Filmmaker Robert Greenwald

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A documentarian who’s not afraid to tackle difficult subjects, Greenwald explains his latest film, Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars.

Award-winning filmmaker Robert Greenwald has exec-produced and/or directed more than 50 TV movies, miniseries and feature films. Through his company, Brave New Films, he also makes political video shorts and full-length documentaries—substantive investigations of social issues, told through personal stories, and creatively distributed through such outlets as the Internet and social media. He's tackled a variety of subjects, including human rights abuse, teens in prison, corporate abuse and, in his latest, entitled Unmanned, drone warfare. Greenwald has received numerous awards, including a Peabody, AFI's Producer of the Year Award and 25 Emmy nominations.


Tavis: Documentarian Robert Greenwald has never been afraid of tackling difficult and often contentious subjects. His latest film is called “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars,” and it challenges head-on the country’s continued use of drone warfare, which has often resulted in the death of innocent bystanders dismissed as “collateral damage.” Let’s start our conversation at a clip from “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars.”

[Film clip from “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars”]

Tavis: Well you’ve done it again, my friend.

Robert Greenwald: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to have you back on. I suspect we’re about to find out on Academy Award night that what viewers still appreciate is being able to see projects that bring the humanity of the subject matter into full view.

And part of what I love about your work, Robert, is that you always find a way to take us right to the humanity of the character. So this conversation about drone wars is always – I was going to say always had in Washington; it had enough in Washington.

Greenwald: Yeah.

Tavis: We’ll come to that in a moment, the politics of it. But tell me why it was important for you and necessary for you to get to the humanity of these persons who’ve been victimized by our drone war.

Greenwald: Well I think you just hit the nail on the head. It’s getting to the human story, Tavis. You pick up a newspaper article and it says three people killed or five or 10 or 15.

It’s a number, and it’s abstract. But when I went to Pakistan and I was filming and investigating and interviewing and looking people in the eye, and they’re telling me about their grandmother or their children or their uncle who was killed by our drones, that’s a personal story that everybody can relate to.

Clearly these were not so-called “high value targets.” We are killing innocent people.

Tavis: How did a guy to the right of you, far to the right of you, like Rand Paul, end up being the person in Congress who has received the most attention for putting this issue front and center? How did that happen with all these “lefties” in the country?

Greenwald: Well as we know, there are people, unfortunately, who take the partisan label over what’s right and what’s wrong, and there are far too many people, because it’ll say “Democratic president” or “Democratic elected official” who will not speak up on the issue.

It’s very important, no matter who the party is, to say this is not making us safer. We’re killing innocent people. We’re alienating literally millions of people in a culture that’s very tribal, and our security is not being advanced this way.

So I think it’s important to each one of us to speak up, and that’s why I was so honored to be able to make the film. Because when I was in Pakistan, I’m not exaggerating – every single person after an interview would turn to me, through the translator, and they’d say to me, “Please, will you tell Mr. Obama I’m not a terrorist?” Like I could walk into his office and have that conversation with him.

Tavis: I suspect you heard that because there were so many high hopes, particularly in that region. He went to visit the region after he got elected.

Greenwald: Yes, right.

Tavis: So there were so many high hopes for Barack Obama on this and other issues. Let me just go straight at this. Why is he getting a pass on this? His drone policy is essentially George Bush on steroids, and he’s gotten a pass, essentially. Why is that?

Greenwald: Because I think that too many people who are actively organizing on the Iraq war and other wars are saying oh, he’s a Democrat; therefore, it’s okay.

Well, it’s not okay. It’s fundamentally wrong. The notion that we’re going to kill our way to security – we invade, we occupy, or we drone people – is not going to make us safer. And it’s of course completely horrible on a moral level.

Tavis: Tell me more about why you say it’s horrible on a moral level.

Greenwald: Well, because these are not traditional collateral damage, where armies are fighting each other. We are targeting people. We are making decisions to kill people based on faulty information.

The drones are technically accurate, but how are we deciding who to kill? Well, we’re bribing people in these local areas. We have virtually no, of our so-called “assets” on the ground.

So it’s money, and scores are being settled, just like we saw in Guantanamo where innocent people were turned in for rewards. The same thing is happening. People are being killed with drones, and think about this: No judge, no jury, no evidence.

People are guessing who bad guys are, and they’re killing them based on guesses.

Tavis: Let me ask you two questions about that. So Barack Obama, we know from “The New York Times” and other publications and your fine work, sits in the Oval Office, the situation room, every week and he personally decides who’s on the kill list.

The president of the United States, the Commander-in-Chief, makes a decision, who on this list is going to get off this particular week. Then the process begins of how the drones are going to be used and when they’re going to be dropped and all that.

But he signs off on that list. He is responsible for the kill list. Is that the way this ought to be done? He is the Commander-in-Chief.

Greenwald: No. Well, it shouldn’t be done that way because the information he’s getting is so wrong, and that’s not being questioned. There’s the whole other aspect, Tavis, which is signature strikes, where it’s not even the individuals he’s signing off on.

It’s literally the CIA has convinced people in the administration that through the drones and through their brilliance, they can see by a pattern of behavior who’s sitting, what cars are being driven and where they are, and those people are taken out.

There’s a whole section in the film about a signature strike where 45 leaders of a community were killed. They were meeting to settle a dispute, and the CIA said oh no, they must be bad guys, and took them out.

So there’s the signature strikes, there’s the kill list, and it adds up to policy that is as bad as anything I’ve seen.

Tavis: What about the story of a few weeks ago of the wedding party?

Greenwald: Well, wedding parties, funerals. Can you imagine? Just think about it for a minute. Put yourself in that situation. You’re going to your nephew’s or cousin’s wedding, and the entire wedding party is decimated by a drone from the United States. How would you possibly think or feel about that country?

Tavis: We talked about Barack Obama as president making this decision on the kill list in the Oval Office. What about the young men, and women, I suspect, who are sitting at these joysticks like it’s some, a game, making these maneuvers?

Greenwald: Well we have one of the pilots in the film, Brandon, an extraordinary young man who has suffered, because he’s realized that he has killed innocent people.

So in military, in traditional warfare, you might kill an innocent person. But as Brandon and others have told us, I drone warfare you’re looking at somebody. You’re following him day after day. You’re getting to know him, and then pushing a button.

So they’re actually having very high incidence of post-traumatic stress syndrome with drone pilots for that very reason.

Tavis: To those who say that war is hell and that no war is perfect, and would then say to you, Robert Greenwald, would you rather drones, which ultimately save American lives, or do you want boots on the ground? To that you say what?

Greenwald: I say that’s not the choice. We’re not going to invade and occupy Pakistan. It’s a false choice. What we’ve done is we’re allowing us to kill more, because elected officials, administrative people, people in the Pentagon, are saying oh, we can drone over here, that’s an easy choice.

Well, it’s not easy for the people who are being killed. It’s not saving American lives in the long run. It’s going to cost them, because as I interviewed someone in Pakistan who was running for president, Imran Khan, who’s a famous soccer player.

He said, “Yeah, we had fanatics. There were maybe a hundred who were extreme people. Now you have a million people who hate the United States because of this policy.”

Tavis: So we’re making enemies as opposed to winning friends.

Greenwald: Well when you think about it, your relatives are killed, what are you going to do? How are you going to feel about that? This is in a culture and a society where everybody has a gun.

Tavis: If we can’t get Congress to do anything about this – these are the persons that we sent to Washington – if we can’t get Barack Obama to take a different sort of look at this, and people had high hopes for him, what agency does, what agency do fellow citizens have to actually do anything about these drone wars?

Greenwald: Well, I think we have to do pressure Congress, because we’ve had a congressional hearing, when we brought over a whole family that’s in the film, and it impacted. We saw congressmen sit there, and congresswomen.

They asked questions, and they saw a nine-year-old girl, and she said, “I was in the field and my grandmother was killed by a drone.” You have to be a real psychopath to not be affected by that at all.

So I think we can affect Congress. We’ve begun to. We’re encouraging people to send the film. You can see a free copy of it, Send it to elected officials, people like yourself in the media who have an important and intelligent audience, and I think we can and will change policy. Because it’s wrong.

Tavis: Disabuse me of this notion, to your point about changing policy, disabuse me on this notion if you can that in the age of technology, that this is only the beginning.

That there’s no turning back at this particular point. Technology allows us to do it. We live in an unsafe world, and this is the way it’s going to be.

Greenwald: Well, we do live in an unsafe world, and the problem is our brain power has not caught up with the technology. Our policy and our laws have not caught up with the technology.

I do believe drones are a fundamental shift in the way we’re going to be doing war, which is why it’s even more important that we put pressure on those who make the laws.

Think about this for a minute: What happens when 40 other countries have drones, and they decide to shoot drones into other countries that they’re not at war with?

Tavis: So in short order, give me quickly a couple of things that you think ought to be considered as a part of public policy when we make decisions whether or not to use drones.

Greenwald: Well first of all, the whole process should be transparent so that we know what’s going on. Now it’s this real game, where they say oh, we can’t talk about drones because it’s classified, but we’ll talk about it when we kill somebody we want you to know about.

So if there were policy where we could know and find out and we announce after battles, after drone strikes, who had been killed and why they’d been killed, there would have been a beginning.

If there was legislative and legal oversight it would be a beginning. But most fundamentally, Tavis, we’re not going to solve our world problems by killing people in this way with drones.

We have to use this incredible brain power for other kinds of solutions, and that’s what’s not happening. Everything – this bipartisan agreement is kill, kill, kill, we’ll be safer, safer, safer. We’ve seen how many years of it, and it’s not doing it.

Tavis: Lie, lie, lie.

Greenwald: Yes.

Tavis: I close where I began, by saying that Robert Greenwald has done it once again. This one’s called “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars,” and you might want to get it and add it to your collection, and it’s free.

Greenwald: You can get a free online copy, yes.

Tavis: Free online, exactly.

Greenwald: America’s Drone Wars.

Tavis: There you go. Robert, good to have you on.

Greenwald: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Thanks for your work.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: February 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm