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‘Eye in the Sky’ film puts the use of drones in the spotlight

March 18, 2016 at 8:27 PM EDT
One of the most controversial elements of President Obama’s national security policy is the use of drones to kill terrorists. The newly released movie "Eye in the Sky" provides a front-row seat to the debate taking place among national security officials. Jeffrey Brown reports on the movie and the implications of the use of drones.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A movie thriller being released nationally today delves into the practical, legal and moral issues surrounding drone warfare.

Jeffrey Brown is back with that.

ACTOR: What’s the plan, Captain?

HELEN MIRREN, Actress: We need to put a Hellfire through that roof right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a new kind of warfare, advanced technology that tracks, identifies, and has the power to destroy enemies by remote control from thousands of miles away.

HELEN MIRREN: We have two suicide vests with explosives inside that house.

JEFFREY BROWN: But as the film “Eye in the Sky” asks, should it be used? If so, when, especially if innocent lives may also be taken?

HELEN MIRREN: Harold, this is a very time-sensitive target. Do I have authority to strike?

ACTOR: The rules of engagement you’re operating under only allow for a low collateral damage estimate.

ACTRESS: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The film follows British military commanders, including Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, as they debate with Cabinet officers and politicians over a strike against Al-Shabaab terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya, who appear to be on the verge of a suicide bombing.

ACTOR: I told you, they came to witness a capture, not a kill. Give me a capture option.

HELEN MIRREN: We no longer have a capture option. Any action on the ground will lead to an armed confrontation, which we will not be able to contain.

JEFFREY BROWN: Director Gavin Hood, who joined us recently at the E Street Cinema in Washington, has the action play out in real time.

GAVIN HOOD, Director, “Eye in the Sky”: We wanted to immerse the audience in a real operation. And we wanted the audience to feel as if they were participating in that operation.

It’s a very strange world that we’re moving into, this world of drone warfare, automated warfare, where our soldiers, we’re trying to take them off the battlefield in order to minimize our casualties. And yet the battlefield is still a very real place for those we target. And so the questions of when to target, who to target, what might the fallout, blowback are not theoretical or touchy-feely. They matter.

JEFFREY BROWN: The film presents a dramatic complication. A young girl who lives nearby sets up her bread stand just outside the targeted house. American drone pilot Steve Watts played by Aaron Paul sits far away in a trailer in Nevada and hesitates before launching his missile.

AARON PAUL, Actor: Ma’am, I need you to run the collateral damage estimate again with this girl out front.

HELEN MIRREN: The situation has not changed, Lieutenant. You are cleared to engage.

GAVIN HOOD: If we’re going to confront this question, let’s take it to the wire. I’m not going to let you off the hook. If the question is, will you take an innocent life in order to save potentially more lives, let’s really go to that place.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Obama administration has embraced the use of drones as an effective anti-terror weapon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Somalia, the Islamist group Al-Shabaab confirms the U.S. bombed one of its camps on Saturday.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just this month, the Pentagon, citing self-defense and the defense of African allies, said it used drones and other aircraft to hit an Al-Shabaab training camp in Somalia, killing about 150 fighters.

Pentagon officials said they didn’t believe there were any civilian casualties, but the claim could not be independently verified. We asked two drone warfare experts from opposing sides to watch the film and discuss it with us.

Naureen Shah heads the security and human rights program of Amnesty International USA. Matt Olsen has been in situations like those in the film as former director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the Obama administration.

There were two thumbs-up for the film as a tense, mostly realistic thriller, but continuing disagreement on the use of drones.

NAUREEN SHAH, Amnesty International USA: What the film shows is the best-case scenario, potentially, for the government, where we know who is inside a house that’s being targeted.

But in the cases that Amnesty International has documented, we would have real questions about whether the U.S. government had the advantage of the kind of facial-recognition technology that appears to be in the film, the eyes on the ground, the ability to try to get an individual who might be killed, to get her away from the target strike area.

And that’s part of the problem, actually, is that there are — there’s a novel technology out there, and we as a public are swayed by that technology to think, well, this is going to be a precise killing, this is going to be a clean kind of warfare, a kind of warfare that can be taken into cities, like we’re seeing here in Nairobi, and as though that excuses it from the kinds of laws and kind of rules that we would ordinarily apply to any kind of use of lethal force.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shrouded in secrecy by necessity or — I mean, what’s the response to that?

MATTHEW OLSEN, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center: The principal response is that the president and the administration has been quite open about the standards that apply to this type of lethal force.

Again, no strike can take place, as the president has said, unless several specific criteria are met, first, that it’s lawful, consistent with the laws of war, consistent with U.S. domestic law, that there is a basis to believe that the targets present an imminent threat to the lives of Americans, and that capture is not possible, and then, last, that no strike can take place unless there’s near certainty that no innocent person will be harmed.

As the president has acknowledged, innocent people have been killed in this war, as in any war. But those standards are above and beyond what would be legally required under the laws of war.

NAUREEN SHAH: We have never seen the U.S. government acknowledge the killing of a Yemeni or a Pakistani or Somali civilian, innocent life.

There is zero acknowledgement of specific individuals. And so if we’re to say that it’s OK to kill people outside who are selling bread in Nairobi, Kenya, we’re also saying it’s OK to kill us right here in Washington, D.C., if there’s people in a neighboring building who potentially pose some kind of threat.

MATTHEW OLSEN: I think that’s quite exaggerated, the idea that we would be at risk here in Washington, D.C.

The president has been very clear where the types of strikes that have been approved, outside of areas of hostile battlefields, outside of areas of active hostility, those have been approved under very circumscribed circumstances, where, again, we’re at war with al-Qaida and associated forces.

JEFFREY BROWN: In “Eye in the Sky,” we see tiny camera drones, some already on the market, says director Gavin Hood, others close behind. And soon, he adds, they will do more than just capture high-definition images.

GAVIN HOOD: Instead of putting a Hellfire missile through the roof of a house in which the terrorists are holed up, the tiny drone flies through the window or a door, and detonates right by your temple, or it blows a little dose of anthrax in your nose as it flies by. It’s very creepy, but there’s no stopping it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Such technological advances will no doubt only raise new challenges and debates.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown.