Q&A WITH ZAIN VERJEE
Aired January 14, 2003 - 12:30:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): . court marshal for dropping a bomb that killed and wounded Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): As the hearing begins, a 3-star general will decide whether the pilots are criminals or military men who made a tragic error.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A U.S. Air National Guard F-16 dropped one or two 500-pound bombs on our Canadian allies near Kandahar. There are dead and wounded among the Canadians.
CLANCY: The two pilots could receive more than 60 years in prison.
VERJEE: But some say what may lie behind the friendly fire is the use of drugs. Aviators call them go pills. Doctors call them amphetamines.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The problem is, they haven't tested them. And it's not just the go pills. If you're not aware, when they come back they're giving them Ambien, a sedative. So they're going up on uppers, down on downers.
CLANCY: On this edition of Q&A, friendly fire; after so many casualties, why are two men singled out? And should combat pilots who are dropping pills also be dropping bombs?
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Hello and welcome once again to Q&A.
It was in April of last year, in Afghanistan. Four Canadian soldiers killed, eight others wounded, when a U.S. pilot dropped 200 kilos of high explosives in a bomb on their position.
VERJEE: Who'll decide if those pilots will be court marshaled?
CLANCY: That's a hearing being held today.
Now, that's really only -- it's like a preliminary hearing where it only considers whether or not they should be court marshaled, or whether they should be brought before any kind of tribunal or punished at all.
Part of the defense is going to be the use of so-called go pills, or amphetamines, issued by the U.S. Air Force and taken by at least some, if not many, U.S. Air Force pilots.
VERJEE: And the question that raises is, could those pills effect judgment? And what might they have to do with what's called friendly fire?
CLANCY: Now one of the defense lawyers is David Beck, a former colonel in the U.S. armed forces and a former pilot.
I asked him if go pills played a role in this case of an error in judgment.
DAVID BECK, ATTORNEY: To the extent there was an error in judgment, drugs may have, because the Air Force was providing the pilots with amphetamines while they were flying, Ambien sedatives when they came back, over a continuous period of time.
The manufacturers of those drugs, the scientific community, says that you should not operate heavy equipment, engage in hazardous activity, because they do impair judgment and perception.
CLANCY: But don't the pilots have a choice whether or not they want to take those pills, go pills, they call them? Amphetamines is what the rest of the world knows them as.
BECK: Well, it depends on how you define choice. The pilots are required to sign an informed voluntary consent form. Informed voluntary consent. They are not told of the side effects, the dangers, the addiction problems that they cause. They are told that signing the form and use of the pills is voluntary, but three lines down from that it says, if you don't volunteer, if you don't sign and participate, you may be deemed unfit to fly, you won't be able to fly, and that's obviously a career-ending decision. And so there's no real choice.
CLANCY: How much does it concern you that the pilots were warned that there was an exercise there in the area? They were warned not to fire.
BECK: That's absolutely incorrect, and I'm glad you brought that up, Jim, because they were not, and that is the most critical, the most defining, contributing factor to this accident.
The pilots were not told that the Canadians were on the ground conducting an exercise. You have to ask, why are we doing a night live fire training exercise in a combat zone anyway? But they did not tell the pilots.
Nobody in the AWAC's command plane and nobody in the command center knew the training exercise was going on. That's inexcusable.
CLANCY: Wait a minute. There were operations going on all over Afghanistan. You had a, just an intersection of combat air missions, combat missions on the ground, and now you're saying there was training going on on the ground as well. How much concern in advance of this incident had there been for the possibility of a friendly fire casualty situation?
BECK: There had been numerous e-mails, phone calls, personal meetings between the squadron and the wing commanders, from all -- from the Air Force, the Army, the Navy and the Marine Corp. -- pleading with the general in charge, with the command center, we need to have a meeting because we are not getting sufficient information of where our ground forces are. We don't have ground liaison officers to tell us what's going on. The air missions are not sufficiently de-conflicted, and if we don't fix this lack of communication, there's going to be fratricide, there's going to be friendly fire casualties.
Nobody from the command center came to a meeting, which was scheduled March 17, one month before this happened. They were warned, we need to fix the problems or somebody is going to get killed. They didn't come. They didn't fix the problems. People got killed. And even since then, Jim, they're not fixing the problems. They're trying to fix the blame. If you don't fix the problems, it will happen again, and our men and women in harm's way right now are in danger because instead of admitting what was done wrong, fixing the problems, compensate the families who lost loved ones -- that's what our government should do -- fix those problems -- it's going to happen again.
CLANCY: Why do you think it is, the U.S. Air Force, other branches of the military, perhaps, use these go pills, as they are called, and Navy doesn't?
BECK: The Marine Corp. doesn't, and I don't know.
I don't mean ill-will to -- we've got obviously some great Americans and patriots in the Air Force. I think it's misguided. They haven't properly studied it, and if they properly study it, if they look to the scientific community, they would know, don't do it. I don't know why they do it.
You know, Jim, if you take the drugs out of the situation, if you take some of the communications out, you still have a terribly tragic accident which happened in a stressful situation in the fog of war. That's not a crime, and if you criminalize this conduct, if you put pilots and others through this process, what message is it sending?
CLANCY: Do you get amphetamines, go pills, out of the cockpits?
BECK: Absolutely. The manufacturers say, don't do it. And the testing that was done -- there was never any performance testing done by the Air Force on them. They are giving a pill at home. They say tell us if you throw up or have any effects, and then they go fly. There wasn't any testing done.
And I say that -- I'm not a doctor or scientist, but there is no scientific approval, there is no general acceptance in the scientific community to do this. Truck drivers are arrested for using schedule-II drugs, and, yes, you get them out of the cockpit. Maybe we need more pilots and aircraft over to lessen the stress. Maybe we need to move our locations closer to the zone.
But you don't use pills that the manufacturers say these are going to cause judgment and perception problems.
CLANCY: All right. Our thanks to David Beck for being with us here on Q&A.
VERJEE: With some other views on this, we're now joined by Scott Silliman, from Duke University Law School. He's a former U.S. Air Force attorney and is with us from Durham, North Carolina. From Washington, Col. Peter Demitry, U.S. Air Force flight surgeon. And from Canada's capital, Scott Taylor, the editor of the magazine "Esprit de Corps," and a former Canadian soldier.
Gentlemen, thanks to you all for joining Jim and I here on Q&A.
Peter Demitry, if we can start with you here. Should pilots be taking go pills?
COL. PETER DEMITRY, U.S. AIR FORCE SURGEON: Recognize the first question ought to be, why is the Air Force, the U.S. Air Force, so aggressively combating fatigue? And the thing that you always have to remember here that is the foundation of the rest of the discussion ought to be that -- remember, fatigue kills.
We have over several decades proven that 100 of our aviators have died causally due to fatigue. That's 100 irreplaceable lives, and over 100 aircraft, over $1 billion worth of irreplaceable lives and combat equipment.
Once you understand that fatigue is the real killer and the real hazard here, then we look for a safe and effective tool to combat fatigue, and the pill is the last resort.
CLANCY: All right. There we hear it from Peter Demitry, fatigue kills.
Scott Silliman, a professor there at Duke University Law School, you know, there's also the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and other groups here in the United States government; they say speed kills. And, I mean, it's possible that both of them do, isn't it?
SCOTT SILLIMAN, DUKE UNIVERSITY: Well, it certainly is, Jim, but we've got to remember that what's happening down in Shreveport, Louisiana today and the next several days is a very seasoned military judge, an Air Force judge, who is eliciting evidence on all these factors -- the operative facts, the use of the amphetamines -- and it's his job to marshal all this evidence, both from the government and from Dave Beck and Charlie Gittins and their team, and send it to a 3-star general who will make a decision.
And that decision is, simply, is there enough of a showing of negligence on the part of the air crews to merit the charges going forward to a court marshal.
Now remember, when we talk about the use of go pills, and it's my understanding that they've been used since World War II -- but the operative facts are that the Air Force says these air crew members, one, were not given permission to drop ordinance. They did. And they violated the rules of engagement, which call for them to climb away from a threat that was below them, not to descend and engage it.
That's the question that's being looked at. The issue of the amphetamines, as I understand it, is simply was their judgment clouded.
But this is not the first time the Air Force has pursued criminal charges against pilots, no matter what Dave Beck says.
VERJEE: OK. But there is real outrage in Canada, isn't there?
Let's go to Scott Taylor for that perspective -- Scott.
SCOTT TAYLOR, "ESPRIT DE CORPS": I think people want to see justice done. Certainly the soldiers want to see justice done.
In our military, if there was such a thing as an accident like this, where lives were lost, people would be punished. They would be court marshaled and then they would go to jail. And I think in this case -- keep in mind that there's been two previous boards of inquiry, one done by the Americans with the Canadians participating, and one Canadian board of inquiry into this up to this stage.
We've looked at a lot of these extenuating circumstances, and both of those panels came back and concluded that the pilots were at fault.
That's why we're at where we are now, yet we keep seeing the same arguments being brought forward, trying to cloud the issue as to whether they were told about the presence of Canadians conducting live fire exercises or about these go pills, which are only, I would think, something they would use in their defense at a court marshal.
CLANCY: Prof. Silliman, you're the legal expert here, and I want to ask you -- when this hearing takes place, are these pilots -- is their attorney, as we just heard him, going to be able to argue the case that, look, you know, the people in charge of the flight line here were telling the U.S. Air Force and anyone else who would listen, look, there's no coordination between what's going on on the ground and what's going on in the air, and this is going to cause trouble. Is that a good defense?
SILLIMAN: Well, Jim, obviously that's what -- one of the arguments that they're going to make.
And remember that this proceeding down there is the equivalent of what in this country we call a grand jury indictment or a grand jury investigation, with one difference; the air crew members and their attorneys are there, and they can present their side of the case, even before you get a decision on going to trial or not.
All this is going to be vetted and presented to a very senior Air Force judge. Again, he'll have to then marshal the evidence, including everything that's been said so far, and decide, and make a recommendation as to whether this should go to a trial. That is a decision, it's a very weighty one, but again, it's not the first time that this has been done.
When the helicopters were shot down over Iraq in '94, the same issue came up. Did the level of negligence rise to the standard of criminality? That's the key issue in this case.
VERJEE: If I just may backtrack slightly and ask Peter Demitry another question on the pills. You said, you know, pop the pill, combat fatigue. But if fatigue is the real issue here, what about civilian pilots? They're traveling long hours, long flights. Why don't they pop pills, if that's the case?
DEMITRY: That's a good question, but you really have to understand that in combat aviation, combat aviation is significantly different than civilian aviation.
And again, the pill is life insurance. It's a voluntary, safe, and effective life insurance policy, as a last resort.
Now, in civilian aviation, our first rule in our countermeasures is that you need enforced sleep rest. Any time there's a training mission, other than combat, other than real live life and death situations, we rest our pilots which is exactly what the civilians do, and is appropriate.
VERJEE: But the way the pilots are rested, as you put it, they're given downers to come down from when they took the amphetamines. So isn't that a problem?
DEMITRY: No. I think that's very, very misleading.
Again, I was a -- I'm a pilot in the Air Force for 24 years and I've been a practicing flight surgeon for 15 years. It's disingenuous to think that we're going back and forth between the two. That's not the case.
The number one countermeasure for fatigue -- fatigue kills. The number one countermeasure is sleep. If before a mission -- if I can get a crew rested, then he won't need to invoke the life insurance go pill policy, which is merely there as a safe and effective tool to finish the mission and come back, at which time he is declared that he is tired. He needs rest. And that's what the system will give him.
Prior to that, if he doesn't come -- he's got to be rested before he comes on duty. As you can imagine, if there's problems the night before and someone can't get to rest, we will give a very, very quick acting sedative just to help him rest, but that's completely out of the system before he ever reports to duty, by 15 - 18 hours normally.
CLANCY: All right.
SILLIMAN: Zain, one other thing, with your reference to commercial pilots versus military pilots. I think all your viewers will acknowledge that a commercial pilot can get out of his seat, drink coffee, go to a men's room and come back into the seat.
Military pilots don't have that luxury, so the option of just having a thermos of coffee just isn't there for them.
DEMITRY: Well, and that brings up another -- and that brings up a good point. The only pilots in the U.S. Air Force that are afforded this insurance policy are the combat pilots. Those are the bomber pilots and the fighter pilots who are literally strapped to ejection seats, sometimes for over 30 or 40 hours.
Your viewers -- imagine, you strap yourself to your dining room table, sit there for 30 hours. All you can do is wiggle your toes and do some isometrics. People are shooting at you, and you can understand the stress of fatigue.
Those are the only groups.
CLANCY: All right, gentlemen. I'm going to ask you all to stay on right here. Obviously, it is not like we've seen it in the movies.
Prof. Scott Silliman, Scott Taylor and Col. Peter Demitry, stay with us. We're going to be back in just a moment.
VERJEE: And after the break, how is this case going to affect the future of the U.S. military? We'll take a look at that when we come back.
CLANCY: Welcome back to another edition of Q&A.
This reminder, of course, we want you to be a part of our show.
VERJEE: Yes, visit our Web site. Our page is at CNN.COM/YWT. Sign up for the Q&A newsletter. Either Jim or myself write it.
CLANCY: And send us any questions you want to ask by e-mail to Q&A@CNN.COM.
VERJEE: Now back to our guests and the two U.S. Air National Guard pilots facing a possible court marshal.
With us, Scott Silliman, of Duke University Law School, Air Force flight surgeon Col. Peter Demitry, and Scott Taylor, of the magazine "Esprit de Corps."
CLANCY: All right, Prof. Silliman, let me begin with you and just ask you this question: why are two pilots -- I mean, OK, four Canadians killed, serious incident. Hey, when 40 or more olive-skinned Afghans from Central Asia are killed by errant U.S. bombs at a wedding celebration, and you mentioned it yourself, hey, nobody's brought up on any charges. And it looks like to a lot of people, politics is driving this case.
SILLIMAN: Jim, I don't think so. What we're really talking about is, there are going to be accidents. They happen in Afghanistan. They've happened in past wars, which are clearly accidental or at the very best go towards a standard of simple negligence, something that we do erroneously.
The charge here involves a higher level of negligence, and suggests that the pilots should have obeyed the rules of engagement -- the Air Force says they didn't -- and should not have dropped ordinance before they had approval.
VERJEE: Yes, but the point that Jim is making here to you is that, why are these two being put under the gun, so to speak, when there are other instances that have happened and nobody is putting them out on the mat.
SILLIMAN: Well, I'm not sure I agree, Zain, that there are other incidents that have happened that raise that same level of negligence.
The only one that I'm aware of was in 1994.
CLANCY: Yes, but what's the level of negligence? Is it the fact that it was white people from North America killed instead of people of olive skin color?
CLANCY: What does Canada think about this -- Scott Taylor.
TAYLOR: I would argue that in this case, we're examining this case in particular, and there is a greater degree of negligence, from what we can understand, in this.
There was no need to invoke self-defense. We know from the statements that were made, the pilot was at around 15,000 feet. The Canadians did not have any anti-aircraft weapons. He claimed they were firing at him. We know that wasn't the case. At best, you had ricochets that were going up to about 2,000 feet.
So you had a pilot that had about 2 vertical miles of safety, and he still proclaimed that he was under fire and that he engaged the Canadians in that action.
So there is a higher degree of negligence here, and he was warned not to engage and still did. So the consequences of that -- I can't comment on the Afghan wedding. I don't know the details in that circumstance. But in this particular case, when you look at it very closely, there was certainly an element of pilot error.
VERJEE: OK. Peter Demitry, do you think that the pilots in this instance are being put under the gun merely to appease the Canadian government, as Jim was saying? Is politics at play here too?
DEMITRY: As you understand, I'm here as a medical expert, and to discuss the appropriateness of the Air Force program. This is a voluntary, safe, and effective counter fatigue program, and I certainly don't want to bias any of the fair proceedings that are ongoing this week.
CLANCY: Let me ask you your opinion about this, and it does deal with your work as a flight surgeon, and that is, do you think that this case could ultimately cause a reexamination of the use of those go pills?
DEMITRY: One of the comprehensive things, when we keep on seeing that fatigue is a killer in aviation, particularly combat aviation, is that we routinely go back and reevaluate the medical literature around the country, around the world, and this program has been reviewed and revalidated, externally to the Air Force, I might point out, only a few years ago, where we review all the medical literature. And, again, this goes all the way back for the last 60 years.
And I would also like to correct something said earlier in the show, that the Navy actually has a 50-page extensive, comprehensive document that also allows their pilots, at the very end, as a life and death insurance policy, under certain scenarios, to also be afforded this mild, miniscule dose of stimulant, which is proven safe and effective for the last six decades, and is even less dose than what elementary school kids with attention deficit disorder day after day after day.
CLANCY: All right, we're going to be watching this case closely.
Our thanks to Col. Peter Demitry. Our thanks to Scott Taylor, editor of "Esprit de Corps," and of course Prof. Scott Silliman, of Duke University Law School, himself a military veteran.
SILLIMAN: Thanks, Jim.
TAYLOR: Thank you.
CLANCY: Thanks, gentlemen.
VERJEE: Well, those are the guests' views here on Q&A.
CLANCY: We're going to be right back and listen to some of yours.
CLANCY: All right, let's open the mailbag now, Zain, and get to the letters.
VERJEE: Yes, Jim, as we look at the mailbag, Jane, from the United States, says that as a health professional, she's ".shocked that pilots are allowed to take and are provided with amphetamines." She asks, "Are we beginning to see why there's so many cases of collateral damage"?
CLANCY: Jimmy is asking, "Wasn't it Hitler's scientists who came up with the original forms of amphetamines for long missions for his pilots? Even he discontinued its use because of the side effects."
VERJEE: Numan, from Britain, says "The United States is fighting a war on drugs with soldiers on drugs. Doesn't that just scream of irony."
CLANCY: Mathias, in Britain, writes, "The Pilots should be brought in to justice. This will have a positive affect in that it would be a lesson to others."
VERJEE: You can send us any of your comments by e-mail. We really like to hear from you on this show. Go to, or send it to Q&A@CNN.COM.
CLANCY: And get a preview of each show by subscribing to our newsletter. See it on our Web page, CNN.COM/YWT.
VERJEE: That's Q&A for this day.
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