As U.S. restricts access to drone base, public loses sight of program’s humanity


As America’s aerial drones make headlines, their operators — mostly working from a base in Nevada — don’t. An increase in security at Creech Air Force base over the last two years has left reporters outside the gates. With almost zero public access to drone operators, these menacing, faceless machines have been forced to speak for themselves. And they’re not known for their charm.

Wired Danger Room explains that access to the Air Force base has been more and more restricted due to new approval protocols for press seeking the once-common interim security clearance into the base. The new protocol causes the vast majority — if not all — of press requests to be denied.

The problem with this is that it almost completely removes the most important people in the drone war from the public eye.

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.

When the U.S. launched this program in 2007, it welcomed journalists with open arms to help spread the word about the new technology. But about two years later, this access started fading.

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.

The increased operations tempo is understandable. With more ground troops in Afghanistan in need of support after Obama sent thousands more troops to secure the “graveyard of empires.”

Post 9/11 security concerns? Unless there was an event on Sept. 11, 2008 or 2009, she must be talking about 9/11/01, which was six years before the program launch and nine years before the tightened security.

Perhaps there is another reason reporters aren’t getting into the base.

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 wasdescribing 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.”

Perhaps the images on operators’ screens and burned into their memories at night are ones the military and CIA would rather keep from civilian television and computer screens.

As mission secrecy and operational security are clearly paramount, restricted access to the base is understandable from a military and intelligence standpoint. The casualty is the only link in the chain of command that reminds us that behind these buzzing death machines have a human behind them. A human who sees and feels and knows that under his/her finger is a life, who must decide if that is a life worth taking and then live with their decision.

Without the flicker of doubt in a pilot’s eyes, it’s hard to be sure there really is anything human between the massive military system and those weapons high in the sky.

Photo/Creative Commons/Flickr user CliffStreetPhotography



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