by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
At her appearance at the First Church of the Brethren in San Diego August 16 — the third time in less than a year she’s come to town as part of her campaign against drones — activist Medea Benjamin recalled a time before she was a U.S. Senate candidate (for the Green Party against Dianne Feinstein in 2000) or the co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink. “When I worked on clothing workers’ issues,” she remembered, “the most powerful word we could use was ‘sweatshops.’ When we lobbied Starbucks, the most powerful thing we could say to get them to buy free trade coffee was, ‘Starbucks sells sweatshop coffee.’” In her current incarnation as an activist against drones, Benjamin said, the word “drone” itself has taken on the same power as “sweatshop” had when she was working on fair wages and safety protections for textile workers and coffee growers.
“We have managed to penetrate the veil of secrecy and turned this cool new technology into a four-letter word,” Benjamin boasted. “They don’t want us to use the word ‘drones.’ They come up with new terminology every two months and they have highly paid P.R. people trying to get people not to use ‘drones.’ … They hate the word ‘drone’ so much that the password to their computer system is, ‘Don’t say “drones.”’ You know you’re winning when they can’t stop people from saying ‘drone’ — or from turning it into a verb.”
Benjamin’s campaign against drones first brought her to San Diego last October for another First Church of the Brethren appearance to promote her then-new book, Drone Warfare. She came for a follow-up visit in April and then an update August 16 that also contained a reading of a 25-minute playlet about drones. One key part of Benjamin’s strategy is to travel to countries which the U.S. has targeted with drone attacks — first Pakistan and now Yemen — and interview surviving family members of drone victims. But she began her August 16 talk with an account of how she disrupted President Obama’s big speech last May 23 supposedly “resetting” and putting limits on the so-called “war on terror.”
“When I heard President Obama was going to give a major foreign policy speech on Guantánamo and drones May 23, I did manage to get inside,” Benjamin said. “It was a really surreal experience. There I was for three hours in a room full of media. People looked over and wondered, ‘Why is she here?,’ while they were waiting for the President. The media had reported that he might say things like the CIA would no longer be allowed to have their own drones and they’d ban ‘signature strikes,’ which have killed a lot of civilians.” “Signature strikes,” she later explained, are drone attacks against specific individuals not because there’s any evidence that they’re terrorists or members of al-Qaeda but only because their actions supposedly fit a “profile” associated with terrorism.
Instead, Benjamin said, Obama “skirted around the issues” of Guantánamo and drones. “It was a lot of justification of the drones without an admission that we make mistakes.” Obama also repeated his excuse that Congress has prevented him from closing the detention center at Guantánamo — even though nothing is stopping him from releasing the 86 detainees (out of 166 total) who have already been “cleared” by the U.S. military. Benjamin spoke up during the speech and pointed out that inconvenient fact, “and I was suddenly surrounded by security people putting their hands on me. ‘You’re hurting me and I’m about to scream,’ I said. They let me go and that gave me some time to talk about drones.”
Benjamin’s odd attempt to fulfill her constitutional right to petition the head of her government for a redress of grievances — and the Secret Service security detail’s attempt to stop her — got even odder when “they showed me their badges and said, ‘You are about to be arrested’ — which, given the number of times I’ve already been arrested, didn’t especially bother me. I said, ‘I’m having a dialogue with the president of the United States and I don’t think he wants you to pull me away.’ It took time to drag me out, and on my way out I said, ‘Are you going to apologize to the families of the people you’ve killed?’ He said, ‘Young woman’ — I’m 10 years older than he is — ‘I think her voice should be listened to.’ The reporters said I was being ‘rude,’ and I said, ‘It’s rude to kill civilians and stuff force-feeding tubes down people’s throats at Guantánamo.’”
Though progress has been made on the drone issue, Benjamin said, it’s been two steps forward and one step back. Obama not only made the May 23 speech, he’s cut back on the number of drone strikes and been more careful about targeting them, she explained. Also, support for drone attacks among the U.S. people has dropped from the stratospheric levels she described in her books — 80 to 90 percent — to 60 percent. What’s more, Benjamin said, the drone issue has developed a gender gap: “The majority of American women are against the drone strikes.” Another hopeful sign was the near-passage by the House of Representatives of an amendment that would have stopped the National Security Agency (NSA) from collecting records on the phone calls and e-mails of virtually all Americans.
On the negative side was the most recent “terror alert,” based on so-called “chatter,” which Benjamin suggested was an excuse by the government to raise the perception of fear among the American people and boost support for drone strikes and NSA spying. “I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it seems not to be a coincidence that this happened just when we were gaining momentum,” Benjamin said. “They said the ‘attack’ would come from Yemen and it would be revenge against a drone strike. Then they reacted by a worldwide travel alert, closing 21 embassies, making it harder to repatriate the Yemenis [many of the ‘cleared’ Guantánamo detainees are from Yemen], and increasing the drone strikes. In the last two weeks there have been nine drone strikes from Yemen, and for the first time drones have been flying over the capital.”
According to Benjamin, drones themselves are a terror weapon. “Drones don’t just kill people; they terrorize the entire population,” she said. “There are two dozen al-Qaeda leaders the U.S. says are living in Yemen, and since 2009 we have been pounding Yemen with drones and air strikes. We have killed between 6.000 and 20,000 people in Yemen, and only four have been top al-Qaeda leaders. We’re killing innocent people and low-level al-Qaeda members.”
As she’s done earlier in Pakistan and other countries subjected to U.S. drone attacks, Benjamin traveled to Yemen to meet with the families of drone victims. “One was a man whose brother drove a cab and picked up some strangers,” she recalled. “The drone struck the cab and killed everyone in it.” Benjamin’s interviewee brought two of his dead brother’s children and tried to bring the widow as well, “but she’s non-functional.” According to Benjamin, her interviewee offered to provide proof to the Yemeni government that his brother was not a terrorist, and insisted that under the tribal culture of Yemen the U.S. has an obligation to admit the error, apologize and pay compensation to the family of the person they wrongly killed.
Benjamin also cited the case of a man she met in Pakistan as proof that, far from helping end terrorism, drone strikes are increasing the terrorist threat by making the surviving members of families of drone victims more anti-American and therefore more likely to join al-Qaeda and similar groups. “Karim Khan told us about his son and brother being killed in a drone strike,” Benjamin said. “He speaks perfect English, and we wanted to invite him to tell his story in the U.S. — until someone sent me a video he made in which he said, ‘If God gives me a chance to kill Obama, I will. He killed my brother and my son, and in my culture the punishment for killing is to be killed.’”
According to Benjamin, there is “tremendous opposition” to the drone strikes among the Yemeni people. She cited one woman, a journalist and delegate to Yemen’s parliament, “who got in trouble with al-Qaeda because she said religion and politics shouldn’t mix.” She got into so much trouble with al-Qaeda, Benjamin explained, that they put out a fatwa calling on the faithful to kill her, and she escaped only by wearing traditional Muslim coverings. “She hates al-Qaeda because they’re against everything she stands for,” Benjamin said, “but she said, ‘When you kill al-Qaeda [people] with drone strikes, you’re turning criminals and thugs into martyrs. In my vision of a democratic Yemen, drone strikes don’t exist.’”
There are a lot of Yemenis who agree with her, Benjamin said. Since Yemen’s long-time pro-U.S. dictator was overthrown in an Arab Spring-type popular uprising a year or two ago, the Transitional Committee of the National Democratic Conference — essentially a convention of 565 delegates working on writing a new constitution for Yemen — passed a ban on drone strikes inside Yemen. Later the full assembly of the National Democratic Conference also passed it — an especially remarkable achievement given that according to the rules of the National Democratic Conference, it takes at least 90 percent of the vote to pass anything.
What makes it even more ironic is that the National Democratic Conference is being funded with “democracy promotion” money from the U.S. government — but the U.S. government is ignoring the drone ban on the authority of Yemen’s current president, who was the vice-president under the former regime. “Obama would rather listen to the previous president than the democratic process the U.S. is funding,” Benjamin said.
What can be done to stop the drones? Boycotting companies that make drones isn’t a viable strategy, Benjamin explained, because most of them are purely defense contractors and don’t make anything sold in the civilian marketplace. There are a few exceptions, like General Electric and a California company that makes both miniature surveillance drones and chargers for electric Nissans, but for most drone makers “the vast majority of their income comes from the Department of Defense.
One key development Benjamin is waiting for is the increasing United Nations interest in drones. Its secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, “has been working on a statement that drones should be regulated,” she said. A U.N. agency is “looking at 25 cases [of drone attacks] by the U.S. and Israel and seeing if these constitute war crimes,” she added.
Another avenue is lobbying for change within the U.S. government — and Benjamin said there are some surprising allies within the military who may not want to see the drone program eliminated but at least want it cut back. “There are people in the U.S. military who want to see the drones taken away from the CIA,” Benjamin said. “There are people who talk about working against the ‘worst abuses,’ like signature strikes. Divest the military and the CIA from being able to attack people based only on ‘suspicious behavior’ and you’ll have curbed a lot of abuses.”
Benjamin also thinks there’s a lot of sentiment for banning so-called “double-tap” strikes, in which the U.S. launches a second drone attack right after the first one, thereby often killing first responders, aid workers, nurses and paramedics doing rescue work. Though the two taps in the infamous “Collateral Murder” video leaked by Bradley Manning were from an on-scene helicopter rather than a drone, the concept of the “double tap” will be familiar to anyone who saw that grisly video. It’s a violation of the internationally agreed-on laws of war to target rescue workers on purpose, and there may be leverage within the military to stop “double tap” strikes for that reason.
But the main part of U.S. behavior that has to change — and that activists against drones and other abuses in the “war on terror” have to get to change — is the whole screw-you attitude the U.S. has assumed towards the rest of the world. “A lot of people around the world sees us as a country that doesn’t respect other people,” Benjamin said. What’s more, though Barack Obama took office as president having promised to end some of the more glaring abuses of the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” very little has changed. The Guantánamo detention center is still open, and people the U.S. military have actually “cleared” for release are not only still there but are being force-fed in response to their hunger strike.
People in other countries who once looked on Obama as a beacon of hope have given up on him and written him off as just another insensitive overlord, Benjamin said. “That’s why, when I confronted Obama, I asked him if he would be willing to say whether the lives of Muslim children are as precious as the lives of his own.” As long as America’s answer is that they aren’t — that the president of the United States reserves for himself or herself the right to order the summary execution of anyone in the world, regardless of where they are or how many others are going to be killed with them — drone strikes and other so-called “anti-terror” attacks will only sustain the rest of the world’s hatred of America and serve as al-Qaeda’s most effective recruiting tools.