Drone Pilots Are Exhausted and Suffering From PTSD

Drone Pilots Are Exhausted and Suffering From PTSD

On Tuesday, The New York Times published the latest look at drone pilots. These Unmanned Aerial Vehicle operators are suffering such a high rate of exhaustion and stress that the US Air Force has been forced to cut drone missions down from a high of about 65 a week. They also currently have about 500 fewer pilots than they need.

Though they get to fight their wars in safety, and see their families every night, these new type of soldiers suffer from a surprisingly high burnout rate, and equivalent levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to fighter pilots. And though when that news first broke two years ago, the temptation to be withering and unsympathetic was strong (okay, maybe that was just me), perhaps that kind of a mental reaction says something vital about the dangers of war to the human soul. Even people who aren’t themselves in danger suffer when they’re killing innocent people.

dronePart of the stress comes from the fact that these 1200 pilots are not in a battlefield setting. Strangely, but logically, controlling a surveillance and/or killing machine from thousands of miles away, concern about backing up manned personal, or more likely, worrying whether you’re hitting a would-be terrorist or some innocent civilians is stressful, no matter if you are safe in some bunker in Nevada. Seeing your spouse and kids a few hours later heightens the alienation inherent in such a job. You’re on duty, but you’re at home. It has to be disconcerting. After all, PTSD doesn’t tend to be about cracking up on the battlefield. It’s about dealing with a banal job or life after you’ve been trained to be on edge all the time. These pilots have to do that daily in a manner which must feel like psychological whiplash.

Additionally, there aren’t really “enough” drone pilots, so the ones who are there are drained and exhausted. Why, though? In a 2013 New York Times piece, one of the co-authors of a Defense Department study offered this explanation, “Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days. They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.” That makes sense. For the 100 years that airplanes have been dropping death from above, the policy tends to be do your thing and then get home as fast as possible. Drones and the eyes of their operators just linger indefinitely.

The constant presence of drones adds to the psychological torment of the people who live under their invisible shadow. It makes sense that it would be more stressful for the would-be killers as well.

A piece reposted at Salon back in March reports that drone pilots fly more than three times as many man hours as other pilots. The latter tend to look down on the former as well, implying that they’re just nerdy gamers playing, not real pilots. And even for the antiwar person, there is a temptation to look especially disdainfully at the chickenhawk. Even a bomber pilot is risking their own life when they go out on a mission. Drone pilots go home at night every night. Poor babies, right? Just stop.

And more and more people wish they would do just that. In April, the website knowdrones.org aired 15 second TV spots that urged drone operators to quit. Now, the group – which includes ex-military people – has put together a letter that urges the same thing. The letter says that drone attacks are against the law, and the 6,000 casualties are “undermining principles of international law and human rights.”

It’s terrific to see this effort going forward, but it’s impossible to feel optimistic about being able to reverse the progress of military drones. They are a cheap, easy way to keep literally a constant presence in countries with which the US isn’t even at war. Someday a terrorist may well use drones in their own form of blowback, but not even then is the US likely to reconsider their new toys. If they literally had nobody left to fly the drones, however, that would stop them from murdering.

It is murder. And that has to be part of why the operators feel so beaten down. One has to hope they know what they are doing and it has an effect on their psyches. In combat, the eventual suffer of PTSD is in peril. Perhaps they are worried about their fellow soldiers and being able to have their backs if necessary. The latter issue may come into play for drone pilots, but the former never does. And pictures clear enough to see the pink mist that was once a human – perhaps a nameless one, tracked from cell phone signal or suspicious patterns that might mean a terrorist gathering or a wedding is coming together – seem to be enough to damage the person who did the deed from thousands of miles away.

As I wrote last year, as much as it is unfortunate to have more people in mental distress, it does bode well for humanity that war hurts them. Not the “goodness” of World War II, nor the safety of drone war today will stop a soldier from feeling something if they take a life.

Pakistani military blocks anti-drone convoy from entering tribal region

Imran Khan says two-day convoy has been a success despite failing to reach intended destination

Makeshift roadblocks, security threats and warnings from Pakistan’s army forcedImran Khan to abandon his unprecedented attempt to lead a cavalcade of anti-drone protesters deep into the country’s restive tribal belt on Sunday.

Leading a convoy of thousands, the former cricketer was within striking distance of South Waziristan, where the CIA uses remote-controlled planes in the fight against Islamist militants, when he abruptly turned back.

Later Khan said he had changed plan because of warnings from the army and the risk of becoming stuck after the military-imposed curfew.

Addressing an impromptu rally of his supporters, he said the convoy had still been a huge success because he had gone to areas his political rivals “can only look at on maps”.

“We want to give a message to America that the more you carry out drone attacks, the more people will hate you,” Khan told the crowd of around 2,500 supporters. But after two days of travel, the U-turn seemed to surprise some, including a senior party official who got out of his car on the heat-baked roadside surrounded by arid scrubland and declared he had no idea what was going on.

Others expressed anger, saying Khan was more interested in using the event to burnish his popularity before a general election due at some point in the next six months.

“I am very disappointed,” said Khalil Khan Dawar, an oil industry worker who had travelled all day to get to the edge of the tribal agency. “We had to get to South Waziristan. For him this is not just about drones, it is about popularity and elections.”

Some have also questioned the relevance of Kotkai, the town in South Waziristan where Khan hoped to hold his rally, to the drone debate. Most drone attacks now take place in North Waziristan, and Pakistani army efforts to wrest control from militants have forced many of Kotkai’s residents to leave.

The abandonment of the much-publicised attempt to reach Kotkai was the second sudden change of plan on the same day. Earlier Khan had appeared to reassure a largely female delegation of the US peace group Code Pink that there would be no attempt to enter the tribal areas and that instead a rally would be held in the town of Tank.

By midday it was decided to push on regardless, apparently out of a desire not to disappoint the throngs of people who had joined his convoy along the road from the capital, Islamabad. That was despite the all-too evident disapproval of authorities who had placed shipping containers across the road at three different points.

The vehicles, including buses crammed with supporters waving the red and green flag of Khan’s political party, ground to a halt as throngs of protesters worked to push the obstacles out of the way, in one instance destroying a small building in the process.

Indignities and discomforts are nothing new to the mostly middle-aged and female activists of Code Pink, some of whom have been arrested while campaigning against US drone strikes. But being trapped on a bus travelling towards Pakistan’s tribal areas proved too much even for the most hardened of campaigners. “We had only one toilet break in nine hours,” said Medea Benjamin, leader of the 35-strong team of Americans who had agreed to join Khan on the march. They chose not to continue into, in the words of Benjamin, a “chaotic” situation.

To add to their miseries, their minders urged them to stay behind the curtains of their bus – emblazoned on its side with huge images of people killed by drone strikes – throughout much of the journey, particularly in many of the areas affected by militant groups. “It was hard for these people because they are protesters and they wanted to get out there,” said Shahzad Akbar, a lawyer who was looking after the group. “But there’s no way we are going to let them get out in some of those towns!”

Billed as a protest against drone strikes, which Khan and his supporters claim kill large numbers of innocent civilians as well as flouting Pakistan’s sovereignty, the procession had the feel of a political rally on wheels. Many of the vehicles eschewed anti-drone slogans and instead carried pictures of PTI politicians anxious to be included on the party’s official ticket in the upcoming elections.

Drone Lawyer: Kill a 16-Year-Old, Get a Promotion

Exclusive Above-top-secret details of Britain’s covert surveillance programme – including the location of a clandestine British base tapping undersea cables in the Middle East – have so far remained secret, despite being leaked by fugitive NSA sysadmin Edward Snowden. Government pressure has meant that some media organisations, despite being in possession of these facts, have declined to reveal them. Today, however, the Register publishes them in full.

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Documents reveal NSA’s extensive involvement in targeted killing program

It was an innocuous e-mail, one of millions sent every day by spouses with updates on the situation at home. But this one was of particular interest to the National Security Agency and contained clues that put the sender’s husband in the crosshairs of a CIA drone.

Days later, Hassan Ghul — an associate of Osama bin Laden who provided a critical piece of intelligence that helped the CIA find the al-Qaeda leader — was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

The U.S. government has never publicly acknowledged killing Ghul. But documents provided to The Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden confirm his demise in October 2012 and reveal the agency’s extensive involvement in the targeted killing program that has served as a centerpiece of President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy.

An al-Qaeda operative who had a knack for surfacing at dramatic moments in the post-Sept. 11 story line, Ghul was an emissary to Iraq for the terrorist group at the height of that war. He was captured in 2004 and helped expose bin Laden’s courier network before spending two years at a secret CIA prison. Then, in 2006, the United States delivered him to his native Pakistan, where he was released and returned to the al-Qaeda fold.

But beyond filling in gaps about Ghul, the documents provide the most detailed account of the intricate collaboration between the CIA and the NSA in the drone campaign. The Post is withholding many details about those missions, at the request of U.S. intelligence officials who cited potential damage to ongoing operations and national security.

cdn-droneThe NSA is “focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets,” an NSA spokeswoman said in a statement provided to The Post on Wednesday, adding that the agency’s operations “protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

In the search for targets, the NSA has draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan. In Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might “bed down.”

The e-mail from Ghul’s wife “about her current living conditions” contained enough detail to confirm the coordinates of that household, according to a document summarizing the mission. “This information enabled a capture/kill operation against an individual believed to be Hassan Ghul on October 1,” it said.

The file is part of a collection of records in the Snowden trove that make clear that the drone campaign — often depicted as the CIA’s exclusive domain — relies heavily on the NSA’s ability to vacuum up enormous quantities of e-mail, phone calls and other fragments of signals intelligence, or SIGINT.

To handle the expanding workload, the NSA created a secret unit known as the Counter-Terrorism Mission Aligned Cell, or CT MAC, to concentrate the agency’s vast resources on hard-to-find terrorism targets. The unit spent a year tracking Ghul and his courier network, tunneling into an array of systems and devices, before he was killed. Without those penetrations, the document concluded, “this opportunity would not have been possible.”

At a time when the NSA is facing intense criticism for gathering data on Americans, the drone files may bolster the agency’s case that its resources are focused on fighting terrorism and supporting U.S. operations overseas. “Ours is a noble cause,” NSA Director Keith B. Alexander said during a public event last month. “Our job is to defend this nation and to protect our civil liberties and privacy.”

The documents do not explain how the Ghul e-mail was obtained or whether it was intercepted using legal authorities that have emerged as a source of controversy in recent months and enable the NSA to compel technology giants including Microsoft and Google to turn over information about their users. Nor is there a reference to another NSA program facing scrutiny after Snowden’s leaks, its metadata collection of numbers dialed by nearly every person in the United States.

To the contrary, the records indicate that the agency depends heavily on highly targeted network penetrations to gather information that wouldn’t otherwise be trapped in surveillance nets that it has set at key Internet gateways.

The new documents are self-congratulatory in tone, drafted to tout the NSA’s counterterrorism capabilities. One is titled “CT MAC Hassan Gul Success.” The files make no mention of other agencies’ roles in a drone program that escalated dramatically in 2009 and 2010 before tapering off in recent years.

Even so, former CIA officials said the files are an accurate reflection of the NSA’s contribution to finding targets in a campaign that has killed more than 3,000 people, including thousands of alleged militants and hundreds of civilians, in Pakistan, according to independent surveys. The officials said the agency has assigned senior analysts to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and deployed others to work alongside CIA counterparts at almost every major U.S. embassy or military base overseas.

“NSA threw the kitchen sink at the FATA,” said a former U.S. intelligence official with experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the region in northwest Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s leadership is based.

NSA employees rarely ventured beyond the security gates of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, officials said. Surveillance operations that required placing a device or sensor near an al-Qaeda compound were handled by the CIA’s Information Operations Center, which specializes in high-tech devices and “close-in” surveillance work.

Inside the NSA

Inside the NSA

“But if you wanted huge coverage of the FATA, NSA had 10 times the manpower, 20 times the budget and 100 times the brainpower,” the former intelligence official said, comparing the surveillance resources of the NSA to the smaller capabilities of the agency’s IOC. The two agencies are the largest in the U.S. intelligence community, with budgets last year of $14.7 billion for the CIA and $10.8 billion for the NSA. “We provided the map,” the former official said, “and they just filled in the pieces.”

In broad terms, the NSA relies on increasingly sophisticated versions of online attacks that are well-known among security experts. Many rely on software implants developed by the agency’s Tailored Access Operations division with code-names such as UNITEDRAKE and VALIDATOR. In other cases, the agency runs “man-in-the-middle” attacks in which it positions itself unnoticed midstream between computers communicating with one another, diverting files for real-time alerts and longer-term analysis in data repositories.

Through these and other tactics, the NSA is able to extract vast quantities of digital information, including audio files, imagery and keystroke logs. The operations amount to silent raids on suspected safe houses and often are carried out by experts sitting behind desks thousands of miles from their targets. The reach of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations division extends far beyond Pakistan. Other documents describe efforts to tunnel into systems used by al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa, each breach exposing other corridors.

An operation against a suspected facilitator for al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen led to a trove of files that could be used to “help NSA map out the movement of terrorists and aspiring extremists between Yemen, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Libya and Iran,” according to the documents. “This may enable NSA to better flag the movement of these individuals” to allied security services that “can put individuals on no-fly lists or monitor them once in country.”
A single penetration yielded 90 encrypted al-Qaeda documents, 16 encryption keys, 30 unencrypted messages as well as “thousands” of chat logs, according to an inventory described in one of the Snowden documents.The operations are so easy, in some cases, that the NSA is able to start downloading data in less time than it takes the targeted machine to boot up. Last year, a user account on a social media Web site provided an instant portal to an al-Qaeda operative’s hard drive. “Within minutes, we successfully exploited the target,” the document said.

The hunt for Ghul followed a more elaborate path.

Ghul, who is listed in other documents as Mustafa Haji Muhammad Khan, had surfaced on U.S. radar as early as 2003, when an al-Qaeda detainee disclosed that Ghul escorted one of the intended hijackers to a Pakistani safe house a year before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A trusted facilitator and courier, Ghul was dispatched to Iraq in 2003 to deliver a message to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda firebrand who angered the network’s leaders in Pakistan by launching attacks that often slaughtered innocent Muslims. When Ghul made another attempt to enter Iraq in 2004, he was detained by Kurdish authorities in an operation directed by the CIA. Almost immediately, Ghul provided a piece of intelligence that would prove more consequential than he may have anticipated: He disclosed that bin Laden relied on a trusted courier known as al-Kuwaiti. 
trackerThe ripples from that revelation wouldn’t subside for years. The CIA went on to determine the true identity of al-Kuwaiti and followed him to a heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed in 2011.
Because of the courier tip, Ghul became an unwitting figure in the contentious debate over CIA interrogation measures. He was held at a CIA black site in Eastern Europe, according to declassified Justice Department memos, where he was slapped and subjected to stress positions and sleep deprivation to break his will.
Defenders of the interrogation program have cited Ghul’s courier disclosure as evidence that the agency’s interrogation program was crucial to getting bin Laden. But others, including former CIA operatives directly involved in Ghul’s case, said that he identified the courier while he was being interrogated by Kurdish authorities, who posed questions scripted by CIA analysts in the background.
The debate resurfaced amid the release of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” last year, in which a detainee’s slip after a brutal interrogation sequence is depicted as a breakthrough in the bin Laden hunt. Ghul’s case also has been explored in detail in a 6,000-page investigation of the CIA interrogation program by the Senate Intelligence Committee that has yet to be released. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the panel, sought to settle the Ghul debate in a statement last year that alluded to his role but didn’t mention him by name. “The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques,” Feinstein said in the statement, which was signed by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
The George W. Bush administration’s decision to close the secret CIA prisons in 2006 set off a scramble to place prisoners whom the agency did not regard as dangerous or valuable enough to transfer to Guantanamo Bay. Ghul was not among the original 14 high-value CIA detainees sent to the U.S. installation in Cuba. Instead, he was turned over to the CIA’s counterpart in Pakistan, with ostensible assurances that he would remain in custody.
A year later, Ghul was released. There was no public explanation from Pakistani authorities. CIA officials have noted that Ghul had ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group supported by Pakistan’s intelligence service. By 2007, he had returned to al-Qaeda’s stronghold in Waziristan.
In 2011, the Treasury Department named Ghul a target of U.S. counterterrorism sanctions. Since his release, the department said, he had helped al-Qaeda reestablish logistics networks, enabling al-Qaeda to move people and money in and out of the country. The NSA document described Ghul as al-Qaeda’s chief of military operations and detailed a broad surveillance effort to find him.
“The most critical piece” came with a discovery that “provided a vector” for compounds used by Ghul, the document said. After months of investigation, and surveillance by CIA drones, the e-mail from his wife erased any remaining doubt. 
Even after Ghul was killed in Mir Ali, the NSA’s role in the drone strike wasn’t done. Although the attack was aimed at “an individual believed to be” the correct target, the outcome wasn’t certain until later when, “through SIGINT, it was confirmed that Hassan Ghul was in fact killed.”

Armed Drones Could Target President: Former U.S. Intelligence Chief

WASHINGTON — As the technology for arming drones spreads around the world, terrorists could use the unmanned, missile-firing aircraft to attack and kill the president and other U.S. leaders, the former chief of U.S. intelligence said Tuesday.

Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who served as President Obama’s first director of national intelligence, told reporters he was concerned that the proliferation of armed drones — a potential outgrowth of the U.S. reliance on drones to attack and kill terrorists — could well backfire.

“I do fear that if al Qaeda can develop a drone, its first thought will be to use it to kill our president, and senior officials and senior officers,” Blair said during a conference call with reporters. “It is possible without a great deal of intelligence to do something with a drone you cannot do with a high-powered rifle or driving a car full of explosives and other ways terrorists now use to try killing senior officials,” he said.

The U.S. development and growing use of armed drones has not “opened a huge Pandora’s box which will make us wish we had never invented the drone,” Blair said. But he said if drones are acquired by terrorist groups, it would force the U.S. to take defensive measures. Yet, the U.S. already has extensive surveillance of its airspace and sophisticated weapons designed against a variety of airborne threats.

The Obama administration has accelerated armed drone strikes against individuals and groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as well as Afghanistan, in a campaign which is almost entirely secret. Administration officials have said the strikes are necessary to combat terrorist plotting against the U.S. But while President Obama and other officials have declared the strikes are legal, the White House has refused to divulge its legal justification for the strikes, which have included the killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki.

Blair said the Obama administration has only “partly thought through” the repercussions of its expanded drone attack campaign, including the inevitable proliferation of drone technology to other countries and organizations. He spoke Tuesday on a call organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, with senior analyst Micah Zenko.

Already, dozens of countries from Iran to China are using surveillance drones, and experts believe it will not be long before swarms of armed drones take to the air.

The Obama administration is coming under increasing pressure to unveil at least some details of the secretive drone counter-terrorist campaign, which is carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command and by the CIA. The latter agency largely operates the drone strikes against terrorist groups in Pakistan.

Blair — who was dismissed by President Obama in May 2010 after a falling-out over intelligence matters — said the administration should make public some details of how and why it decides that some terrorists should be targeted. “The United States is a democracy, we want our people to know how we use military force and that we use it in ways the United States is proud of,” Blair said. “There’s been far too little debate” about this form of killing.

The drone strikes are reviewed, after they have taken place, by the House and Senate intelligence committees, so there is some oversight of the process by which targets are selected and people killed. But Blair said he doubted the White House would allow the public insight into the drone program. “They’ve made the cold-blooded calculation that it’s better to hunker down and take the criticism than to take the debate public — which I think in the long run is essential,” he said.

But Blair acknowledged that a robust public discussion about the legal basis for the drones campaigns would have little deterrent effect on terrorists. He said extremist groups look at how the U.S. frames its military strikes in legal terms not in order to emulate that behavior but “in order to find weaknesses” they can exploit.

“If a terrorist group gets drone technology,” Blair said, “it will use it against us every way they can.”

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