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Sea Cemetery Warning; Testimony of a Former Drone Warrior; Imagine a World

Aired October 24, 2013 - 14:00   ET


HALA GORANI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in tonight for Christiane Amanpour.

Angela Merkel says trust between the U.S. and Europe has to be reestablished. Her comments at the start of an E.U. summit in Brussels follows allegations that America's National Security Agency bugged the German chancellor's mobile phone.

The White House says her phone is not and will not be monitored, but curiously, hasn't said anything about whether it was in the past.

Away from the eavesdropping controversy, there's a more pressing matter demanding the attention of E.U. ministers. The desperate plight of thousands of illegal immigrants making the perilous journey by boat from Africa to Europe. Malta sits at the frontline of this migration. The country's prime minister has warned, quote, "We are building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea," unquote.

My interview with Joseph Muscat in a moment.

The disaster off the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa two weeks ago in which more than 350 people died, highlights Europe's struggle to deal with boatloads of migrants who are desperate and willing to make the dangerous trip.

So far this year, more than 32,000 people from African and the Middle East have arrived in Italy via Lampedusa and Malta. The E.U.'s smallest state, by the way, its prime minister says the burden is just too much. And he's calling for urgent help from the rest of the bloc.

This rare video shows the very start of another rescue effort after a boat sank in the Mediterranean. Those on board, Syrians, risking their lives to escape the civil war. Men, women and children plucked from the sea over the past two decades, 20,000 have died trying to make the journey from North Africa to Europe.

Competitively speaking, the migrants you see here are actually the lucky one.

But for those rescued, life can be far from what they dreamed, unusually for an E.U. country, Malta makes all illegal immigrants stay in secure detention centers while asylum claims are processed, and that can take months. Human rights groups in the European Union have been very critical of those conditions on Malta. So how can this situation be improved? Malta's prime minister says Europe must take decisive action to help frontline countries like his.


GORANI: Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, thank you for joining us today.


GORANI: Let's talk about this migrant problem that faces many countries in Europe, including your small island nation of Malta. You have actually accused some European leaders of hypocrisy in dealing with this.

You're at an E.U. summit right now.

Have you had conversations with your counterparts about this issue? What have you said?

MUSCAT: I am expressing quite clearly the fact that not only myself but our people, people in Europe, people across the world are disappointed by the fact that Europe is not taking decisive action to help us frontliners --ourselves, Italy, Greece --save more lives and then see how these desperate people can be relocated within our continent.

Right now we're getting many words of solidarity but very, very few facts. And that's what we want to change. It's not enough to say we'll wait until next year.

GORANI: Right, because that's one of the things you've said in the past, that European leaders are talking the talk, so to speak, but then taking no action, which is what made you say that some of them, perhaps, were guilty of hypocrisy in this case.

MUSCAT: And that's something that people feel. You know, we're not exactly a military superpower. And it is quite exceptional that it is up to us and a couple of other countries to see through and rescue hundreds of people per year, hundreds of desperate people fleeing first from Somalia, Eritrea, now even Syria.

And if we -- when in Europe we had the financial crisis, we all stuck together. There was solidarity. People from my constituents, from my country, talk about money from their pocket, to give it to other Europeans because that's the thing as it should be done. That what solidarity, European solidarity, means.

Now that there is that financial crisis but there is humanitarian crisis, we're not being shown the same solidarity. So I wouldn't want to believe that, for Europe, money is more important than people.

Unless that happens, you know, it's not going to show up what Malta can do in the next few months. It's an issue that, come next year, you'll be, again, reading the news and reporting to your viewers that many hundreds more have died. That's the crude reality.

GORANI: And one of the videos we showed our viewers was one of a joint Italian-Maltese rescue operation in the Mediterranean, in October with -- according to the reports that we got -- pretty much exclusively Syrians on board this boat that was in big trouble in the Mediterranean.

But one of the ideas that you had was that the United Nations, the U.N., should patrol the Mediterranean along the Libyan coast, where so many of these boats and these refugees board these boats to try to make it to Europe.

Have you taken this proposal to the U.N.?

And if so, what response have you gotten?

MUSCAT: We are right now discussing all possible proposals that can be put forward. We need, I believe, better patrolling in the Mediterranean.

If no one member state is able to do that, if Europe is not willing to agree to the necessary rules, then, yes, why not have a supernational trusted organization such as the United Nations come in?

You know, this is the sort of practical politics, pragmatism that people want to see, and which I believe can save lives.

So I do believe that we have to explore all the necessary avenues, and we have to see, for example, Libya as part of the solution, not as part of the problem.

I was in Libya just 10 days ago, just after the prime minister was kidnapped. I had a long chat with him. And I do believe that there needs to be a better interface between Europe, the rest of the world, really, and this country, not to let it become a failed state.

GORANI: Human Rights Watch has said that Malta places nearly all the migrants that make it to the island in detention centers. And the human -- the European Court of Human Rights has issued three judgments against Malta for its treatment of migrants.

So why -- what is the issue there? Why is Malta getting it wrong once the migrants make it to the -- to your country?

MUSCAT: First of all, we have a disproportionate number of arrivals. So we have to take everything into context. And I do believe that detention is the only way in which we can get enough time to try to identify these people.

You know, no one comes with a passport or with an identity card or the driving license. There are no documents.

So unless there is a detention period, it is impossible for us to make sure that amongst those genuine people who are fleeing from war, there isn't some threat to security.

When it comes to conditions, yes, we have to improve, we have to do more. But we're being left alone. That's the whole thing.

GORANI: You're at European Summit there, where talk essentially dominated today by these reports that Germany has seen some degree of evidence that the chancellor, Angela Merkel, may have had her cell phone conversations spied on by the United States.

Is that something that -- when you read reports like that, do you think perhaps your phone calls are being monitored?

MUSCAT: I do believe that the relations between Europe and the United States must be based on trust. I do believe that we are essentially two sides of the same coin, that each and every one of us over here, each and every one of the 28 of us over here, is committed to better relations with the United States. But that's a huge part, allies and friends don't snoop on each other.

GORANI: Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, thank you very much for being with us today.

MUSCAT: Thank you. The pleasure was all mine.


GORANI: As we said at the top of the program, the E.U. meeting in Brussels has been distracted by all these allegations of the U.S. snooping on one of its closest friends, Germany. Whether this proves true or not, what used to be the craft of spies in trenchcoats is increasingly taking place in cyberspace alongside a new kind of push-button warfare.

We'll talk to one of the new breed of cyber soldiers who push those buttons and suffer the consequences when we come back.


GORANI: Welcome back to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

Imagine this: killing more than 1,500 enemies in war without ever stepping foot on the battlefield. That was Brandon Bryant's life. He was a drone sensor operator responsible for tracking and killing militants halfway around the world from where the trigger was pulled, a ground control station in the U.S. states of Nevada and New Mexico.

Grainy black-and-white videos like this one give us a bird's eye view of this new form of warfare. This attack, for instance, took place on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan back in 2008.

Bryant spent years helping to unleash such drones on militants and admits that he fears that one of his attacks may have, in fact, killed a child. Eventually he became so disillusioned with the career that he turned down a hefty bonus to continue.

He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Now Bryant is opening up about it all, giving the world a window into the windowless bunker where he spent the past several years and revealing new details about America's top secret and controversial drone program.

Brandon Bryant joins me now from New York.

Thanks for being with us.


GORANI: So first of all I think many people wonder this. What is it like being in a bunker with basically a screen in front of you and a few buttons to push and killing someone half a world away?

BRYANT: It's -- I mean, different. You're still in the war zone and regardless of whether you -- you're physically there or not, you're actually participating in the fight. But I kind of want to expand. You said over 1,500 people; I didn't personally kill those people. Those were all the people that were a part of the operations that I participated in. And I think that's a misconception that everyone thinks, is like I'm personally taking -- staking claim in those kills.

But that's like 5.5 years of operations. So.

GORANI: But you can put a number, do you think, to the actual list of targets that you killed, that you took out? Or not?

BRYANT: Not really. It's -- the whole thing is kind of a convoluted list, I guess. I never really paid attention to numbers. I didn't care about numbers. People use those to get promotions and to make themselves feel better. And when I was given that, that kind of diploma thing, it really shocked me and --

GORANI: You were given a diploma?

BRYANT: It was like -- I guess it's like a scorecard or whatever you want to call it. I don't know. It was just one of those things that I thought was the stupid -- why did they give it to me, because all it did was make me feel terrible about like -- it make me question myself. It made me question my integrity and like was I really a part of -- part of these and as far as the people that I trust that are in that area, the number is really likely to have happened over the 5.5 year period. So.

GORANI: What did it feel like the first time you knew that one of your actions in New Mexico or Nevada, in that bunker, resulted in the death of a human being?

How did that feel?

BRYANT: We were -- we were consistently told when I was going through training that our job was to kill people and break things. And that's like one of those mantras that people say to get themselves to be ready to do stuff like that and I don't think that I could have ever been ready. I wasn't prepared and it's largely my fault. But it's also the fault of the people that initiated the training.

It was more -- the training was more imaginary than real. And I hear that they're changing that, which is -- which is good. But it still doesn't take into account like what -- I mean, how do you really convey that to people? You're not sitting there; you're not pulling the trigger of a rifle.


BRYANT: You're sitting there in a bunker or (inaudible).

GORANI: I get that. But what was it like for you on a personal level, because at one point, according to other interviews I've seen with you, Brandon, you thought that you essentially one of the attacks killed a child. This is something that you thought you saw on the video monitor.

BRYANT: Right. And it's like a -- really opened my eyes to how -- what the war was about, that it's not clean. Like we were told that this was a clean -- everything was precise and you can -- we're not a scalpel. We're still a missile and there's still mistakes that happen and there's a lot less mistakes than an F-16. But it still made me feel like -- I just ended a human life, you know. How is anyone supposed to deal with that?

And we were told to shut up and color. And we couldn't talk to a psychologist and we couldn't do this. And if we talked to anyone, we'd lose our clearance. And so some -- if affected a lot of people and it, like it would have been a lot better for us if we would have been able to sit down and talk with someone to realize our -- what had happened.

GORANI: So why are you speaking up now?

BRYANT: Because I feel like the -- all the drone operators, they get a bad rap and they need someone to talk how it's not a video game, how it is real life and these people need just as much help. Like there's a huge mental health issue here that no one wants to seem to address.

And it needs to be addressed and these people need help and guidance, and they need to be shown that they're actual, legitimate people. So they're not just an unmanned drone, flying in the sky above them. There's actual people operating behind it. And they're human beings, like they're affected by this just as much as people on the ground.

GORANI: You know, one of the things I spoke to a former CIA counterterrorism official, who essentially was saying Americans want a sterile, they want an antiseptic war. They don't want to -- they don't blood. They don't want their soldiers killed.

And in the end, this is a video. I mean this is black-and-white, grainy video.

How do you explain that it still affected you, you know, as much as somebody who's out in the battlefield actually, you know, in a ground combat situation?

BRYANT: So I don't know if you've ever heard of the knife to artillery kind of thought process. But there's a level of intimacy that goes with every action in war and while we're not as close as someone who's knifing someone on the ground or shooting their rifle or the weapon at someone, we still have this level of intimacy where we see what we do and we see the actions that happen. We see the immediate effect. And the effect isn't physical at all. It's completely psychological. You hear the hum of a computer. You don't feel the missile coming off the rail. You watch it. And there -- that disconnect right there, I think, affects a lot of people because there's no physiological effect on people.

GORANI: And what was the worst -- I mean, what, when you look -- when you look back at your years, doing this, operating drones from afar, what was some of the most shocking video you saw that really to this day stays with you?

BRYANT: The most shocking I think was when we were following someone and the guy stopped and pulled out two kids and executed them in the middle of the street. And he knew that he wasn't -- there -- he had no consequences. And the crew that got him later, it was like, vengeance almost. And these were really -- these are bad people. Like you have to understand that there are bad people over there. And we do our best to get them. And but you -- like you said earlier, America wants an antiseptic war. We want a clean war. And the reality is is that nothing is clean, like it can't ever be clean. Like there's a reason why war is hell and it's dirty and gross and no one wants to participate in it, because if it was clean then everyone would want to be a part of it.

GORANI: And you mentioned that that time you thought you killed a child, but your superiors say that they believe that it was not a child, that it was a dog possibly.

But you described in other interviews sort of seeing blood gushing out, seeing somebody who's lost a limb, et cetera. Tell us about those images as well, because this is something you're experiencing not just as a viewer, but as a participant in the incident itself.

BRYANT: That was my first Hellfire shot. And it was in January, so it was cold and like when we -- when we fired the Hellfire shot, and the two guys died and then the guy, his right leg was severed, like we -- I watched this -- bleed out from his femoral artery and in -- I mean, pixelization, and it was -- it was shocking like -- it's pixelized and it doesn't really look real. But it was real. And I think that was the most heartbreaking part for me.

GORANI: So do you still suffer from post-traumatic stress? And what would you tell Americans who support? Because as you know, about two- thirds of Americans support the drone program and targeting non-U.S. citizens abroad.

What would you say to them?

BRYANT: I still feel moral injury. I mean, there's a lot of people that make me feel guilty for feeling bad and especially guys on the ground and I'm never going to compare myself to the guys on the ground and they're mostly fantastic people and what they do is -- they're much more braver than I am and they're badasses. I'm not a badass. But what I would say is if you -- like drone operations and if you are one of those people that are for it, then you need to hold your leadership accountable for their actions and you need to make sure that these actions are held in war zones and designated war zones in that there's more transparency because you can't give someone that amount of power and expect them to use it wisely without being put in check in some sort of shape or form.

GORANI: All right. Brandon Bryant, a former drone operator with a rare, really a rare point of view there as far as this drone program is concerned, thanks so much for joining us from New York.

Earlier this year, then U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta authorized the ill-fated Distinguished Warfare Medal meant to honor exceptional achievements in cyber or drone warfare. But combat veterans pushed back against the award, which would have ranked above traditional battlefield medals, including the Purple Heart, given for combat injuries.

In April, newly appointed U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel scrapped the medal, replacing it with a, quote, "distinguishing device to be affixed to existing awards."

After a break, imagine living in darkness half the year. That was the gloomy reality for one town in Norway until someone turned on the lights. We'll explain when we come back. Stay with us.




GORANI: A final thought tonight, earlier we spoke of immigrants risking their lives to find a new home.

Now imagine a world where your home, once shrouded in darkness, is lit by an artificial sun.

The view from the mountains of southern Norway is spectacular, towering over 6,000 feet, a must-seek for hikers and skiers. But for half the year, more than 3,000 residents down below in the town of Rukon (ph) are starved for sunlight, forced to take a cable car up the slopes just to catch some rays and vitamin D. That is until now.

These three giant mirrors have been installed on the mountainside. They're equipped with sensors that follow the sun, redirecting a beam of light down to the town square, creating an artificial glow to warm the long winter season.

The idea for the mirrors is 100 years old. But the technology that guides their movement didn't exist until now. A similar project that brought light to a village in northern Italy inspired the effort. In Norwegian folklore, the mountains are home to trolls who dwell in darkness and prey on people. But sunlight turns the trolls to stone.

And in one Norwegian town, it also turns hopeful faces right to the sky, where winter has finally some of its gloom.

That's it for our program tonight. And remember, you can always contact us at and follow me on Twitter, @HalaGorani. Thanks for watching and goodbye from CNN Center.