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Lt. Col. Geoffrey Barnes, Detachment 1 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Attack Squadron commander, performs a pre-flight inspection of an MQ-1B Predator unmanned  drone aircraft in this file image from September 3, 2008. In the rugged mountains of western Pakistan, missiles launched by unmanned Predator or Reaper drones have become so commonplace that some U.S counterterrorism officials liken them to "cannon fire." (REUTERS/Christopher Griffin/Handout/Files) Lt. Col. Geoffrey Barnes, Detachment 1 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Attack Squadron commander, performs a pre-flight inspection of an MQ-1B Predator unmanned drone aircraft in this file image from September 3, 2008. In the rugged mountains of western Pakistan, missiles launched by unmanned Predator or Reaper drones have become so commonplace that some U.S counterterrorism officials liken them to "cannon fire." (REUTERS/Christopher Griffin/Handout/Files)  

Former US drone analyst wonders ‘if we killed the right people’

Giuseppe Macri
Tech Editor

A former U.S. drone imagery analyst is openly questioning the morality and accuracy of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes in a recent op-ed published in The Guardian.

“I wish I could ask them a few questions,” Heather Linebaugh wrote of the politicians who defend the UAV predator and reaper program. “I’d start with: ‘How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile?’ And: ‘How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?’ Or even more pointedly: ‘How many soldiers have you seen die on the side of a road in Afghanistan because our ever-so-accurate UAVs were unable to detect an IED [improvised explosive device] that awaited their convoy?’”

According to Linebaugh, politicians in defense of the program rarely “have a real clue of what actually goes on.”

Linebaugh served as an imagery analyst for the Air Force from 2009 to 2012, where image quality is such a problem analysts often can’t tell the difference between a shovel and a weapon — and proceed with action anyway.

“I felt this confusion constantly, as did my fellow UAV analysts. We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle,” Linebaugh said.

Details released to the press and public about drone strike incidents and programs are commonly twisted and in some instances totally falsified according to Linebaugh. The exact and precise nature of strikes is both exaggerated and misrepresented by defense officials, and the real percentage of civilian casualties — which is almost never released — remains unchanged.

“UAV troops are victim to not only the haunting memories of this work that they carry with them, but also the guilt of always being a little unsure of how accurate their confirmations of weapons or identification of hostile individuals were,” Linebaugh said.

Two people Linebaugh worked with committed suicide, and many suffer from anxiety, sleep disorders and depression, often seeking heavy medication to deal with the stress of the job. The suicide statistics of drone operators are not reported.

In a recent example reported by Reuters earlier this month, a drone strike targeted a Yemeni wedding party mistaken for an al-Qaida meeting, resulting in the deaths of 13 civilians.

“The UAVs in the Middle East are used as a weapon, not as protection, and as long as our public remains ignorant to this, this serious threat to the sanctity of human life — at home and abroad — will continue,” Linebaugh said.

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