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Science & Technology

The Details Of Drones, From A Pilot Who Flew Them

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Retired lieutenant colonel T. Mark McCurley wrote the book on how to fly the U.S. military's predator drone. As a pilot in the drone program from 2003 to 2012, he wrote the first tactical manual for the predator. In his new memoir, "Hunter Killer," McCurley talks about a program he says went from an aviation backwater joke to the tip of the spear in the war against terrorism. And he describes in detail the missions he flew or oversaw in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. On one mission, McCurley is sitting in the cockpit in a cold, dark room on base in Nevada watching the every move of a man he calls The Facilitator 8,000 miles away in Afghanistan. McCurley doesn't give the man's real name. Details of the mission remain classified.

T. MARK MCCURLEY: I know when he wakes up, when he goes to bed, what he does when he's at work, everywhere he goes. I know when his wife is at the market. I know when his kids are in school.

MCEVERS: One day, McCurley is told The Facilitator is about to give the go-ahead for a terrorist attack.

MCCURLEY: He was in the process of authorizing more than a dozen attacks around the world in a coordinated attack against Americans.

MCEVERS: So McCurley is authorized to take the shot, as predator pilots say. He fires two hellfire missiles at The Facilitator. And then, instead of flying back to base, he pilots the drone closer to verify the man has been killed. I asked McCurley to read from his book where he describes what he saw on the screen.

MCCURLEY: (Reading) The Facilitator's sightless eyes stared up at us as we passed directly overhead. His body was burned and unrecognizable. The driver, a regional warlord, was so badly mangled that local authorities identified him by association.

MCEVERS: So it's not just that you're watching these movements up close, but also, after you killed him, you were able to see the result of that up close.

MCCURLEY: Yes.

MCEVERS: But then later, you kept thinking about this.

MCCURLEY: That particular incident was a little bit more stunning than any of the others. It wasn't my first kill, but it was the one that impacted me the most because he looked me right in the eye through the camera of the aircraft, realizing the last five seconds of his life - uh-oh.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

MCCURLEY: And that, to me, was more impactful than anything else. Even when I saw a guy shooting at troops and I helped take them out, for me, there was a moral justification that I was saving people's lives that were under attack, whereas this guy - this was kind of a him-and-me even though he never had a chance and it was never me.

MCEVERS: Right. You had - like you write in the book, I had all the power in that moment. He was just on the phone to his wife.

MCCURLEY: That's right.

MCEVERS: Do you still think about it?

MCCURLEY: At times. I think maybe less than 1 percent of the military actually pulls the trigger, and I think every one of those guys carry every person with them forever. A little piece of them dies with each kill that they have to do. And the closer you are to it, the more you lose.

MCEVERS: How does it come up when you think about it?

MCCURLEY: I see his face, you know? I will always see his face.

MCEVERS: While you're awake or while you're asleep or both or...

MCCURLEY: Yes.

MCEVERS: Do you talk to somebody about it still?

MCCURLEY: Oh, absolutely. Well, not - no, not now, not for years.

MCEVERS: But you did.

MCCURLEY: I did, yes.

MCEVERS: Yeah. When the decision is being made to fire on someone, how does it work?

MCCURLEY: Sometimes when something of this magnitude has to happen, personally, we prefer to capture if we can. If we can't, we kill. You know, when that decision is made, oftentimes, it has to be made at a very high level. You need to go through each step of the chain of command to do that.

MCEVERS: Sometimes all the way to the president.

MCCURLEY: Sometimes, and part of that is to go through this checklist and make sure all the steps with the rules of engagement have been complied with. A lawyer will look at the shot to verify, yes, this is a valid shot before we take the shot. And then it will go up the chain. It may have to go all the way to president for a decision, such as if there is collateral damage that they know is there, like a - like women and children.

MCEVERS: OK. Were there any shots that you took where you think there might've been civilian casualties?

MCCURLEY: No.

MCEVERS: There's another target that you followed. He went by the title The Captain. What was his actual name?

MCCURLEY: I can't say.

MCEVERS: No - again, somebody you followed for months. You write how you wanted to be the one to take the shot on this guy.

MCCURLEY: Yes.

MCEVERS: And yet, he was later captured. And you say that was a good thing. Explain that.

MCCURLEY: Well, at the time that this operation happened, it wasn't that long after September 11 - just a couple years. So emotions were still pretty high, and the desire to take out the guys that were part of the planning team - you could say that we were pretty aggressive with them. And you know, cooler heads prevail. Capturing him is a good thing. When we see the difference between the war up to 2008 and then since then, we've seen the number of airstrikes quadruple in the last couple years over what they were before President Obama took over.

MCEVERS: Airstrikes from manned and unmanned aircraft?

MCCURLEY: From unmanned airplanes.

MCEVERS: From unmanned aircraft - OK.

MCCURLEY: And early in the war, we had a capture preference 'cause we could use these guys for intelligence through interrogations and figure out where other networks were that we weren't aware of. And by 2008, al-Qaida was pretty much nonexistent. They were stuck in the mountains. They couldn't move. They were useless as a terrorist organization. But since then, we've expanded the shot's that we've fired, and it's turned into basically hitting mid-level guys and sending whole networks underground before we had a chance to roll them up. So all that's done is been a great recruiting tool for the other side. And now we see Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and, you know, obviously Syria and Iraq on fire with al-Qaida operatives.

MCEVERS: And so it sounds like you think that we should prefer capture over kill.

MCCURLEY: I think there's a lot of value to that. I think that sometimes, like with The Facilitator, it's not practical. Or for security reason, it may be necessary in order to make an overall capture operation successful, but it shouldn't be the first line.

MCEVERS: That's retired lieutenant colonel T. Mark McCurley. His new book is called "Hunter Killer," and it's out now. Thank you very, very much.

MCCURLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.