by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
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“Our trip to Pakistan was the first time any Americans had been there to apologize for the drone strikes,” said long-time peace activist Medea Benjamin Saturday, October 20 at the Church of the Brethren in City Heights, San Diego. Co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink, Benjamin has just published a book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, exposing not only the lethality of drones — remote-controlled aircraft, often equipped with missiles that directly target individuals on the ground — but the fundamental immorality of this sort of warfare and the way drones make war more “thinkable” because with them, one country can attack another without putting any of their own servicemembers at risk of death or injury.
“To have a group of Americans go to such a dangerous place was remarkable,” Benjamin said. “We had 60 people wanting to go and we didn’t think the Pakistani government was going to give us visas. There were people putting pressure on from both the U.S. and Pakistan, and we finally got our visas. … The U.S. government didn’t want us to go on this trip, and they were very open about that. I’ve had meetings with U.S. officials talking about ‘the alleged drones.’” Eventually Benjamin’s group numbered 34, all but one of whom took the trip from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, to the northwest frontier region of Waziristan, which has suffered the greatest number of drone attacks.
“The acting U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Hoagland, met with us and wanted to impress on us how dangerous it was to go to Waziristan,” Benjamin recalled. “I said to the group, ‘If anyone doesn’t want to make the trip to Waziristan, don’t do it.’ We were going to have plenty of work to do in Islamabad, including meeting with women’s groups and drone victims. Of the 34 people, 33 wanted to go. The day before, the U.S. security person wanted to meet with us, and told us, ‘We have credible information that the militants are going to attack you.’ I asked him what the source of the information was, and he said he couldn’t tell me. Once again, I told the members of the group they didn’t have to go on the trip, and again everybody but one decided to go.”
Benjamin’s group had a dual agenda for making the 14-hour trip from Islamabad to Waziristan. One was to document the brutal effects of drone warfare on the villages and their residents — information she said the mainstream U.S. media have carefully kept from Americans. The other was to let people in the region know that there were Americans who didn’t approve of the drone strikes. “When we talked with people individually, it was remarkable how necessary it was to go to the areas where the drones are used, and apologize,” Benjamin said. “We went to the tribal regions, where no Americans had been since 9/11. After our first day, the government blocked off the area where we had planned to go, so we held a rally at our campsite and people were chanting, ‘Welcome, welcome, we want peace.’”
The trip to Pakistan to visit the drone-targeted areas personally was, said Benjamin, “the kind of citizen diplomacy that’s so important” to building a worldwide constituency for peace. “For one week, we were front-page news in the Pakistani press and on Pakistani TV,” she said. “There was a conservative guy who said, ‘If you are here to win the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people, you have won mine.’ Another person said we had done more for the U.S.’s image in Pakistan than all the aid money the U.S. has sent to the Pakistani government.” Benjamin described the area she and her group visited as “Ground Zero for the drones” — the place where there are more drone attacks than anywhere in the world.
The Brave New World of Drones
Though there were experiments with unmanned military aircraft as early as World War I, and in the 1930’s all the major powers were using remote-controlled planes to give their pilots target practice, drone warfare really exploded after September 11, 2001. “When 9/11 happened, there were only 50 drones in the Pentagon’s arsenal; today, there are over 10,000,” Benjamin said. She admitted that there are potentially positive aspects to drones — “They can fight forest fires and find illegal rainforest logging in Brazil” — but with drones, as with so many aspects of modern technology, “the munitions industry is driving” drone development. Indeed, the General Atomics plant in Poway, a San Diego suburb, is where the Predator attack drone is made — and the San Diego Veterans for Peace (SDVFP) is targeting the plant with a demonstration every Thursday, 4 to 6 p.m., on the corner of Scripps Poway Parkway and General Atomics Way. (For information, visit the SDVFP Web site at http://www.sdvfp.org/.)
The original use of drones in the U.S. “war on terror” was for surveillance, Benjamin explained, but that changed when drone builders realized they could attach missiles to them and fire them at targets on the ground, just like a conventional piloted plane. “The war in Iraq provided the U.S. military a platform for perfecting its own deadly drones,” Benjamin wrote in her book. “In 2003 and 2004, the Army flew UAV’s [‘unmanned aerial vehicles,’ military-speak for drones] about 1,500 hours a month, according to USA Today; by 2006, that number had risen to about 9,000 hours a month. … In Iraq, spy drones were used for everything from protecting oil fields to tracking supposed insurgents to distinguishing between ‘plastics production … and homemade explosives production.’ Lethal drones were sent to target government buildings in Baghdad and to kill militants firing upon U.S. positions.”
According to Benjamin, the U.S. military became more reliant on drones — not less — as it started to draw down its forces in Iraq in 2008. At the same time, as the war in Afghanistan heated up and President Obama deployed massive numbers of new U.S. troops there in a copy of President Bush’s “surge” strategy in Iraq, the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan became increasingly reliant on drones. “By 2010 the Air Force was flying at least 20 Predator drones over stretches of hostile Afghan territory each day, providing a daily dose of some 500 hours of video,” Benjamin wrote. “Most drones were used for surveillance purposes … but they were also used to target low-level Taliban fighters in remote areas and to support U.S. troops in firefights. According to Air Force figures, there were 74 drone strikes in 2007, 183 in 2008, and 219 in 2009.”
While the U.S. military has used video games to train its fighters for decades, by using drones they’ve made the experience of actual combat into a grim sort of video game. “It’s like bad science fiction become real, to think that the pilots of these drones are sitting in air-conditioned rooms … for 10 to 12 hours a day, looking at a screen,” Benjamin said. “They might be based outside of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, or Hancock Air Force base in upstate New York, or about a dozen other bases, and these pilots are really doing this surveying and pressing the kill button by day, and going home to their families at night.” The only real difference between playing a video game and piloting a drone is that when the drone pilot presses the controller button and fires a missile, real people die on the other end.
According to Benjamin, this remote-control killing puts a stress on the people doing it. “Many of these pilots are getting PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] just like soldiers on the battlefield,” she said. “And in some ways I would guess that’s a good thing, because it’s hard for them to have this day job when you’re killing, and then think you can go home and just be a good husband and father, and it’s not going to affect you mentally. There are other pilots — and I’ve talked to some of them — who think this is just dandy, it’s a great way to do it and it’s nice to be able not to put your own life at risk. But the main complaint the drone pilots had when a study was done was boredom. They said it was really boring to be sitting and looking at these screens for hours on end, when a lot of them signed up for the military because they wanted to be in the battle.”
Because they’re physically thousands of miles away from the battlefield, Benjamin said, drone pilots don’t have to know anything about the lives and culture of the people they’re fighting and killing by remote control. “They’re told certain people are on a ‘hit list’ developed by President Obama himself on what’s called ‘Terror Tuesday,’ where [Obama and his staff] look at profiles of alleged terrorists and vote whether to put them on the ‘hit list,’” Benjamin explained. “There is also the ‘signature strike,’ in which drone pilots are able to kill people on their own authority, on the basis of ‘suspicious behavior’” — which, she said, could mean something as simple as a group of bearded males wearing long robes meeting outdoors.
Though the countries where the U.S. has made the greatest use of drones are Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Benjamin said that they were also used in Libya — where Obama said he didn’t need to ask Congress to authorize U.S. involvement under the War Powers Act because he was “only” sending drones and therefore no U.S. servicemembers were physically at risk. According to Benjamin, the U.S. has also used drones in Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines, and is building bases for drones in Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Burundi and Uganda. And it’s not just the Army and the Air Force that are flying drone missions; a lot of U.S. drone strikes are being run by the CIA, and since their drone activities are secret there’s no way of knowing just how much the U.S. is using drones, where they’re being used or what the U.S. is doing with them.
And the U.S. isn’t the only country in the world that has or uses military drones. Israel has used them against the Palestinians in the occupied territories for years. Indeed, according to Benjamin, Israeli defense companies advertise their drones for sale to other countries by saying they’ve been “battle-tested.” In her book, Benjamin wrote that over 50 countries have the technological capability to build drones, and many of them — including Russia, Turkey, China, India, Iran, Great Britain and France — either have or are developing weaponized drones. Iran is a special case because they got drone technology from the U.S.; when an American drone was shot down over Iran, they were able to reverse-engineer it and develop the ability to build copies.
What’s more, there’s a major push to use U.S. drones in the United States itself. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had been loath to give permission for law enforcement agencies and others to fly drones in American airspace, mainly because of the possibility that drones will collide with commercial aircraft in mid-air or crash and do damage when they fall to earth. But the military contractors who build drones adopted a familiar solution to that problem: they used their lobbyists to sell Congress on passing a bill overriding the pesky regulators and allowing drones to fly over the U.S. It’s been an easy sell, according to Benjamin, because war-industry lobbyists have been able to convince Congressmembers that drones in their district mean jobs and economic growth.
The drone lobby and what’s been called the “drone caucus” in Congress — officially known as the Unmanned Systems Caucus — got a big Valentine’s Day present on February 14, 2012 when Obama signed an FAA reauthorization bill that specifically requires the agency to integrate drones into U.S. airspace by September 15, 2015. “The bill also requires expedited access for public users, like law enforcement, firefighters and emergency responders,” Benjamin wrote in her book. “Within 90 days, it must allow them to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they are kept under an altitude of 400 feet and meet other requirements. The U.S. drone lobby group that helped draft the bill … was delighted; commercial airlines and pilots were not. They worry that the quick push to integrate drones will not only take away jobs, but lead to accidents.”
Even before this bill passed, Benjamin said, law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. were buying drones and using them for surveillance. The Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida already bought a 20-pound drone in 2011 and applied to the FAA for permission to get two more. Other police departments are buying helicopter drones to photograph and videotape large swaths of countryside at will. Benjamin’s book quotes Michael Buscher, CEO of drone maker Vanguard Defense Industries, that future U.S. police drones will be equipped with Tasers and so-called “stun batons” that will actually be able to shoot at and immobilize people on the ground. Benjamin’s October 20 audience groaned at the thought of who police are likely to target with this sort of drone technology: peace activists, Occupy members, medical marijuana growers and anyone who looks like a sort of person police officers don’t like. “By 2015, there might be 30,000 drones in American skies,” Benjamin said.
The Myth of “Smart Drones”
According to Benjamin, polls have shown that 83 percent of Americans, including a majority of self-described “liberal Democrats,” approve their use against “terrorist suspects” — even though, as she pointed out, the word “suspect” means someone who hasn’t been convicted of anything or given any more “due process” than being identified as a “terrorist” or “militant” by an itchy-fingered drone pilot or by the Obama administration on “Terror Tuesday.” She cited a study by Stanford and New York University, “Living Under Drones” (available online at http://livingunderdrones.org/download-report/) that quoted President Obama’s “terror czar,” John O. Brennan, as saying that missile-armed drones have an unprecedented ability to “distinguish … effectively between an al-Qaeda terrorist and innocent civilians,” and that they can conduct strikes with “astonishing” and “surgical” precision.
“This narrative is false,” the “Living Under Drones” authors bluntly wrote. “Following nine months of intensive research … this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current U.S. drone strike policies. Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and first-hand testimony about the negative impacts U.S. policies are having on the civilians living under drones.” According to the “Living Under Drones” study, of the 2,562 to 3,325 people killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan between June 2004 and September 2012, between 474 and 881 were civilians — including 176 children. The study also claimed that only 2 percent of the victims of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan were on the “high-value list” of known major terrorists.
Benjamin claims that the reason the Obama administration claims the drone strikes are targeting “militants” is that they “have admitted that they consider every male of military age in the area where we’re using drones to be a ‘militant.’” She also noted that the Stanford/NYU “Living Under Drones” study documents the extent to which drones themselves are a weapon of terror. “People’s lives are made miserable by drones hovering overhead 24/7,” Benjamin said. “Some families are afraid to send their children to school, or to go to markets, weddings, community gatherings or funerals, all of which are being specifically targeted.” What’s more, she said, American drone pilots routinely do so-called “double-tap” strikes, in which after they’ve hit a target once they launch a second round of missiles to target the people coming in to rescue the people hit in the first strike. She said that on her recent trip to Pakistan she personally heard stories of people injured in drone attacks waving away potential rescuers for fear the rescuers would be hit by the “double-tap.”
In both her talk and her book, Benjamin extensively documented several instances in which people working against terrorism and for peace were killed by drone strikes. “One jirga [tribal council] in which a number of tribal leaders came together to resolve a mining dispute was targeted by a drone strike that killed over 40 community leaders,” she said. Her book tells the story of Karim Khan, who was targeted as a suspected terrorist (apparently in a case of mistaken identity) and whose house was hit by a drone strike. Khan wasn’t there that night — he was in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad — but his brother and son were killed, as was a stonemason from out of town who was doing repair work on the village mosque and whom the Khans had put up for the night.
Benjamin also tells the story of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old boy who traveled from south Waziristan to Islamabad for a “Grand Waziristan Jirga,” in which over 350 villagers (including members of 60 families that had been victimized by drone strikes) and learned photography so he could document the damage done by drones. “Tariq had a personal motivation,” Benjamin wrote in her book. “Eighteen months earlier, his cousin Anwar Ullah had been killed by an unmanned drone as he drove his motorcycle through the village of Norak.” But just three days after he returned home, Aziz and his 12-year-old cousin, Wahreed Rehman, were killed in their car by a drone-launched missile just a few hundred yards away from the home of his newlywed aunt, whom he had just visited.
“Thanks to the fateful meeting in Islamabad days before, the death of those boys — unlike other drone victims never mentioned or mourned beyond the village — was reported in newspapers around the world,” Benjamin wrote. “American lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who had just met the boy in Islamabad, wrote a compelling New York Times op-ed. … A U.S. official acknowledged to ABC News that the attack was not a mistake — the CIA had chosen this target because the two people in the car were supposedly militants. Pratap Chatterje, a journalist … who met Tariq at the Islamabad meeting, was dumbfounded. ‘If this 16-year-old was indeed a suspected terrorist, then why wasn’t he arrested in Islamabad?’ Chatterje asked.”
The real reason why the U.S. is killing supposed “militants” with drone strikes instead of arresting them, Benjamin suggested, is that U.S. officials find it “cleaner” — that’s actually the word the Obama adminstration’s lawyers use — to execute them summarily rather than take them alive and then be faced with the knotty issue of when, where and how to try them. (It’s been widely reported that the SEAL commando team that raided Osama bin Laden were under orders to kill him, rather than take him alive, for the same reason.) “Since he’s been President, Obama has only sent one person to Guantánamo — because he’s decided it’s easier to kill people with drones,” Benjamin acidly commented. She said the Obama administration has asserted it has a right to kill anyone, anywhere in the world — including a U.S. citizen — solely on its say-so, without any legal process involved.
Speaking two weeks before Obama’s re-election, Benjamin made it clear that she regards him as an enemy of freedom that deserves to be targeted by peace protesters just as his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, was. “We cannot afford to give a honeymoon to anyone who wins this election,” she said. “We have to be out in the streets demanding an end to the wars and the fossil-fuel economy, and a state of peace and a green-energy economy. … We could cut our military budget in half and give every young American a free college education. What we could do in the world to help people would cost only a fraction of what we’re doing overseas now to get people to hate us. … I know I’m speaking to the choir here, but sometimes the choir needs to be re-energized.”
Jon Fanestil, San Diego Foundation for Change