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.
Members of the drone crew, satisfied 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 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.”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 operators’ 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.
“I wanted to make a 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 the 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 toward whistleblowers also sets a precedent for Trump to step up attacks against those inside the government who dare to shed light on such programs.
“I 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.”