The Complex

New Film Explores Drone Wars From Pilots' Point of View

"The colonel tells you who to take out, and you do it. Just don't think too much." That's the advice drone operator Jack Bowles has for his new partner, Air Force pilot Sue Lawson, on her first day flying an armed Predator over remote Afghanistan. And it's the moral dilemma at the heart of a new film that follows the pair as they agonize over whether to kill a man who may or may not be one of the most-wanted terrorists in America.

Drones, which is available through iTunes and On Demand beginning June 27, may be the first feature film to explore this new frontier of warfare from inside the darkened trailers stationed in a Nevada desert, where pilots stare at video screens hunting prey who will never have a chance to shoot back at them. In the film, Lawson and Bowles think they've spotted a fugitive terrorist who's high on the U.S. kill list but miss their chance to take him out as he's driving alone in his car. When the man pulls up to a house -- presumably his -- and is surrounded by adoring children and relatives, the drone pilots have to decide whether the life of one wanted man is worth the death of his family too.

The mission gets more complicated as the drone runs low on fuel and Lawson finds reason to doubt that the man in her sights really is an al Qaeda terrorist. The pilots are faced with a seemingly impossible choice: ignore what their eyes and consciences are saying or disobey a direct order.

Drones eschews the explosions and effects that are standard for most modern military action films, instead drawing its tension from the basic uncertainties that underlie every drone mission. How accurate is the intelligence? Is killing one man worth taking other, innocent lives? And what does the act of killing do to the pilots? They may be firing their weapons by remote control but they see the damage they cause close up. Director Rick Rosenthal spoke with Foreign Policy about making the film and about how the experience shaped his own views on the efficacy and morality of drones. (A lightly edited transcript follows.)

Foreign Policy: Why did you want to make a movie about drones and drone pilots?

Rick Rosenthal: The screenwriter, Matt Witten, and I had worked on a project about 15 years ago about the FBI and corrupt politicians but we never got it off the ground. Then about two years ago, he called and said he'd just finished writing a play and that he thought there was an indie film in it. He sent it over and I emailed him back and said, "Not only do I think there's a terrific independent film to be made here, but I'd like to make it."

I'd made a film in 1987 called Distant Thunder, about Vietnam War veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. In a way, Drones revisits that set of circumstances because the level of PTSD is extremely high in these pilots. This is the first time that I'm aware of that the pilots operating their weapons stick around to survey the damage that their weapons have caused, in detail. That's a change. And the other thing that's radically changed is that in every war up until now, there's been a lot of risk for soldiers and airmen and suddenly -- I'm not saying this is a riskless war -- there are people who are now operating drones who are not taking the same kinds of risks. They're not facing weapons aimed at them. And to that degree, it changes the decision-making on a lot of levels. You might not make the same kinds of decisions when you're life isn't at risk.

FP: What kind of research did you do before making the film?

RR: We couldn't get clearance from the Air Force to go to a drone base. But we got clearance from the Department of Homeland Security to go to a base in Arizona. I told my team, "Let's not be Hollywood assholes. Let's go down there and listen." And we spent about four hours one day just watching and talking and listening to pilots.

It also turned out a filmmaker we were working with on another project had gone to high school with a guy who was a drone pilot in the Air Force. He read the script and then he came in to talk to the actors. And we were able to ask him, "Does the set look authentic? How does it feel to you?" The screenwriter doesn't have a military background. But he'd done research and then by working with a drone pilot, we could ask him questions. One of the first that popped up, in Arizona, was that the first trailer we went into was a three-man trailer. [The script had been written for a two-person team.] But they told us that the third position is a radar operator and for a lot of missions they don't need them. We were like,"Phew!"

FP: When you finished the film, how did you think differently about drones?

RR: I came out feeling like it's a little bit of déjà vu all over again. When I was in college during Vietnam, I was caught in this dilemma that when war is necessary, you shouldn't go to war not fighting to win. And then the question is, should you be in the war or not? To the extent that drones provide a superior weapons system and save American lives, then I'm obviously pro-drone. To the extent that it's really hard to gather 100 percent accurate intelligence and collateral damage occurs, and sometimes horrific mistakes are made, I wish there were a better way of doing it.

FP: Are you using drones in your filmmaking?

RR: We just did a film called 7 Minutes, shot in the state of Washington, and we used something called the Octocopter, a small drone with eight rotors. The shots that we were able to produce from that are breathtaking. It's more maneuverable than a helicopter. It's very quiet. We had a two-man crew, used it for one day. It wasn't a lot of money. And in shooting Drones, we used a small remote-controlled helicopter, maybe six feet long, along with a 100-foot crane to simulate the overhead shots from the drone. I have a lot of interest in where all of this technology is going to go.

FP: Do you think people in Hollywood want to make more movies and TV shows about drones?

RR: I think the idea of drones now is starting to permeate the creative collective consciousness. This season of 24 is all about a drone being co-opted. You have drone-like machines appearing in Edge of Tomorrow. There's a tremendous pressure on Hollywood, always, to come up with the newest, edgiest concepts. And drones have the feel of science fiction, particularly as they become sleeker and stealthier. And certainly Hollywood's hungry to try to find ways to engage an even younger audience that's grown up with new technologies.

FP: The characters in Drones are fairly young. Was it important to you to convey that familiarity with technology, as if to them flying a drone was like playing a video game?

RR: Yes. And in the movie, Bowles chides Lawson for not playing enough video games [as part of her training]. I don't really have a stand on whether violent video games beget violence or not. But I do think that experiencing violence firsthand is very different than through a video game.

FP: But you make the point in the movie that drone strikes aren't a video game; and the characters know that too.

RR: Yes; but it is confusing to people. And the point has been made that the more training you do on a video game, the more the mission resembles a game, the less morality is called into play. Cynically, people will say that's the military's way of dealing with morality and collateral damage. I go back to how complicated I think the moral issues with drones are. Saving lives is a very positive aspect of the drones and killing people is a very negative aspect. In the end, I think the film is anti-war. But war appears to be a necessary evil.

Whitewater Films

The Complex

Supreme Court Shields Cell Phone Data From Warrantless Police Searches

The Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled that police officers need to obtain warrants before searching through the cellphones of people they arrest, a potentially far-reaching decision that comes at a moment when courts across the United States are considering how to adapt laws on privacy to an age where staggering amounts of personal information reside on ever-growing numbers of electronic devices.

The Supreme Court's ruling pertains to criminal law and doesn't affect the laws governing warrantless surveillance and data collection that have been at the heart of the controversy over intelligence-gathering by the National Security Agency. That may change, however, with the high court recently signaling that it may be prepared to reconsider the rules around that kind of data-gathering as well. More specifically, the court would likely examine whether so-called metadata, such as the phone records that the NSA has been routinely collecting for years, should be afforded greater legal protection against government search and seizure.

In that context, the court's 9-0 ruling on cellphone searches seemed to emphasize its willingness to reset the balance between security and privacy -- and to do so in favor of more privacy. In writing the unanimous opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said that cellphones typically disclose far more personal information about a suspect than the government would be able to obtain by physically searching his or her house. "A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form -- unless the phone is."

Roberts closed the opinion with a straightforward admonition to police officers who'd like to snoop the contents of suspects' phones: "Get a warrant."

The case confronting the Supreme Court concerned two cases involving police searches of the cellphones of criminal suspects. In one, police discovered guns in the car of a man they had pulled over for having an expired auto registration and then searched his cellphone, where they found information that tied him to a street gang and a previous shooting. In the second, the judges upheld a lower court ruling tossing out the conviction of Brima Wurie, who had been put on trial after police searched his call logs following a minor traffic stop and used the information to find guns and drugs at his home.

While those searches differ from an intelligence agency obtaining phone records for potential terrorism investigations, legal experts have predicted that the controversy over NSA surveillance -- a set of activities that are largely governed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but that still must comport with the Fourth Amendment's prohibitions on unreasonable search and seizure -- is bound to end up before the justices.

And one justice, Sonia Sotomayor, has already indicated that it may be time to rethink an earlier ruling that held that phone metadata, including the numbers a person dials and how long he speaks on the phone, aren't protected by the Fourth Amendment and can be obtained without a warrant. That metadata, just like information on a person's cellphone, can reveal intimate details about his personal relationships, his habits, and potentially his movements.

In the digital age, "people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks," Sotomayor wrote in 2012 while signing on to a ruling requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before placing a GPS tracker on a suspect's car. The question of metadata wasn't before the court, but the balance between privacy and security was.

"I, for one, doubt that people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, or month, or year," Sotomayor wrote. "But whatever the societal expectations, they can attain constitutionally protected status only if our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence ceases to treat secrecy as a prerequisite for privacy."

Many experts quickly greeted the Court's ruling in the cellphone search case as a victory for privacy rights in the digital age. Orin Kerr, a law professor at the George Washington University, called the ruling "a big win for digital privacy." Richard Bejtlich, a senior strategist with the cybersecurity firm FireEye, likewise called the ruling a significant victory and said in a tweet that he agreed with the Court's unanimous decision.

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