Brandon Bryant made international headlines when he came forward with information from inside the U.S. military’s drone program. Over the past several years, the former drone operator has become known for his outspoken activism on the issues of civilian deaths and the struggles of drone pilots with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Like other veterans of the program, the daily work of tracking and killing people as an operator took a psychological toll on Bryant, with consequences for his mental health that he has discussed publicly in the past. Since he left, he’s also been struggling with the pressures of going public as a whistleblower and a head injury he suffered during a military training exercise.
One way that he has tried to pick up the pieces of his life is by getting involved in local politics in his hometown of Missoula, Montana. It hasn’t been easy. Bryant has periodically clashed with members of the city council over issues like housing cost increases and contracts issued to land developers. Recently, he lashed out online, and is now facing up to ten years in prison for allegedly threatening elected officials.
Bryant was charged and taken into custody in February after a video of him allegedly making threats against the city council surfaced online. The video was posted by an online detractor (who Bryant has accused of cyberstalking) and was edited down from a longer version Bryant himself had posted. In the rambling video shot in a darkened room, Bryant says that members of the council deserve to be “eliminated,” though he never threatens any specific action.
Bryant is presently out on bail awaiting a hearing on Thursday. Three members of the city council have come forward to ask for the charges to be dropped, writing in an open letter that the video appeared to be edited to seem more threatening than it was. “In no way do we perceive him to be a threat to our safety or that of the community,” the council members wrote. The council members also cited his public role as a drone whistleblower. “We are firm believers in the first amendment and we deeply feel the future consequences of jailing an active citizen over a non-violent offense will have devastating consequences.”
A core question in the case is whether Bryant’s words in the YouTube video constitute what’s known as a “true threat” under the First Amendment.
“’True threats’ encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals,” said Anthony Johnstone, professor at Montana’s Blewett School of Law. “This is precisely the question at issue in Mr. Bryant’s case: Did he mean to communicate a threat to the city council? His words may be susceptible of more than one interpretation depending on the relevant context. The court will need to decide what that context is.”
Through his lawyers, Bryant declined to comment for this story.
There is no obvious sign that the charges against Bryant are related to his high-profile work as a whistleblower on the drone program — although other whistleblowers have been charged with leaking classified information, and advocates have long feared the government coming after those who speak out in other ways.
Bryant’s current situation does point to the lasting effects of the pressure of coming forward.
Cian Westmoreland, who is among the small number of drone operators who have gone public about their experiences in the program, is close to Bryant and describes him as one of many veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress and moral injury.
“Brandon and I have spoken extensively about what we carry with us. Brandon has a brain injury that interferes with the way he talks about things,” Westmoreland told The Intercept, referring to the training incident. “It isn’t obvious to someone who doesn’t know him. He says what he feels, and there is no filter. He says a lot of contradictory things, but he can’t help it; he is working out a lot from the wars and even our current political situation here.”
When Bryant first came forward in 2012, his account was explosive. Among other things, he said that drone operators routinely killed civilians and took drugs and alcohol while on the job. His story echoed that of other drone veterans, who spoke out about substance addiction and post-traumatic stress, in part due to feelings of torment over their involvement in the targeted killing program.
The drone program remains highly opaque, even as the military continues to carry out targeted killing campaigns around the world. Begun during the George W. Bush administration but massively expanded and normalized under Barack Obama, air wars waged by drone and conventional aircraft now continue in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
In past conflicts, unaddressed PTSD and other psychological ailments suffered by veterans have sometimes resulted in alterations in their behavior. In the case of Bryant and others, Westmoreland said the trauma many veterans carry is compounded by the fact that the conflicts in which they took part have not ended; the painful consequences are still playing out in front of them every day.
“Brandon is as sickened by his service as am. I don’t like acknowledging that I participated in effectively destroying a nation and have done irreparable harm to anyone. The more you reflect, the worse it gets,” Westmoreland said. “He joined to serve his country, and the politicians elected to serve this country took his youthful good nature and turned us into invaders and we became their servants. He is as American as apple pie. He’s just considered the humanity in the people he’s harmed. That alone is devastating almost 20 years into this with no real end in sight. Of course we’re angry about that.”