Code Pink Takes on Obama’s Drones (Woods)

Chris Woods writes at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Walk into any US bookstore and the stacks are crowded with hundreds of books on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet more than a decade in, its hard to find anything on the escalating use of armed drones by the United States.

Now Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the US women-led peace movement Code Pink, is seeking to balance the shelves. Her new book Drone Warfare has just been published. Benjamin, along with Reprieve and the Center for Constitutional Rights, also recently organised the first major international conference on drones in Washington DC.

The gathering coincided with the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing by US Special Forces. And just a day later, President Obama’s chief counter terrorism official John Brennan gave the most detailed insight yet into the ‘secret’ US drones programme. Benjamin was the sole protestor to disrupt the speech, as the press corps looked on.

In a candid interview with the Bureau following the conference, Medea Benjamin speaks about why the US peace movement has collapsed under Obama; of the challenges of taking on the drone war in a US election year, and of the message that US campaigners plan to take to Pakistan in a forthcoming trip.

Medea Benjamin disrupts Brennan’s big speech on drones

Q: You’ve been involved in peace activism for a long time, and were heavily involved in the Bush years. In some respects the wars go on but the peace movement doesn’t. How difficult is it to engage on drones with a Democratic administration in the White House, and how is this going to play out in an election year?

Medea Benjamin (MB): It’s terrible. The vast majority of people who were part of the peace movement under Bush have disappeared. Whether they’ve left because they want to leave it to Obama, and that they’re happy that he for the most part withdrew the troops from Iraq and they’re hoping he will do that shortly in Afghanistan, and think that the drones are an alternative to a broader war. Or it’s people who are excited about the Occupy movement and want to put their efforts into the first chance that they feel they’ve had in a long time to make some changes on the domestic front. Or they have been so financially devastated by the economic crisis that they really don’t have time to commit to these issues.

For all sorts of reasons our movement is a tiny portion of what it was under the Bush years. And that makes it very hard. And the fact that during this election campaign you don’t have a voice from the Left, you don’t have a Dennis Kucinich, you don’t have a Ralph Nader, and you don’t even have a Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican who is speaking out against the wars and the empire and the drone strikes.

So there’s going to be little debate on foreign policy during this election, and if anything, it’s going to be Mitt Romney saying ‘Don’t put a date for pulling the troops out of Afghanistan’. And I don’t think he’s going to criticise Obama at all on these drone strikes, if anything he’s totally gung-ho for it. So it’s going to be pretty miserable in terms of trying to insert this message into the elections.

There’s going to be little debate on foreign policy during this election.

We will try as much as we can, going out to events and being there with our model drones, and getting on the inside when we can, saying ‘Stop the killer drones!’ And we’ll be going to the conventions, will have contingents who’ll be marching against drones, against the killing of civilians, against the continued war in Afghanistan. But to be realistic, we are not a very strong force at the moment.

And I think we recognise that and we realise that we are starting from almost nothing at this point. When you see a devastating poll that says that 8 out of 10 Americans think it’s OK to kill terrorist suspects, and that it’s even OK to kill Americans with drones, we’ve got a lot of educating to do. So I think it’s going to take us a couple of years even to turn those polls around and then get onto the job of stopping the use of drones. So it’s not going to be easy.

Q: It seems a particularly testosterone-driven period at the moment, with the recent anniversary of bin Laden’s killing. US TV screens are full of a certain sort of swaggering male perspective. Code Pink is very much a women-driven organisation. How difficult is it to engage with that attitude?

MB: It’s very difficult to engage with that swagger, especially when that’s now coupled with a technology that people seem to just drool over. They love these drones, they love the hi-tech, there’s a fascination with it. It’s boys’ toys that get exhibited everywhere.

As we were meeting in our drone summit, there was a science fair going on in the Convention Center across the street from us, where they were simulating drones overhead in Washington DC for the kids. And the kids just loved it. So yes it’s swagger, it’s testosterone coupled with boys’ toys. Which makes it even more difficult.

So we women are up for the challenge [laughs] and we recognise that this is a moment when, just like after 9-11, women’s voices were needed more than ever. There’s the joking about drone strikes and the lies and the sense of statesmanship given to people who say that we don’t kill civilians with drones, who just out-and-out lie about it.

We’ve got to use the Code Pink tactics of interrupting these people, of direct action, of civil disobedience, of being out there with our pink handcuffs to try and arrest them and hold them accountable for war crimes. But let me just reiterate: in an election period, when our natural allies would be independents and Democrats, we’ll lose all the Democrats. People on the left, the progressives, will be very reluctant to criticise Obama.

Summit-goers outside the US Supreme Court express their views on drones

Q: How do you think the recent Washington drones summit went? And w
hy has it taken 11 years of bombing to get a conference like this in Washington?

MB: It’s a good question, and I would say a criticism of the entire anti-war movement here in the United States. I looked around and I thought, ‘It’s pathetic, why have we taken so long to get together on this?’ Sure we’ve had a lot of meetings and outside conferences and endless protests about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We’ve got to use the Code Pink tactics of interrupting these people, of direct action, of civil disobedience, of being out there with our pink handcuffs to try and arrest them and hold them accountable for war crimes.’

But we’ve kind of ignored the fact that our government is way ahead of us and while we’re focusing on the covert wars and the boots on the ground, our soldiers dying, they’re transforming the way they’re waging war and taking it out of the public view, spilling over into Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia, and building up drone bases in Kuwait and Qatar and Ethiopia and Seychelles and Australia and Turkey, and on and on. So they’re not just one step ahead of us, they’re 1,000 steps ahead of us. And we should have had this conference a long time ago.

The only thing that we’re a bit ahead of the curve on is on the proliferation of drones here at home. That since the regulations haven’t yet been written by the Federal Aviation Administration, we have a chance to influence those. So that’s the one thing I feel somewhat good about.

But it’s terrible that it’s taken us so long to organise this. On the other hand people think of drones as just a piece of technology, so why would you organise around a piece of technology? You want to organise around the wars themselves.

Q: And what’s your answer to that? Isn’t it just another piece of technology? What’s different about drones?

MB: The difference with drones is that drones make these wars possible. From being able to wage them without even having to go to Congress, because according to the Administration’s definition of war, war is when you put your own soldiers’ lives at risk. And since we’re not doing that with drones, it’s not war, it doesn’t have to be agreed in Congress. It doesn’t even have to be open to the American people. It can be carried out in total secrecy.

And as some people said in the conference, drones are the only way to wage some of these battles because of the issue of national sovereignty. You could never get away with the boots on the ground. And because, for example with the terrain in Yemen, you wouldn’t be able to do it any other way than with drones.

So I think that drones are a special piece of technology that make extending these – I wouldn’t call them wars, they’re violent interventions – make them possible to do. So we do have to focus on the technology, but within the context of war.

According to the Administration, war is when you put your own soldiers’ lives at risk. And since we’re not doing that with drones, it’s not war, it doesn’t have to be agreed in Congress. It doesn’t even have to be open to the American people.’

Q: You’re now planning for a group trip to Pakistan. A critic at the recent conference said that people in the room were ‘naïve’, that their understanding of Pakistan was over-simplified and that there were far bigger issues there that were more important.

MB: I think there’s a certain truth to the fact that most of the people in the room were very unaware of the complexity of the situation in Pakistan. And so their own agenda is a pretty simple one. ‘I don’t want my government killing people without due process, whether Americans or people in other parts of the world. And I don’t think that makes me safer at home. I don’t think it makes the world a safer place.’

Pakistanis have their own complex internal situation, but they’re going to have to deal with it and our interference is not helping. So as Americans, to go in there with a simple message and say, ‘We don’t want our government violating your sovereignty, it is up to you to decide how to deal with your issues of Taliban and al Qaeda and terrorism and fundamentalism, and it’s up to us to make our government obey international law.’

So I think we stick to a pretty simple message. And say we don’t want to get involved in your internal affairs, they’re far too complex for us to even think that we can comprehend them… We just want to step aside and let you figure it out.

This is an edited version of a longer interview.

Follow @chrisjwoods and @medeabenjamin on Twitter



Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Responses | Print |

13 Responses

  1. there are drones, and then there are drones.
    The Reaper flies 200 mph at up to 40,000 feet, for up to 15 hours.
    The Global hawk flies at 450 mph, at up to 65,00 feet, for as long as 36 hours.

    Reaper is designed to be launched in the same theater where it is employed. E.g., strikes in Yemen are by aircraft launched at Lemoiner, strikes in Waziristan launch from Bagram.
    Global Hawk can circle the globe. once it’s tanker model is ready.

    The US Govt, all agencies, has purchased over 200 drones, with 48 in the air at any given time in Afghanistan. When they cross that Durand Line, the Pakistani Air Force could shoot reapers down with Cessnas. So far, Global Hawks aren’t being used in Pakistan, but no Cessna is going to knock one of those out of the sky. But they could do that with F-5’s or F-16’s.

  2. Code Pink’s activism during the Bush years was an embarrassing, counterproductive demonstration of self-indulgence, and a drag on the anti-Iraq War movement. Their only influence on American political discourse was to create an easy, high-profile target for the pro-war side to point to when they wanted to discredit their opponents.

    We’ve got to use the Code Pink tactics of interrupting these people, of direct action, of civil disobedience, of being out there with our pink handcuffs to try and arrest them and hold them accountable for war crimes.

    Because that works so well.

    As someone who thinks that shooting at al Qaeda commanders is the right thing to do, thank you very much, I would be happy to see Code Pink get out there are discredit the other side of the argument. I find Medea’s habit of insisting that the large majority of Democrats who don’t agree with her on the use of force against al Qaeda are demonstrating a blind obedience to Obama, as opposed to actually disagreeing with her on principle, to be a very effective way of making sure that her message will not get through to her intended audience.

    • Joe, I agree – Code Pink is PETA for a different cause.

      On the other hand, I haven’t heard of other US organizations (or even disorganized mobs) that are taking on the Drone Issue. I’m not denying there are such groups – I just don’t hear about them on the morning news.

      Lib/progs need to find the sweet spot between “feckless tantrum” and “reasoned argument”: something the media will cover, but in a serious and productive way. Personally, I like the “Billionaires for Bush” model.

  3. I attended a meeting where Medea spoke and was disappointed to see that virtually everyone there was elderly (I include myself). She was clearly in command of her subject and spoke off the cuff for an hour. I was impressed and bought a copy of her book (which she autographed).

    Being part of a movement that is not popular is difficult. I keep myself going by knowing that regardless of whether anyone is convinced by my point of view, I am laying down a history of my stand on the issues. If nothing else, it will be known that I did not go along with the crowd and made my opposition clear.

    Drone warfare is a big thing right now because there is no effective response to it. At some point there will be countermeasures that will bring down drones easily and then they will join all the previous weapons systems that have to get more expensive and complex to stay ahead in the military game.

    The current “kill at will” capability that often causes innocents to die along with the intended victim seems to me to invite attack on the U.S. Unlike a military force on the ground that can be attacked in retaliation (as in Iraq and Afghanistan), drones are currently immune from counter-force at the scene, yet everyone knows the “pilots” are often back in the States living essentially civilian lives out of danger.

    For the United States to make drone attacks a routine practice as a substitute for the commitment of troops will only drive the level of hatred to unprecedented levels. Consider the effect if Americans were killed in America by a foreign power who reserved the right to decide which of us would die and when.

    All of this is an “Israelification” of U.S. military measures and we can all see how Israel’s practices have made it a pariah steadily sinking to new lows in the view of every public but that in the U.S. according to the latest poll. It’s safe to assume the decline of U.S. prestige, already well advanced, will follow in the downward direction. With drone attacks we are undermining ourselves politically and in terms of national security, even as the procedure appears (viewed superficially) to be cost-free.

  4. Yeah, Joe, and the pro-war people who run the shoot-the-commanders part of the action have such a high rate of success. No mis-fires, no little oopsies that do such a great job of convincing the rest of the world of US superiority in Everything. Especially when they use the occasional “kill,” which in many instances is “drone-scamming” where Warlord A just PROMISES that Warlord B (who happens to be a rival in the opium trade or just a competitor for local hegemony) will be will be sitting and plotting the next 9/11 at coordinates such-and-so, to justify trillions of dollars in Military Futility.

    What “security” have “we” bought will all those trillions? Oh, I forgot the “elephant gun” proof: The cop stops the dude in camo, stalking the streets of Manhattan with bandoliers of .458-cal soft-points and a big ol’ Winchester rifle. “What the heck are you doing, carrying that thing around in the city?” asks the cop. “Protecting us against wild elephants, of course!” says the dude. “There’s not a wild elephant within 7,000 miles of here!” replies the cop. “See?” says the dude. “It works! Now leave me alone so I can get back to my Duty Call.”

    But I acknowledge that atavistic, troglodytic thrill of even the fake green-tinted video of “bin Ladin’s Last Moments,” and “bin Ladin’s funeral swim.” Too bad that the vast majority of anti-terrorism is boring old police work, and that some of it looks so much like boring old police entrapment… Nowhere near as exciting as kicking down the door and shooting everyone in the room, or pickling off a couple of Hellfires.

    • What is this 9000th repetition of your trite daily tap dance supposed to have to do with what I wrote about Code Pink’s protest tactics and their efficacy?

  5. Allowing the executive to kill people without trial, in secret, and without congressional oversight is an offense to the principle of the rule of law. But priciples like rule of law, due process, or limiting the president’s authority are abstractions that few care about. Nor do most people care about the innocent civilians that are killed alongside alleged terrorists. And why try to stop the proliferation of drones here at home? If most Americans are okay with killing suspected terrorists, they should be willing to have armed drones flying over their homes.

  6. Drone attacks are a method of extrajudicial assassination.

    What is the legal line here? Where is to be drawn?

    Can drones be used against U.S. citizens? Apparently, yes.

    Can drones be used against European terror suspects? Of course not! That would cause international outrage.

    Can drones be used in the U.S. against domestic terror suspects? Apparently not.

    Who has the authority to call a drone strike? Maybe a CIA general counsel can tell us.

    Have drone strikes been used against children? Yes.

    Is it OK if some bystanders have their lives or safety at risk due to another being targeted by a drone strike. Yeah, probably – it is done all the time.

    Have their been any court actions to test the legality of drone strike assassinations? Apparently not.

    • Drone attacks are a method of extrajudicial assassination.

      If this is true, then so are artillery barrages, rifle fire, hand grenades, spear thrusts, chariot charges, musket volleys, and bombings from piloted aircraft.

      What is the legal line here? Where is to be drawn?

      Between “against the enemy during wartime” and “not against the enemy during wartime.” I don’t understand why so many people skip right over the legal, constitutional, and substantive importance of a state of war.

      Who has the authority to call a drone strike? According to a new article in the NYT, it depends on the drone strike and the type of target – which is the same answer you would get if you substituted “spear thrust” or any of the other examples of other military force I listed above.

      Is it OK if some bystanders have their lives or safety at risk due to another being targeted by a drone strike. Exactly the same rules for protecting civilians apply to military strikes carried out using pilotless aircraft as apply to any other type of military strike.

      Have their been any court actions to test the legality of drone strike assassinations?

      I don’t believe that there has ever been a court case to test the doctrine that the military can shoot at the enemy during a war, regardless of the platform used.

      • Did the U.S. Congress declare a state of war against Al-Qaeda? I think not.

        Would it be OK for U.S.intelligence to fire drones to kill IRA leaders pursuant to an undeclared “War on Terror”? That is silly, especially given the political clout of the Irish-American community.

        Is it not a violation of the Neutrality Act to kill a foreign national in a country the U.S. is not in a state of declared war with? The Neutrality Act was cited by former FBI agent William Turner in his book “Fish is Red” to suggest that the covert war against Cuba during Operation Mongoose was illegal but that federal, stae and local law enforcemnt had an understanding of non-enforcement with the CIA.

        The last time I recall any governmental entity targeted an explosive on a group of American citizens was the Philadelphia police department during the MOVE crisis. That series of events wound up in millions of dollars in wrongful death suit payouts. Innocent children were among the dead.

        Should the U.S. compensate innocent bystanders who have been injured or killed during these drone attacks? Some Palestinians had attempted legal actions when the Israeli Air Force had an F-16 drop a half-ton bomb on an apartment complex in an attempt to assassinate a Hamas military wing leader and left scores of innocent dead and wounded.

  7. The moral crisis created by drones makes them a particularly dangerous, destabilising weapon. Fine. Stop them, have their use limited/regulated etc. I can see the attractiveness of that position.

    But Pakistan should decide what to do with their terrorists? Seriously? They did decide and her position just sounded a lot stupider.

  8. What’s not being said here is that drones represent a logical evolution of the American way of war against lightly armed foes over the past 30 years. It’s been a long time since American military pilots have truly faced combat without unchallenged air superiority. How long has it been since a U.S. combat aircraft–other than helicopters–has been shot down? Vietnam, perhaps? The Gulf War? Any in Iraq or Afghanistan? Flying an F-16 over Afghanistan is certainly more dangerous than siting at a drone control terminal in Nevada, but neither pilot risks dying from hostile fire. And, remember, it was Bill Clinton who liked to lob cruise missiles (remember them?) at bad guys. Why are drones worse than cruise missiles?

    It’s the wars, not the weapons, that are immoral. The basic equation hasn’t changed. As Donald Rumsfeld discovered, the only effective way to control an enemy nation is to occupy it with ground forces (and even that won’t always work). You can kill a lot of people with air power alone but it’s very, very difficult to impose your will. This is true whether you use B-17s, B-52s, cruise missiles, attack helicopters, or drones. Drones are hardly a game changer, else we’d be winning in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

    Air wars are political wars, fought more with an eye to domestic politics than to meet foreign policy goals. Americans like to see us bomb the hell out of other countries, especially when things aren’t going so well a home. This may be counterproductive–with every “terrorist” we kill, more friends and relatives, vowing revenge, become new terrorists–but it’s good politics, as Obama well knows.

  9. According to a recent spate of articles published today, President Obama orders the extrajudicial killing of suspected Al-Qaeda operatives when no state of war exists between Al-Qaeda and the U.S.

    JFK and RFK when supervising the CIA and Army Intelligence-led Operation Mongoose took great pains to provide a plausible argument that the U.S. government was not attempting to kill Castro, that the U.S. was simply assisting Cuban exiles to overthrow the Castro regime, who themselves would only be harming Castro as incident a legal internal civil war.

    According to the NY Times #1 best-seller “By Way of Deception”, the author, a former Israeli intelligence officer, set forth that an internal council within the Mossad heard requests to assassinate individuals and engaged in an approval process; this process and the existence of this council was unknown to the Israel Supreme Court.

    Recently, the Mossad, in one of the Arabian Peninsula oil-producing states, was fingered by local law enforcement in the killing of a Hamas official. Interpol warrants went out for numerous Israeli agents and one was arrested in Poland who had played a key support role in procuring phony passports for the killers. There was a question of possible issuance of arrest warrants for former Mossad chief Meir Dagan as well as PM Netanyahu, but the matter died down.

    This recent admission that our chief executive regularly authorizes the extrajudicial assassination of both U.S. and foreign nationals upon the application of U.S. intelligence officials is unprecedented.

    What legal authority gives Obama the ostensible right to do this? After the Church Committee investigated the CIA’s involvement in assassinations of foreign leaders, President Ford issued an executive order barring such actions.

    What is the specific application process, who approved this process, and is their a mechanism of judicial review?

    What standards, if any, exist before a person can be placed on a “death list”. Given the history like the Iraqi “Curveball” informant, it is clear that Pentagon and CIA operatives in foreign countries often make up information to give the U.S. defense and intelligence community the information it wants to hear. The sour experience the U.S. has had with the Iraqi National Congress should emphasize that second and third-hand unverified information should be the basis for ordering a drone assassination. The fact that a number of Iraqi leaders whose faces appeared on the famous “Deck of Cards” eventually were cleared in judicial proceedings and released shows that the U.S.government is not infallible in who it accuses of nefarious conduct.

    Even Fidel Castro, whom it is now asserted had private hit squad that conducted killings of various anti-Casrto elements – such as Anastaio Somoza in his Paraguayan exile -exercised extreme care to ensure these assassinations would not be liked to himself. Obama makes no such pretense here.

    There should be Freedom of Information Act requests to gather evidence to determine if any laws have violated during this “process”.

    This candid revelation begs the question – “Who else has the U.S. government recently killed without legislative or judicial oversight.”

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