Robert Greenwald, head of the progressive internet video and documentary film company, Brave New Films, recently traveled to Pakistan, supported financially by hundreds of BNF donors, to witness firsthand the stories of families who have had innocent loved ones killed by U.S. drone attacks. Greenwald is challenging both the morality and the factual effectiveness of the U.S drone program as we learn more about the failures and questionable policies. The U.S. claims that drone missiles are aimed at potential terrorists but because the ground rules of who can be targeted is both vague and has been loosened, the number of innocents being killed has risen sharply. Furthermore, the information that is used to target people, appears to be the result of a system of bribery at the local level, which is of questionable reliability.
It wasn't until April 2012 that John Brennan, White House counter-terrorism adviser admitted for the first time publicly, that our government has been using drones in Pakistan, and later Yemen, to attempt to kill those they consider as potential terrorists. This was the first public acknowledgment, despite the fact that the program had been going for at least several years. Still far more information was withheld in Brennan's announcement about the the program, than was revealed.
As The Washington Post reports: "Brennan’s speech was also noteworthy, however, for what he withheld. He did not disclose how many people have been killed, list all the locations where armed drones are being flown or mention the administration’s increasing reliance on 'signature' strikes, which allow the CIA to fire missiles even when it doesn’t know the identities of those who could be killed."
The CIA runs the drone program and it is shrouded in secrecy, which enables people like Brennan to characterize the program in glowing terms, which go mainly unchallenged by the media, and contribute to the public assumption that drones are accurate, safe, and taking out the bad guys. Thus Brennan is able to get away with saying, as reported in the Post : Drones’ capability to linger over targets for days enables unprecedented “surgical precision,” Brennan said, “the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it — that makes this counter-terrorism tool so essential.” This despite little evidence that active or powerful elements of Al-Qaeda are operating in the Swat area of Pakistan which has been targeted by drones.
Nevertheless, increasingly another story is emerging which raises fundamental questions about the wisdom and the morality of our policy vis a vis Pakistan, and Brennan's effort to pretend that the drone program isn't destructive, and hugely alienating to Pakistan. According to Greenwald, speaking to his staff in a briefing upon his return from Pakistan, people with whom he spoke " said the Drone attacks were a great recruiting tool for the Taliban, because powerless
Greenwald explains: Let's assume for a moment the drones can be technically accurate, although that is questionable. What information are they using to establish their targets? Basically it is a form of bribery, where the CIA gives former Pakistani military large sums of money to pass out to sources on the ground in Swat, where the Taliban are most active. Sometimes, -- and it is impossible to tell how much -- these bribes lead to the settling of old and local scores ."
So there is another painful and tragic side to the drone story -- not the one of killing so called "militant targets" but rather the slaughter of innocent civilians, as stories of drone victims have emerged in the Fata area of Swat where the drones are targeted.
Greenwald recounted one situation, as told to him from people from area of the bombing that there was a group of elders were meeting in a Jirga -- a kind town meeting of elders -- to resolve a community conflict , this one a dispute about mining. But the meeting was interpreted by drone intelligence as a group of men with guns -- obviously not unusual for the region -- and it became a "signature strike" -- and a missile killed between 20 and 40 of the elders.
Like with their intense efforts to work to end the war in Afghanistan, Greenwald and Brave New Films started their quest to change U.S. drone policy with heavy odds (and check out his latest efforts at WarCosts.com). But just as the public attitude toward the Afghan war shifted over time, with heavy dosages of strong factual information contrary to the administration's line, Greenwald is confident that thee attitude toward drones will shift.
AlterNet spoke with Greenwald in his Culver City California offices on November 26th, just after his return from Pakistan.
Don Hazen: Tell us a little bit about what it was like in Pakistan, and what surprised you, and made you think you were doing the right thing by going there and pursuing the drone story.
Robert Greenwald: The first-hand experience immediately was that the people couldn't have been more gracious, and that was surprising, given how hated the drones are -- by virtue of all measure of statistics -- in the great majority of the country.
Don Hazen: What was their message to you? Did they understand you to be a messenger to the public here in the US?
Robert Greenwald: Many of the people asked me to talk to the president of the United States, and to explain to him who they were -- that they were not terrorists; they were farmers, they were peasants, they were poor people, they were working people, they were religious people. I heard that over and over again -- to please explain this to the President how much damage this was doing. And some of them had the belief that just his understanding who they really were would force him to change his mind about the drone attacks.
Don Hazen: What is your sense of the Obama policy's effect in Pakistan? What's your thinking about why we have moved to the use of drones as a major policy shift, and is it working?
Robert Greenwald: After a trip to the region, is very hard to understand or justify why we're doing it. I feel, like when I went to Afghanistan -- there two minutes after walking around on the streets, and you knew this was a country that invading and occupying was not going to be a security solution. After a short period of time in Pakistan, it's clear that drones are not a security solution either. If you believe in drones, the original idea was to go after so-called high-value targets, which according to the NYU-Stanford study 2% of the people killed by drones are high-value targets -- now, who are all the rest of the people? Well, it's a secret program, so therefore the CIA doesn't have to tell us anything, yet they claim that with each attack they're getting militants. Now we have people coming forward, saying, actually, no we're not terrorists. One man, he had a picture of a 65 year old woman with grey hair -- his mother. She's not a militant terrorist. So the notion that we're killing terrorists exclusively is fundamentally inaccurate. It has been estimated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that as many as 178 children have been killed in drone attacks (Read the full report on child casualties from the drone war on WarCosts.com and watch Greenwald's related video at the bottom of this interview).
Don Hazen: Why is the CIA in charge of this? What would they say to argue with you? And Why do they think the drone policy is working?
Robert Greenwald: The CIA is in charge, because remember, we're officially not at war with Pakistan. Tell that to the population and in Pakistan, who see this as an extreme violation of their sovereignty. The Pakistan Parliament voted three times unanimously against the use of drones. One of the original justifications by the CIA was that there was this "imminent threat" of terrorism. Well, I defy anyone to prove that the individuals attacked by drones in Pakistan pose an imminent security threat to the security of the United States. I think the CIA would say, and they have said that it's the least-bad solution, but I have concluded it's far from the least bad solution. Basically the CIA has decided that they can unilaterally pick who should be assassinated -- No proof, no evidence, no court of law. A small group of people are deciding who should be assassinated and which countries its OK to do this in, and they are often very very wrong.
Don Hazen: And how do we fight that? As more people are mobilized to be against drones, what would be the strategy and tactics to try to change the policy; It seems like there's no access to changing this policy in a democracy, since much of it is secret, and a "matter of national security." Nobody is voting on it. The Congress isn't saying -- Yes , on drones; or No on drones.
Robert Greenwald: It's somewhat analogous to Afghanistan -- Congress had to have a series of votes over the years to fund that war, keep it going. I think the first step is to have investigations -- It looks like they're going to have an investigation in the UK, and also now that the United Nations is going to be conducting its own. We need to first know: what exactly is the policy, how is it being decided, and to push for transparency. There's absolutely no reason -- with the exception of avoiding outside scrutiny -- for the CIA to keep this hidden. Everyone knows drones are being deployed outside the US for assassinations. Let's say you even believe in drones. Shouldn't we have a system that would "justify" their use? i.e. we did this attack, because these bad guys were there, and here's what we did. We don't even have that. So that's where we start. We are asking for people to contact Pelosi/Boehner and push for the House Resolution that Dennis Kucinich introduced that calls for an investigation.
Don Hazen: Do you have a sense of where this is coming from beyond the CIA? Is Obama and his national security staff all pro-drone?
Robert Greenwald: Based on limited information, it appears to be primarily driven by the CIA and especially John Brennan, chief counter-terrorism advisor to Obama. But now we hear that Brennan is trying to rein the program .
Don Hazen: Moral issues aside, what do you say to the people who a. believe drones will save American lives, b. cost a lot less than the traditional model of bombers? For example there was a huge issue in Afghanistan of bombing weddings, where part of the celebration involves firing machine guns into the sky -- the proponents of drones say, look we're avoiding a lot more casualties with this approach.
Robert Greenwald: Well, the accuracy argument -- whether it's a wedding in Afghanistan or a funeral in Pakistan, it comes down to who was on the ground giving you the information telling you who the attendants were. And we know that the people who give that kind of information are being bribed. So their intelligence is going to be faulty. It's an approach that creates doubts from the outset.
Don Hazen: All this is going on in Swat, a semi autonomous area of Pakistan right? How much of a threat are the Taliban there?
Robert Greenwald: Yes, the Swat area is part of the nation state of Pakistan, but it follows its own set of rules and regulations. It's semi-autonomous. Highly uneducated, extreme levels of poverty as we understand the word poverty, and highly mountainous. That area is where almost all of the attacks on Pakistan have been unleashed.
As far as the he Taliban goes, it is not one unified organization Some of them are brutal to the population, some are less aggressive. But the key is that none of them pose an immediate threat to the U.S. So what's central here, is that it's the drone attacks that are creating the threat, as angry people may try to seek revenge against us, as has already been the case.