A New Documentary Explores the Devastating Effects of Drone Warfare on Victims and Whistleblowers
A New Documentary Explores the Devastating Effects of Drone Warfare on Victims and Whistleblowers
Drone whistleblower Lisa Ling travels to Afghanistan in Sonia Kennbeck’s “National Bird.”
By Murtaza Hussain / theintercept.com
Nov 21, 2016

On the night of February 21, 2010, a group of families driving a convoy of vehicles through the valleys of Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan came into the sights of a Predator drone crew operating out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

“That truck would make a beautiful target,” one of the operators says. The crew analyzes the convoy, debating whether children are present. “I really doubt that child call, man. I really fucking hate that shit.”

Under the watchful gaze of the drone crew, the families disembark from the convoy, stopping to pray at the side of the road. After a brief pause, they get back in their cars and continue their journey, still unaware that they are being stalked from above.

The drone crew, satisfied that they have a legitimate target in their sights, make the necessary preparations to use force.

As the cars trundle down the road, they open fire.

“And….oh…there it goes!” one of the pilots exclaims. The first car in the convoy, struck by a missile, disappears into in a giant cloud of dust. Moments later, a second car explodes. People run out of the remaining vehicle, waving at the aircraft above to stop firing. They brandish pieces of cloth at the sky to try and indicate they are non-combatants. A woman can be seen holding a child.

“I don’t know about this,” one of the operators says. “This is weird.”

STILL_13

An Afghan survivor of a U.S. air strike on civilians sits with his son, in Sonia Kennebeck’s “National Bird.”

Photo: Torsten Lapp/Courtesy of FilmRise

A total of 23 people were killed in the strike against the convoy, all civilians. An investigation by the military later found that drone pilots “ignored or downplayed” evidence that the convoy was a civilian one. A transcript of the drone operator’s conversation was later made public through a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU.

 

The Uruzgan drone strike and the events surrounding it form much of the basis of “National Bird,” an extraordinary new documentary about the U.S. drone program. The film, which opened Friday in Los Angeles, profiles the lives of former drone operators, as well as victims of the program, including the survivors of the Uruzgan attack. In doing so, it provides a rare glimpse into the lives of those affected by the U.S. military’s covert global assassination program, as well as the consequences facing those who speak out about it.

“We wanted to make film on the drone war and the people directly impacted: those operating the program and those impacted in countries where drone strikes are being carried out,” said Sonia Kennebeck, the producer and director of National Bird. “We took many risks to make this film, because we felt there is a real need for transparency in these programs.”

The film profiles three Americans who took part in the drone program but later experienced a crisis of conscience.

“This is not just one person sitting there with a joystick moving around a plane that’s around the world, its like borders don’t matter anymore. There’s a huge system that is around the world, and that can suck up endless data,” says Lisa, a former technical sergeant on drone surveillance systems, who, like all subjects in National Bird, is identified only by her first name.

In the film, Lisa shows a commendation she received for helping identify over 121,000 “insurgent targets” over a two-year period, as part of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “That is 121,000 lives affected by technology that we control. How many years have we been at war now?”

The film, beautifully constructed, intersperses scenes from the lives of drone operators living in small American towns with scenes from Afghanistan showing those who have been targeted by strikes.

The subjects in the film are cautious in their descriptions of their activities, citing a pervasive fear that they will be charged under the Espionage Act for their whistleblowing. And during the making of the film, a drone operator named Daniel, a former NSA operative at Fort Meade, has his house raided by the FBI and is informed that he is under investigation for speaking out about the program.

The Obama administration has been notorious for using that law to prosecute individuals speaking out about the covert warfare programs. Indeed, more individuals have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act by Obama than under all previous administrations combined. This crackdown makes the acts of whistleblowing documented in “National Bird” even more courageous.

“I can say the drone program is wrong because I don’t know how many people I’ve killed,” Heather, a drone operator now suffering from PTSD, says in the film. Having lost several friends in the program to suicide, she says she is tormented by her role in drone strikes that she believes killed and maimed civilians. She is also consumed with fear that she will soon be targeted for speaking out. “If someone comes to my house and puts a bag over my head and hauls me away, what was the point in anything I did?”

Some of the most moving scenes in the film are shot in Afghanistan, where the filmmakers traveled to meet victims of the program. “When your body is intact, your mind is different. You are content,” says one man who was wounded in the Uruzgan attack. “But the moment you are wounded, your soul gets damaged. When your leg is torn off, and your gait slows, it also burdens your spirit.”

“Sometimes I am so sad, my heart wants to explode,” the man says before breaking down silently in tears.

As the Obama administration prepares to hand-off its vast, opaque institutions of surveillance and covert warfare to Donald Trump, many have begun to worry anew about these powers. The new president-elect and his cabinet will have unprecedented power to conduct secret wars and assassinations around the globe, thanks in part to programs bequeathed to him by his liberal predecessor. The aggressive posture that Obama took towards whistleblowers also sets a precedent for Trump to step-up attacks against those inside the government who dare to shed light on such programs.

“We made this film in part to highlight the repercussions of future governments holding these powers, but I don’t think many people realize how bad things already are under Obama,” says Kennebeck. “The whistleblowers in the film took great risks, because they felt that people need to know what is happening inside the drone program.”

“But, over the course of our shooting, the film ended up being as much about the consequences of whistleblowing as it did about the drone program itself.”


Murtaza Hussain is a journalist and political commentator. His work focuses on human rights, foreign policy, and cultural affairs. Murtaza’s work has appeared in The New York TimesThe GuardianThe Globe and MailSalon,and elsewhere.

 

4.0 ·
1
Trending Today
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 4,879 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
How Comedy Can Disarm Bullies
3 min · 3,057 views today · As long as you're funny, it can get you out of almost anything - even getting mugged, as co-founder of Between Two Ferns Scott Aukerman recounts. Unfortunately, not everyone...
Globalization Makes No Sense
Chris Agnos · 2,523 views today · When I lived in San Francisco, I often would marvel at the movement of goods through the ports across the bay in Oakland. Full container ships would enter the bay one after...
Immigrants For Sale (2015)
33 min · 2,336 views today · The detention of migrants has become a multi-billion dollar industry in which immigrants are sold to the highest bidder and traded like mere products. The Corrections...
Proof of Evolution That You Can Find on Your Body
4 min · 1,903 views today · Vestigial structures are evolution's leftovers — body parts that, through inheritance, have outlived the context in which they arose. Some of the most delightful reminders of...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 1,664 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,071 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Compassion, the Antidote
Martin Doblmeier · 1,045 views today · Thich Nhat Hanh has published nearly 100 books and is one of the best-known teachers of Zen Buddhism in the world today. In the early 1960s his practice of what he termed...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 926 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 835 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Without Saying a Word This 6 Minute Clip From Samsara Will Make You Speechless
6 min · 774 views today · Can you put this video into words? It's a clip from the phenomenal documentary Samsara, directed by Ron Fricke, who also made Baraka.  If you're interested in watching...
Those That Did Not Seek Revenge
Dr. Ann Russo · 758 views today · Dr. Ann Russo on violence, healing, and transforming justice.
How Wolves Change Rivers
4 min · 712 views today · When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable "trophic cascade" occurred. What is a...
Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men Of Touch
Mark Greene · 660 views today · Homophobic prohibitions against male touch are hurting straight men as well.
Stunning Small Homes Form Part of a Communal Compound for Best Friends
Lighter Side · 644 views today · If you’re lucky enough to have longtime friends even as an adult, then you know probably already know how much it means to be able to spend time together. Maybe you even have a...
DAPL Opponents Vow to 'Rise' From Ashes of Oceti Sakowin and Keep Fighting
Lauren McCauley · 636 views today · 'They cannot extinguish the fire that Standing Rock started,' Dallas Goldtooth declared
The Foiled Bomb Plot in Kansas That Didn't Make Trump's Terror List
5 min · 555 views today · When a plot by a pro-white militia to bomb a Somali mosque in Kansas was foiled by the FBI last October, the aborted conspiracy received little national coverage - nor did it...
Where the Term "Redneck" Came From
15 min · 508 views today · If you don't know this story, you'll never look at the word the same again.  This is just a window into the sometimes shocking, subversive and untold history of the United...
10 Words Every Girl Should Learn
Soraya Chemaly · 356 views today · "Stop interrupting me."  "I just said that." "No explanation needed." In fifth grade, I won the school courtesy prize. In other words, I won an award for being polite. My...
The Most Astounding Fact about the Universe
3 min · 238 views today · This is Neil Degrasse Tyson's response when asked to describe the most astounding fact about the universe. Background music is the cinematic orchestra - To build a home.
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
A New Documentary Explores the Devastating Effects of Drone Warfare on Victims and Whistleblowers