani tribal areas in the 1920s. The historical resonance of the British effort encourages people in the tribal areas to see the drone attacks as a continuation of colonial-era policies.

The drone campaign is in fact part of a larger strategic error — our insistence on personalizing this conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Devoting time and resources toward killing or capturing “high-value” targets — not to mention the bounties placed on their heads — distracts us from larger problems, while turning figures like Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban umbrella group, into Robin Hoods. Our experience in Iraq suggests that the capture or killing of high-value targets — Saddam Hussein or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — has only a slight and fleeting effect on levels of violence. Killing Mr. Zarqawi bought only 18 days of quiet before Al Qaeda returned to operations under new leadership.

This is not to suggest that killing terrorists is a bad thing — on the contrary. But it’s not the only thing that matters, and over-emphasizing it wastes resources. The operation that killed Mr. Zarqawi, for example, was not a one-day event. Thousands of hours of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance were devoted to the elimination of one man, when units on the ground could have used this time to protect the people from the insurgency that was tearing Iraq apart.

Having Osama bin Laden in one’s sights is one thing. Devoting precious resources to his capture or death, rather than focusing on protecting the Afghan and Pakistani populations, is another. The goal should be to isolate extremists from the communities in which they live. The best way to do this is to adopt policies that build local partnerships. Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies must be defeated by indigenous forces — not from the United States, and not even from Punjab, but from the parts of Pakistan in which they now hide. Drone strikes make this harder, not easier.