Operation Go Public

Brendon Bryant has revealed that Germany is a key player in America’s deadly drone war. He went into the Army at age 21 as a drone pilot. When he left the service, he was praised for having notched up 1,626 kills. Today, he fights a verbal war against the drone campaign.

In a remote desert location in the state of Utah, Brendon Bryant sits in a small container. All he hears is the humming of computers and the only light comes from the monitor he stares at. The images on the screen show a barren and brown landscape. A couple of men are visible standing next to a mud building. Bryant switches to infrared mode; now the men appear only as white silhouettes. A man behind Bryant is giving a countdown: “Three, two, one, fire!” The young soldier stays on target and a few seconds later the monitor shows a blinding white flash – an explosion. The men who were moments ago standing next to the house have suddenly disappeared. Airman First Class Bryant has flown hundreds of similar missions in the five years he has been flying MQ-18 Predator drones. Upon leaving the service in 2011, he received a certificate on which his accomplishments were listed. They included 6,000 hours flying time and 1,626 enemies killed.

Actually, the Air Force wanted to retain its drone pilot. They promised him a $109,000 re-enlistment bonus, but Bryant wanted out. He couldn’t go on. He saw too much horror in the missions: Mangled bodies of people that were no longer identifiable as the enemy; kids who ran outside just before a rocket struck its target only to disappear in a fireball. Bryant was just 21 when he flew his first mission; today he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

But where other drone pilots silently withdrew after being discharged, Bryant spoke out. Since 2012, he has openly criticized the U.S. drone war. In numerous interviews he has let it be known that in this type of war, collateral damage was expected and accepted. The psychological pressure on drone teams is enormous: On his first day of duty, Bryant had to helplessly watch from above as a U.S. convoy unknowingly drove into a trap; because of a communications breakdown, he was unable to warn the unit on the ground in time. Two U.S. soldiers were killed and the drone pilot now realizes that he has gradually become accustomed to seeing his fellow soldiers die.

Because he publicly criticizes the secret U.S. drone war, some see Bryant as a traitor. To others, he’s a hero. In Karlsruhe on Friday, he’ll receive the 2015 Whistleblower Prize awarded by the German branch of Lawyers Against Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons along with the Federation of German Scientists. The peace groups thereby want to publicize Bryant’s role in exposing German complicity in the American drone war.

As a relay station and Air and Space Operations Center, the U.S. Air Force’s Ramstein Air Base in Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate plays a central role in the drone program: 650 Air Force personnel are assigned there doing image analysis and target identification. Bryant revealed how cell phone data are passed from German intelligence to U.S. agencies used in drone targeting. According to peace activists, such targeted killings are contrary to international law and the German government is aware of that.

Even though the U.S. government has not rejected any information provided by Bryant as inaccurate, the consequences for the former drone pilot have been serious. Since his first public revelations he has become a target for those who support the drone war. People on social networks have turned against him and he has even received death threats from some of them. His living conditions have become worse and he lives in primitive conditions near his hometown of Missoula, Montana. His discharge from the Army was followed by social ostracism, but at least he has not yet been prosecuted by the U.S. government.

All Bryant really wanted to do was to help save lives and safeguard the country. One part of his job was also to prevent U.S. soldiers from being ambushed and protect them from certain death in combat zones. He himself was even stationed in Iraq to fly drones from there and support Special Operations Command in which U.S. military special forces all are united in seeking out the top terrorists.

But the feeling that he was helping someone or accomplishing something important failed to materialize. Instead, Bryant was plagued by his conscience about those who died at his hand. He felt his work had been inhumane. That’s why he now, along with veterans, runs a project called The Red Hand that demands more openness and transparency about U.S. wars. He works side by side with Glenn Greenwald, the British confidant of whistleblower Edward Snowden. Chelsea Manning, who exposed U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan via the WikiLeaks platform, is one of his role models.

His own public revelations are still relatively unrecognized. In Germany, at least, that may change due to his being awarded the German Whistleblower Award and his testimony before the Intelligence Committee this week. The first protests against the drone program at Ramstein Air Base didn’t take place until just a few weeks ago. But even if the United States ceased its drone program altogether under public protest, Bryant would still have to live with the burden of all the lives lost because of his actions.

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