Friday, December 2, 2011

Next post Air Force Tells Reporters: You’re Not Welcome at Our Drone Base Anymore

Dawn Lim and Now Shachtman

When the Air Force activated its first unmanned aircraft wing in 2007, the military invited journalists out to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada to come take a look at the robotic future taking off.

Today, that kind of openness would be unthinkable. The Air Force began to limit press access to Creech in 2009. In the last six months, they’ve closed it off almost entirely, turning down every American media request to visit the drone pilots. The only visit approved during that period was from a British outlet, involving Creech’s UK drone squadron, Air Force officials tell Danger Room.

Drones are the signature weapon in America’s wars, from Afghanistan to Yemen to Pakistan. Their employment has become one of the world’s most sensitive political issues. But, thanks to the near-blackout of the media, the public knows less and less about the drones — and the people who operate them.

That’s a big shift from just a few years ago, when reporter after reporter was given an interim security clearance, and sat next to pilots as they controlled drones thousands of miles away above the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Photographers were given a wide berth to shoot what they liked. The Air Force even posted footage from the drones’ cameras to YouTube.

A May 2009 60 Minutes segment was in many ways typical of the era. Correspondent Lara Logan, using an awestruck tone, boasted her “rare look” at the Reaper drone’s 500-pound laser-guided bomb and, for dramatic effect, was tracked on the base by a Predator. The Air Force declassified drone footage for 60 Minutes — including a sequence of Iraqi insurgents being taken out by the drone.

Of course, the Air Force didn’t just let reporters waltz into Creech. Journalists were carefully vetted, and then given a temporary secret clearance before being allowed into the drones’ remote cockpits. The reporters couldn’t have cellphones on them. Notes and footage were reviewed before they left. And if any journalists passed through the doorway that separated the secret and unclassified zones, blue lights hanging from the ceiling would flash, “a reminder to the crews to mind their conversations, an outsider is among them,” as Esquire’s Brian Mockenhaupt put it.

The blue lights signaling the presence of journalists haven’t come on for a while. New guidelines put in place have made it harder for journalists to be let in. Starting in 2009, media requests to visit the base had to be run up the chain of command, first through Air Combat Command, which oversees the drones and all other Air Force tactical aircraft, and then relayed to Air Force headquarters, where they were “more or less denied,” said Staff Sgt. Dustin Holmes, Creech spokesperson.

“The change in guidance wasn’t a light switch that turned off all public access to information about [remotely piloted aircraft],” said Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, spokesman at Air Combat Command, but “it was a recognition of the sensitive nature of the mission and the risks involved in unrestricted media access to an operational unit.”

“You will very rarely find reporters in a cockpit looking over the shoulders of pilots flying real combat and intelligence missions,” said Sholtis. “No one should expect to see that happening with RPAs simply because the crew’s cockpit happens to be in a building farther from the battlefield.”

Press visits to Creech were all but phased out in 2010. “Creech was unable to support media requests during this timeframe because of a high operations tempo and post 9/11 security concerns,” said Creech spokesperson Lt. Katherine Roling.

At the same time, the drones flown from the base became more important than ever to American military and intelligence operations. U.S. Air Force drones’ flight hours more than doubled in three years, rising to 563,000 in 2010 from 262,000 in 2007. Reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan spiked to 117 in 2010, compared to 50 or so in the year before.

The U.S. government maintains that its top-secret CIA drone program, operating in Pakistan, is completely separate from the classified-but-overt military drone effort, which is supposed to be limited to Afghanistan. (The reality is more complicated than that, with Air Force drones chasing militants into Pakistan and the CIA relying on military personnel to operate their aircraft.)

Ironically, just as press access to the ostensibly open military drone program wound down, the government began to speak more and more about the supposedly super-secret CIA drone war. In 2009, then-CIA chief Leon Panetta declared that drones were “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.” By the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Washington Post was describing the whiteboards used to keep track of pending operations and informants in the region. The CIA’s former top lawyer, John Rizzo, told Newsweek about the group of 10 agency lawyers who granted “approval for targeting for lethal operation.”

“It’s basically a hit list,” Rizzo added.

This counter-intuitive approach to dealing with the press — shutting access to the open war, while cracking the door to the secret one — meant that the public saw the machines and some kind of political machinery at work. But the men behind the machines — the pilots — disappeared.

What was lost? In a 2009 Frontline episode, we could drive to work with the pilot who prays for strength and wisdom. 60 Minutes caught the flicker of doubt in the eyes of the pilot confronted with the question, “What if you get it wrong?” Never mind the myth of the efficient killing machine. There are people who make the decision of whether to pull the trigger. There are stories to be told about these airmen who have the power over life or death.

Opponents of the drones tend to paint them as “cowardly” weapons, operated by people who are conscience-free. By shutting off access to Creech, the Air Force is allowing that argument to be floated without rebuttal.

After spending a month being tossed from one military spokesman to another, film producer Daniel Desure put up a Craiglist ad in desperation. Were there any drone operators who would talk to a group of artists about non-classified parts of their job? Dozens of responses came in. Desure filtered out the obvious fakes, found eight people who sounded legitimate, and set up interviews with four people.
But then, a call from the FBI spooked the team. Desure was warned that “there are a lot of people who don’t want this to happen.” Shortly after that, two drone operators who already agreed to talk to him went dark.

One of the pilots sent an apologetic email, excerpts of which were forwarded to Danger Room. “My commander just briefed the entire base that we are not to discuss details regarding our aircraft, or mission, with outside agencies and press offices,” the email reads. “Everyone is spun up over personnel releasing information to the public.”

Desure’s team eventually found one airman who agreed to speak, but wouldn’t allow himself to be identified. In the final product, 5,000 Feet Is the Best, a former drone pilot addresses the camera, his voice digitally distorted, his face cast in a blurry halo. We have to take the word of the filmmakers that he is who he says he is. He describes the heat patterns of the landscape that stretches out before him, and spots something that looks like a “white blossom.” He must be in his 20s. As he tries to make out the images on the screen, we too, try — and fail — to meet his eyes.

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