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Failures and Lies of U.S. Drone Policy Exposed in New Film and Human Rights Reports [VIDEO]

Also, Congressman Grayson is holding historical hearings with Pakistani drone victims in Washington this week.

For almost a decade, the United States government has downplayed the effects of drone warfare in Pakistan and other locales. Now, for the first time, a groundbreaking documentary, "Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars” by the award-winning film maker, Robert Greenwald, focuses on the human cost of drone strikes.  The hard-hitting film exposes the lies and double talk emanating from the U.S. government about the extent of civilian death and destruction on the ground in Pakistan.

The film opens this week in New York, London and Islamabad, just as two highly damning reports documenting the magnitude of civilian casualties in the face of Obama administration denials have emerged from the human rights community.  In addition, firebrand progressive Congressman, Alan Grayson, will hold a hearing in D.C this week with drone victims, some who appear in the film and have traveled from Pakistan to the U.S. to share their tragic stories.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that since 2004, the government has launched close to 400 drone strikes abroad with the Obama administration responsible for over 300 of those attacks.  

As drone technology continues to expand at a rapid pace globally, there are no signs to suggest the United States has any intention of slowing down its drone development program.  This is despite overwhelming evidence proving that U.S drones strikes are responsible for between 400-900 civilian casualties in Pakistan alone and directly in violation of international law – potentially amounting to war crimes.  

In fact, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have released two investigative reports confirming that U.S drone strikes have been carried out unlawfully in both Pakistan and Yemen killing thousands of civilians.

Moreover, United Nations Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, last week criticized the Obama administration for creating “almost insurmountable obstacles to transparency” and calling upon the United States to declassify information about the drone operations coordinated by the CIA in order to clarify its position on the legality of aerial attacks.

Yet, despite such measures, the U.S. drone program continues to be shrouded in a blanket of secrecy with the American public kept virtually in the dark about its questionable procedures.  Instead, we have been fed false and vague media and CIA reports which have glossed over the true extent of the human death toll, with high-level authorities intent on assuring us that all drone attacks have resulted in “militant deaths” and no civilian fatalities. 

That is, until folks like Greenwald, began to question such dubious accounts and set out to unveil the real story behind the US drone program.  The result of his unrelenting, full-scale, investigation culminated into his latest Brave New World film, “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars”. 

Watch a trailer of the film:

This full-length feature documentary centers around drone warfare as told through the eyes of strike victims in an effort to educate the American public about remote-controlled warfare and the methods behind drone targeted killings.  Greenwald explained to AlterNet his impetus behind the film:

“I started to see these articles, ‘no civilian casualties’ and it fundamentally made no sense to me. I did not believe it.  I decided there was only one way to find out what was really happening, and that was to go to Pakistan and investigate.  So I went there and it was certainly a profound experience to hear the countless stories from person after person about a wife, husband, sister, cousin or child who had all been killed by drones.  I came back impassioned about doing what we could to tell this story and to help people understand that this bipartisan philosophy that ‘we can invade, occupy or drone our way to safety’ is a complete fallacy. It is a fundamental issue in the United States and unless we challenge this militaristic approach, we will never have the country or world we want to have,” he said.

In filming the movie, mastermind Greenwald and his crew travelled to remote tribal regions in Pakistan where they undertook in-depth interviews with drone strike survivors as well as commentaries from over 80 experts from law professors to journalists.  However, in an effort to bring the message home to American viewers, Unmanned opens with a personal story of former American drone operator, Brandon Bryant, describing his extensive, on-going trauma as a result of carrying out numerous remote killings overseas. His earnest testimony connects viewers back to the U.S perspective, particularly when he recounts how watching the mountains of Pakistan through drone piloting reminded him of his hometown, Montana.

Brandon’s story is subsequently juxtaposed against the tragic tale of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old soccer fan who attended an anti-drone conference in Islamabad in 2011 because he was concerned about the deaths in his area.  Less than three days later, without reason or warning, he was killed by a Hellfire missile fired from a US drone as he drove to pick up his aunt from a wedding.

Even more troubling in Greenwald’s film is learning about the “signature strike” drone attacks that Obama has been executing where any individual displaying “suspicious behavioral patterns” or other “signatures”, may qualify as a target for strike action, despite the unknown identity of the person.  In other words, a drone operator thousands of miles away who is looking at a video feed can make an assessment based on that footage alone, about whether a person walking through the community is a suspected terrorist. If that operator concludes by observation that the person looks suspicious, then he can willfully press a button and kill him/her.

One particularly notorious “signature strike” that the film highlights occurred on 17 March 2011 in the tribal area of Datta Khel where an entire community was wiped out by a drone.  The U.S claimed to know nothing about the drone strike which took the lives of 40 leaders.  Almost three years later, this shattered community is still trying to pick up the pieces after suffering from such an extraordinary, senseless loss, as Greenwald explains:

“These signature strikes are truly ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to me. The arrogance and obscenity in the notion that someone sitting thousands of miles ways looking through a teeny little straw can make a determination that a person is dangerous if they fit a certain ‘signature’ is outrageous.  I thought it was something out of 'The Onion'. It made no logical sense.  So just because people are sitting on the ground in a group and may have a rifle, we are going to put a drone on them in a country we don’t understand with tribal rivalries and Jirga’s we don’t understand?  It is lawless behavior.  Internationally, we will have to deal with this. It will be a profound problem sooner rather than later,” he said.

As the film delves deeper into these concealed military actions, we are introduced to Rafiq ur Rehman, a teacher from North Waziristan who lost his 67-year-old mother, Mamana Bibi, in a tragic drone attack a year ago.  This week, Rafiq will personally appear at a congressional hearing at Capitol Hill to tell his story along with his children Nabila and Zubair who were also injured in the strike, in an effort to urge policymakers and the public to re-think the U.S drone program. 

Greenwald will kick off the hearing by introducing a short clip from his film before it is officially released for free this week. This hearing marks the first opportunity for Congress to hear personally from the victims of drone attacks:

“Rafiq ur Rehman has traveled from North Waziristan to tell his story before Congress because he believes that more people should know that these strikes are killing and terrorizing innocent families.  It is very important to arrange to have survivors come to the United States, because there is nothing quite like a personal story. There is data, images and reports, but ultimately it is a personal human story that begins the process to reach peoples’ hearts to get into their minds,” Greenwald said.

Watch Rafiq's heartfelt story

Representative Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) who has long been rallying opposition to the use of force by the United State is spearheading this dialogue. Grayson has been instrumental in bringing the issue of unlawful use of drone weapons to the forefront.  He spoke to AlterNet about why he felt impassioned to host this congressional hearing:

“Hundreds of victims have died in drone attacks.  This hearing provides an opportunity to put a human face on the class of victims here.  Those who are dead cannot speak. Here, we are bringing someone whose mother was killed in a drone strike. Whether in the media or in the minds of elected officials, it brings home to people that there are innocent people being killed because of these strikes and calls into question the validity and merit and utility of the drone program. Drone attacks are inflaming public opinion and not just in countries like Yemen, but all around the world. This is causing harm to America’s standing even with its allies. These drone attacks are in fact acts of war and have not been properly authorized by Congress or anyone else.  It is becoming all too easy for the President on his command alone to kill people,” he said.

The release of Unmanned is especially timely ahead of the congressional hearing in order to deflate confidence in the policy that asks the American people to support extrajudicial killings without color of the law, as Greenwald explains:

 “With the briefing led by Grayson who has been extraordinary to step forward, I hope we will begin and continue a process of informing, educating, moving, and motivating elected officials to see what’s going on here.  This is the outcome of policies that result in people being killed without a judge or jury and without a trial. This is not collateral damage in a war situation. This is a targeted attack on people who pose no threat of danger.  It is imperative that Congress and the White House know that the implementation of U.S. drone strikes abroad are fueling anti-American sentiment and serving as a tool for terrorist recruitment,” he said.

Unfortunately, the quest to bring Rafiq and his family to the United States has been fraught with obstructions.  Earlier this month, the family’s lawyer, Shahzad Akbar – one of the most prominent legal advocates for survivors of drone attacks -  was denied a visa by the U.S Sate Department to travel with no reason given for the decision. 

Akbar had played a major role in connecting victim’s voices with Greenwald and planned to accompany the family to the United States, even sealing approval by tribal elders that the family would not be attacked by the Taliban and Pakistani authorities for cooperating with the U.S.  Undeterred, Akbar miraculously arranged for the family to travel without him to share their story with Congress and the American people.

Despite Akbar’s absence, Grayson is confident that the testimony of Rafiq and his children will stand alone in igniting an important discussion about the effects of the drone programs and it propensity to blur the lines between peace and war:

“Many of proponents say using drones is not really war, when we are clearly using illegal force to kill people in other countries without permission.  That sounds like war to me. The drone program is inherently too dangerous to civilians to be in any sense justifiable on a cost-benefit basis.  We shouldn’t kill people at all!” he said.

While many human rights advocates have called upon the Obama administration for greater transparency and accountability with regard to the drone program, Grayson has gone one step further – he says the drone program should be terminated in its entirety: 

“Transparency doesn’t even come close to addressing the underlying political, moral and security issues involved here. Whether we use drones or missiles or any technology, the moral issues are the same. There is kill and there is overkill…I think this is a clear example of overkill.  What we should be doing is defending ourselves by other means. Prevent terrorism by strengthening security in our embassies and deal with terrorists as individual perpetrators. There are numerous multilateral solutions and military actions we could take. We have not resorted to drone attacks against people who grow and sell illegal drugs in this country, or against piracy, or against people who have killed American tourists visiting other countries. We have all sorts of others ways to deal with this issue other than by sending in unarmed aerial vehicles and dropping bombs on innocent people,” he said.

Greenwald echoes that sentiment and is hopeful his film will inspire and educate others to join the anti-drone movement:

“The film will be a failure if people don’t take action.  There are lots of things the public can do. They can take this issue up with their Congressman to convince our elective officials that this is not a policy that represents our morals or makes us safer. This fundamental idea behind drones that our problems can be solved merely by killing people is flawed. It should be stopped immediately.  We need to go beyond transparency - to accountability. There needs to be clear policy to determine and clarify the laws.  Many people and activists have clearly said that these attacks are breaking international law, but what happens when other countries start to use drones? You cannot solve these problems through drone warfare. If we continue to do so, we are doomed to fail,” he said. 

The congressional hearing is set to take place on October 29 with the official release of Unmanned on October 30.

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.