By Hugo Gye
PUBLISHED: 22:27 EST, 8 June 2012 | UPDATED: 23:06 EST, 8 June 2012
As controversy rages around the U.S. military’s use of drone strikes to assassinate terror suspects, one author has given an unprecedented look at the mindset of a drone pilot.
One of the criticisms frequently aired by opponents of drones is that their pilots might become more trigger-happy and even bloodthirsty when they are able to drop bombs from the comfort of an American base.
But an experienced pilot angrily denied that accusation in a conversation with a government lawyer, and claimed that he was keen to avoid civilian casualties.
When faced with the suggestion that he had ‘a PlayStation mentality’, the pilot described his anguish at watching the relatives of strike victims ‘weeping and in positions of mourning’.
The discussion between the unnamed drone operator and State Department legal adviser Harold Koh was reported on the Daily Beast by Daniel Klaidman, author of a new book on the War on Terror.
Mr Koh met with a number of pilots while working on a speech defending the Obama administration’s programme of targeted killings, as he wanted to become more familiar with those who carry out the programme.
He aggressively told the pilots, who are mostly civilians formerly in the Air Force: ‘I hear you guys have a PlayStation mentality.’
But the chief operator rejected that charge, and claimed that piloting unmanned drones was an even more emotive experience than dropping bombs from conventional planes.
‘I used to fly my own air missions,’ he said. ‘I dropped bombs, hit my target load, but had no idea who I hit.
‘Here I can look at their faces. I watch them for hours, see these guys playing with their kids and wives.’
The pilot continued by insisting that while he was happy to target suspected terrorists, he took great pains to avoid involving civilians in the drone strikes.
He said: ‘When I get them alone, I have no compunction about blowing them to bits. But I wouldn’t touch them with civilians around.
‘After the strike, I see the bodies being carried out of the house. I see the women weeping and in positions of mourning.
‘That’s not PlayStation – that’s real. My job is to watch after the strike too. I count the bodies and watch the funerals. I don’t let others clean up the mess.’
No drone pilots have ever previously spoken out about their work, as the targeted killing programme is officially secret.
The President has come under increasing criticism over the programme in recent weeks as his personal role in compiling the official ‘kill list’ of Al Qaeda targets has been revealed.