Whistleblowers Get the Bullet, Too

Coming forward with the state's secrets is not a ticket to absolution

An ex–border patrol agent is made into a hero by his liberal patrons. Francisco Cantú, a third-generation, half-Anglo Mexican American from Tucson, Arizona, published a book about his work in the Sonoran Desert. Over the last couple decades, the place has become a dead zone for refugees from southern America, and Cantú was part of the agency that contributed to the death of so many people. As Cantú himself said in an interview with the Guardian, it was basically his job to lure people into death. “This policy is pushing people to cross, away from the cities, away from the heavily patrolled areas, into the most remote and dangerous parts of the desert where many of them die. I mean [our policy] really serves to weaponize that landscape,” he said.

Cantú quit his job and decided to cash in as a whistleblower. His recently published book offers murderous insight into his former job of killing people. Nevertheless, many readers might not view Cantú as a killer or as an accomplice in killing but rather as a heroic person who decided to stand up against a deadly system of systematic murder. While activists have disrupted Cantú’s speaking engagements in cities like San Francisco and Phoenix, his book has received overwhelmingly positive reviews in establishment media and literary circles.

Not only was Cantú’s book considered “heartfelt” for divulging all the trade secrets in his memoir, but the former border patrol agent is also seem as a victim of the system. Cantú performs his guilt in interviews and throughout his memoir. He’s expressed that he suffers from the trauma one obtains after engaging in activities that lead to the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands.

Although Cantú confesses to not only witnessing atrocities committed by Customs and Border Protection but also acts of violence he committed personally, it appears that his writing and role as a whistleblower exonerates him from any wrongdoing. At least, according to his reception in literary circles and media coverage of his book. This poses a question: As a society, are we saying that superficial regret is all that is necessary for one to be absolved of severe violence? If so, why isn’t this leniency extended to those who are locked away in prisons? Why is it only for those who’ve arrived at positions of power and prominence?

One would think that exposing the wrong you have contributed to is the least someone could do. It is not something to be celebrated; it is not something to rewarded; it is the bare minimum.

Instead, whistleblowers of war are both socially and monetarily rewarded with book deals, lucrative speaking engagements, and a seat on cable news as paid experts. We listen to those who caused the pain, and sometimes even death, far more than we ever listen to their victims. How tragic it is that those speaking for the dead caused their deaths.

For the last few years, I have covered the United States’ drone wars. Many details about the U.S. military and the CIA's drone warfare remain unknown. It is still unclear, for example, what qualifies an individual to be listed on the notorious Kill List, which is filled with names of individuals who, according to the U.S. administration, “threaten” the country and need to be executed without trial. The Kill List was mainly established during the Obama era, and it is also well known that he signed it every Tuesday (“Terror Tuesday”) during a meeting with military and intelligence officials. Overall, the whole killing process of drone warfare remains opaque under Trump.
When the very first drone strike in mankind’s history took place in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in October 2001, several different military agencies, including members of United States Air Force and CIA officials, observed the attack. The victims of this attack are unknown to this day. The original target, then Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, was able to flee with his family. However, not all of his family members made it alive. The cab driver’s son was injured by the attack and died a few hours later.

What we know about the drone wars has mainly come from whistleblowers from the U.S. military, the CIA, or the NSA. This matters because there are barely any other individuals who could offer that kind of information. The names of these people, who mostly faced a lot of personal sacrifices for their whistleblowing, are not always known. For example, the person who revealed the Drone Papers to the Intercept—the biggest leak on the issue to date—remains anonymous at the time of this article’s publication. However, other whistleblowers are known to the public. One of them is Brandon Bryant, a former sensor operator with the U.S. Air Force.

I first became aware of Bryant while watching a German television program. He was featured as a panelist during a discussion of Germany’s involvement in the American drone war. The highlight of the show was when Bryant said that 1,626 people had been killed during drone operations in which he served as an operator. Since drone teams consist of several operators, it is not always the same person who pushes the kill button. In many cases, the other people who are involved gather information, analyze the situation on the ground, or simply fly the unmanned aircraft. Bryant said he has killed 13 people directly.

Yes, Brandon Bryant admitted to slaughtering 1,626 people—but for some reason nobody called him a murderer. It did not happen during the TV debate, nor at any time after. Instead, Bryant has been admired and awarded with speaking engagements because of his “bravery.” Yet all the public good Bryant may have done as a whistleblower does not erase the fact that he is a murderer who killed more than 1,639 people while working as a drone operator.

Imagine that the man who was invited to a German TV show was not named Brandon Bryant, but Mohammad Khalil, a person I’m making up. Khalil used to build bombs for al-Qaeda, and after he built hundreds of bombs that killed innocent people, he decided to stop. He becomes a staunch critic of the terrorist group and starts informing the public about the inner circles of his then fellow militants. During a televised appearance, Khalil remarks that more than 1,000 people, mostly white Westerners from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and other countries, have been killed by the bombs he used to build, and that many of them were civilians.

Unlike Bryant, Khalil, a brown Muslim man, would not have been forgiven. He would be labeled a “terrorist” for the rest of his life, and would almost certainly be incarcerated if he ever admitted to such killing in a public setting.

White people have the monopoly on violence, so much so that their guilt is considered traumatization. The 2017 film National Bird by Sonia Kennebeck, which focuses exclusively on the experience of two white American former drone operations, is a quintessential example of this ridiculous absolution.

Although I appreciated the movie’s critical take on drone warfare, by the end I was irritated. I was not the only one who had the impression that the movie wanted to turn culprits into victims. I’ve visited the actual victims of drone strikes, who live in remote villages inside Afghanistan that are often controlled by insurgents. Living under the Reaper and Predator drones is devastating. The lives of the locals are completely directed by threats from above. Everyone knows the sound of the unmanned aerial vehicles. Children know when they should play outside and when they should not.

But Kennebeck’s film focused on the degraded mental health of white Americans. It was obvious the film’s subjects regretted their involvement in mass killings, but, as intelligence analysts or technicians, they made the killings of thousands of people possible. The movie ended with the suggestion that these former drone operators, because of the trauma they’ve encountered and difficulties they’ve faced by coming forward, are, in fact, victims. But they are not.

The only victims of American drones are those who live under them, the people in countries like Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Syria, who are getting killed and maimed by the strikes. It is not agents of American imperialism who are carrying out these very attacks.

Today, people like Cantú or Bryant are more famous, and richer, than their victims. They are making a lucrative life for themselves by writing books and giving speeches based on the fact that they murdered people, and later felt bad about. Even the subjects of National Bird, despite harassment from federal law enforcement, fared better than the corpses who litter the deserts of the U.S.-Mexico border and the mountains of Pakistan.

And sure, while they may truly be regretful and have plenty of remorse around it, the fact still remains that they are financially and socially profiting off extinguishing Black and Brown life. This is a fundamental truth that is ignored, and when we in the media celebrate these whistleblowers, what we are taking part in, what we are doing, is the normalization of state murder and violence. We are supporting the assumption that people can launder their crimes as long as they decide to talk about them in public and stylize themselves as victims of a larger system.

It is the survivors that deserve our respect. It is the survivors that we should be amplifying. And it is only the dead that can give these murderers redemption, not themselves, and not us.