Interview with a Drone Tech
If it failed, we were told that people on our side would potentially die. But I knew that if it stayed up, people on the Afghan side would die. —Cian Westmoreland
Cian Westmoreland is a former drone program technician who has spoken out against the U.S. drone wars. He was one of a group of four drone whistleblowers who spoke out in 2015. Cian joined the Air Force on April 18, 2006. His reasons for joining were multidimensional. But a reason he joined was that his father was in the Air Force. He’d been a U.S. Air Force Russian Linguist. Following is some of what Cian told me. —Bob Meola
I wanted to get out of my town. My father came out as gay when I was 17. My parents separated. My mom went downhill and resolved to resign. She was relying on me a lot. So was my sister. My girlfriend tried to kill herself.
I felt stuck and wanted to get out of town. Forty percent of the houses in town were condemned.
I looked at military options and talked to the recruiter to see what they had to offer—Army, Navy, Marines. I chose the Air Force. Before enlisting, I was in northern Florida when [hurricane] Katrina hit. I went to New Orleans to volunteer. I was operating a food shelter. I was working with volunteers and ripping out dry wall for my church and the Red Cross. I did delayed entry and they said they’d put me in ground radio.
Basic training was in San Antonio. My Technical School was at Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Mississippi. My First duty station was Osan Air Base in South Korea then, Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, and then Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan in 2009.
I deployed with my unit. We established the site for the 73rd expeditionary Air Control Squadron. My job shifted to RF Transmission Systems. Then Satcom Satellite Communications and Wide Band.
Our job was to build the site that would basically relay all the communications over the 240,000 square miles in Afghanistan to the CAOC–Combined Air operation Center—at Al Udeid Air Base, Quatar and Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
It was a point, a single point of failure at that time. If it failed, we were told that people on our side would potentially die. But I knew that if it stayed up, people on the Afghan side would die.
We were converting terrestrial signals into satellite signals and vice versa.
We were relaying imagery, targeting data, radio communications, encrypted chat, and radar. This was all in 2009.
I had plans to stay in and become a Staff Sargent, until I went to Afghanistan. I even received an early promotion. But in Afghanistan I was building a system that was being used for airstrikes at the same time our base was being bombed.
When this mortar exploded about 100 feet away from me, I started to think about my own life and what I was doing there and what I felt in that moment. I tried to imagine what the children were going through who stood at the fence and begged for water every day, while I stood there unable to do anything for them, despite the fact that just behind me we had a Taco Bell, McDonalds, and a Tim Hortons.
The day the boss gathered us around the equipment and said, “We’re killing bad guys here, boys,” it felt like I had something around my throat. I felt a lump in my throat like I couldn’t breathe.
One of the reasons I joined the Air Force was to develop a relationship with my dad. I didn’t know how to. On 9/11 he was in Kuwait working at a headquarters there when it happened. He had to order all of the initial missile parts to be deployed in Afghanistan. He told me that the leadership there wanted to put cameras on the heads of the missiles so they could watch the impact.
He said every time a missile impacted it would show on a screen and everybody would cheer. He said, “After they hit their targets, they would still have missiles left over, so they would go looking for targets and at the time of the bombings, the targets were considered anybody who was wearing white.”
I knew the culture of the people directing the strikes was not very discriminatory about who they bombed. They were not really concerned with international law and the killing of civilians.
After my father told me those things and when he came back from Kuwait, he became more quiet and distant. I wanted to understand things that he went through for the military. His story was one I thought a lot about while in Afghanistan, and I understood the heaviness he must have felt.
Everyone knew there was collateral damage. Most of the data from aircraft was coming through our unit.
My father told me that during the initial bombing of Afghanistan, when he came back from Kuwait. I found out that he was affected by the bombings too.
He told me about the culture in headquarters. I knew it was similar—knowing who was behind the joystick and what they say about that. We were bombing them.
When I was a child, my father was stationed in Armenia as a linguist doing intelligence work for the Defense Intelligence Agency after the Soviet collapse. There I saw hunger and heating shortages and the toils of having no access to clean water, while also experiencing what it was like to be surveilled in our home and our automobiles by the FSB [Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation].
I was thinking about how the U.S. troops had McDonald’s and we couldn’t give them clean water and this was not a solution, and bombing them was dishonorable. From there I kept my head low and got out of the military.
I only had about seven months left. Rather than trying to be a C.O., I just stayed until it was over and then hitchhiked from my base in Germany to Beijing and was on a journey of self-discovery.
I traveled to over 40 countries and studied International Relations in Brussels so I could have a better understanding of what goes into creating wars and how people find peace.
I met Brandon Bryant and Tonje Shei and others at the conference I organized around one of the first screenings of the film, Drones.
I’d been having re-occurring nightmares of bombing villages and children and being responsible for it. I was in training at Global Governance Institute.
My task there was to research the social impact of weaponized drones. I wanted to start a dialog in Brussels.
This was in May 2014. Consequently, the media lab for the conference was hacked and had gotten a virus deleting all of the footage.
Then a friend was followed around and harassed and his computer was hacked and videos of explosions and killing was put on the computer with the message, “You’ve been hacked.”
I felt like it might have been related to me sharing information with the journalist Chris Woods and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to come back into the U.S. Woods wrote the book, Sudden Justice. I had just pointed him to resources to do his own investigative work, but this was in a similar timeframe of Edward Snowden’s leaks, and I was unclear if what I had provided/who I had provided it to would constitute government actions against me.
Instead of going home, I went to Nepal with no money. I was depressed and I was going to disappear and not come back. I decided I had to come back for my sister’s wedding in summer, 2014. Now I’m here. [The conference in Brussels was in Spring, 2014.]
All my [credit and debit] cards were blocked for a few days. I couldn’t get cash or make purchases right after talking to The Intercept this past fall  in NYC. It was fixed soon. Brandon [Bryant] couldn’t get money deposited into his account. Stephen [Lewis] said he has had no problem because he doesn’t use cards anymore. [Attorney] Jesselynn Radack said other clients of hers have had problems as well.
One of us was constantly getting job offers from intelligence agencies while we were speaking out. Stephen refused them all and chose to continue working as a pretzel maker in a mall. Brandon has been off the radar and taking a break from the media. Michael [another drone pilot] might not participate much more. I’ve been trying to keep this going.
I helped start Project Red Hand (projectredhand.org).
The government could try to charge us [former drone program personnel who are speaking out] with espionage.
We didn’t do what Snowden or Manning did. We didn’t leak anything. We didn’t give information. But we are speaking out. They could try to construe that we are aiding the enemy by giving info about certain events and what might have happened. We spoke out against the drone program.
My security clearance has not been active for a few years. I waited for a few years. They’d have to try me in a civilian court. I waited until I was out of the military for eight years to share anything. In 2014, I shared information eight years after I joined in 2006. That makes me clear of military law then.
Brandon and I both agreed that we would be willing to stand trial at the International Criminal Court for what we participated in, because we believe it was an illegal war. I know myself to be a war criminal by international standards. We participated in what would constitute war crimes if any other soldier from any other nation perpetrated it. The U.S. signing of the Nuremberg Principles after WWII set the norm that “just following orders” is not a valid excuse for human rights violations. Our work, in the Global War on Terror, killed civilians in ways that were massively disproportionate to the threat most targets on the ground actually posed. We excessively used airpower when it wasn’t needed. We had no formal declaration of war or any business being in this region militarily. But despite knowing that my equipment would most likely be used in war crimes, I still just followed orders. With that said, I envision a system of international justice that would be in lines with the highest standards of criminal treatment, which would be rehabilitative, include acts of penance, and a lifetime of servitude toward peace. It’s got to be entirely voluntary.
I don’t think 9-11 was a just reason for invading Afghanistan. It was a terrorist act and not done by the people of Afghanistan nor the Taliban. The vast majority of Americans accepted this as a war of retribution, but retribution was never a valid reason for going to war in terms of international law. It was reframed, but it’s essentially why most Americans think they are there.
I hold myself personally guilty as an accessory to murder in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With air strikes, it’s not just the pilot who is pulling the trigger. Everybody has a part in making it happen. It is volunteering your energy for excessive force and unlawful killing of civilians. I’m living, so my mission now is to be sustainable and help promote transparency, accountability, and sustainability. We’ve created a meat industry out of war. We’ve hidden the effects of everything that goes into our way of life. Everything in our society runs on oil and precious metals. People need to know that the way they live has a much longer and deeper impact than what they see. With drones, our citizens don’t have to physically come into contact with the people we are killing anymore, just like we don’t come in contact with the animals we eat in our food. It allows us to live in illusionary worlds where we are deprived of the exposure to our own personal violent consequences and have very little incentive to improve how we interact with the world.
When you see tall skyscrapers in Mumbai and people in poverty below, it’s all interrelated.
The way we behave has major impacts on the rest of the world. If you really want to live a just life, you should try to decentralize your life and community as much as possible, bringing your own personal supply chain down to a level that can be accounted for.
We always have concentrations of power. GMOs are the weaponization of food in poor countries. I want to create a more comprehensive sense of responsibility linking drones and sustainability in the public psyche–the furthest extent of our commitment to killing people who oppose us vs. creating a world where violence makes little sense. We need to create micro-grids and empower local levels of governance, then focus on bringing people out of their survivalistic patterns of behavior into community.
Hard power or soft power? More security or culture and diplomacy? The U.S. could try to make itself a more inclusive democracy and export sustainability as our foreign policy. Here in Taos, it is the headquarters of Earthships. The inventor of this building style has an interesting quote that reminds me of the concept of human security called tomato security. “If we all have tomatoes, there’s no reason to steal each other’s tomatoes.” If we can think along those lines to the furthest levels of our supply chains, we can reduce a lot of the stress this world faces, which ultimately results in escalations. We need to see how our everyday actions promote peace or promote war.
Cian continues to speak out against the drone wars and to educate people as to how those wars have been conducted by the United States.
—Courage to Resist, September 21, 2016