Drone warfare: Killing by remote control

Medea Benjamin
Eugene, OR
July 1, 2012

available from Alternative Radio

You can listen to Medea Benjamin speak for herself here.

Medea Benjamin is a renowned peace activist and social justice advocate. She travels around the world and documents human rights violations. She’s co-founder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK. She is the recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. She is the author of many books including Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

When 9/11 happened, there were maybe 50 drones in the Pentagon’s arsenal. Today there are over 7,000 drones in the Pentagon’s arsenal.

The Pentagon, the government, the CIA have realized that since the American people are sick and tired of war, they’re really sick and tired of Americans dying overseas, and they’re sick and tired of our spending so much of our money on these wars. So the drones came in as an alternative, a way to keep the fighting going but do it on the cheap and do it without American lives at risk.

I was in a State Department meeting when somebody from the State Department Democracy Program said that the drones were a “miracle weapon.” The State Department. That’s the diplomatic arm of our government. A “miracle weapon,” because they allowed us to wage war in a much more humane way.

What are drones? Let’s just take a look for a minute at the concept of drones. Drones means it is something that is flying in the air, doesn’t have a pilot in it, and is conveying information back to a base, and sometimes it is also unleashing missiles. Some of these drones are tiny, tiny, tiny things. They can be the size of insects, they can be the size of hummingbirds, they can look just like a dragonfly. In fact, there is a huge industry, with a lot of our taxpayer dollars, going to something called biomimicry, taking the beauty and the miracle of nature and figuring out how we can convert this into drone technology. Then there are drones that soldiers can put in their backpacks and launch by themselves. Lots of those are being used in Afghanistan today. And then there are the bigger drones, the Predator and the Reaper drones, which are the ones being used for killing. Those are made by a company in southern California called General Atomics. And then there also really big drones, that are the size of a commercial aircraft, like the Global Hawk, a huge surveillance drone.

What about the pilots? Who are piloting these drones? Well, in the case of the Predator and Reaper drones, most of them are being piloted here in the United States. So it’s a very surreal kind of sci-fi situation, where you have people in the military or in the CIA who are sitting in air-conditioned rooms in ergonomic chairs and they are looking at screens that have been purposely designed to mimic a PlayStation, because a lot of the pilots have been recruited from young guys who have spent much of their teen years playing these kinds of video games. In fact, the UN has said that the U.S. has created a PlayStation mentality towards war. So the pilots are sitting in a place like Creech Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. They can be killers by day and go play the slot machines by night, or they can be killers by day and go home and supposed to be good fathers and husbands and members of their community.

It’s a little hard for some of those pilots, because we find the same level of PTSD among remote-control pilots as we find with soldiers in the battlefields. But some of these remote-control pilots would rather be in the battlefield. I have talked to some of them who say, “I joined the military to be on the ground with my buddies and to be a part of the action, not to be sitting 8,000 miles away in an air-conditioned room.” In fact, one of the things they really complain about is boredom. They say they’re sitting in front of a screen for hours and hours and hours on end just waiting to get a piece of the action, waiting to hit the kill button.

Who are they allowed to kill? Until very recently we didn’t know where the kill list was coming from. But there are two types of drone kills. One is when you know who you’re trying to kill, you have a name of somebody and you’re going after this individual. That is called a personality strike. And the other is when you are merely looking for suspicious behavior. That is called a signature strike.

The first kind of strike, when you have a name, we didn’t know how the kill list was being developed. In fact, I did a lot of research when I was writing the book to try to understand what the role of the White House was, and particularly President Obama, and it was very hard to get this information. Let’s remember, this is a secret program in the hands of secret organizations like the CIA or like the Joint Special Operations Command, also known as JSOC, of the military. But there was a remarkable article that came out on May 29 that talked about the intimate role that President Obama plays in deciding who will be on the kill list. It was to me a jaw-dropping revelation, because the article was quoting people who were still in the administration or had recently left the administration, and they talked about the gatherings that would happen on something called Terror Tuesdays. On Terror Tuesdays the President would invite the old boys into the White House, and they would be flipping through the profiles with pictures of people—they said it resembled baseball cards—and they would be deciding who would live and who would die. They would be playing the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, and the executioner all at once.

There was another remarkable thing that was revealed in this article, and that was that the administration admitted that any male of military age in the areas where we are using these drones are considered militants. So just think about that for a minute. Persons who are old enough to have a little facial hair and live in the areas where we are using these drones are militants. And if they are militants, then they are fair game. Just an astonishing revelation that we don’t know who we are killing, and that we are obviously killing lots and lots of innocent people.

Let’s look for a minute at some of the places where we are doing this killing. The drones were used quite prominently in Iraq. In fact, the Iraqis thought that when the U.S. military left, they were taking the drones with them. Little did they know that the drones were transferred from the U.S. military into the hands of the U.S. State Department, that now is running a fleet of drones in Iraq. And little did they know that the U.S. was also transferring some of those drones across the border into Turkey, where they are used to provide information to the Turkish government in its war with the Kurds. So the U.S. is now smack in the middle of another conflict that it shouldn’t be in.

The drones were also used in the intervention in Libya. Whether somebody in the U.S. thinks that it was a good thing or a bad thing for the U.S. Government to have intervened to overthrow Qaddafi in Libya, they should be aware of just how awful the process was. The process went like this. The administration said,

We can make unilaterally a decision about intervention in Libya, and we don’t have to go to Congress.

Congresspeople on both the left and the right were saying,

We think we should have a chance to talk about this.

And the administration said,

No. When we use drones, there is no American life at risk. And when there’s no American life at risk, the War Powers Act has nothing to do with this, so this is something outside the purview of the legislative branch.

Imagine this kind of usurpation of power by the executive, with the precedent already being set, and what this will mean for the next presidents in the White House, who have this power now.

We’ve also used these drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines. And we should be very concerned that we are opening new drone bases in many places around the world. This is a time when so many budgets are being cut in all government agencies and when there is some pressure on the Pentagon to cut its budget, some pressure to close some of the 800-plus U.S. bases that we have around the world. And here we have new bases being opened for the drones in places like Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, the Seychelles, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, and the newest has been on islands off the coast of Australia.

Let’s focus a minute on Pakistan, because that’s where most of the drone strikes have been used. There were about 40 drone strikes under the Bush administration. But the Bush administration had another way of dealing with what it called terrorists, and that was to capture them and throw them into Guantánamo or to use extraordinary rendition to send them somewhere to be tortured. The Obama administration realized it was a tough thing for them to close down Guantánamo, it was very messy to capture people and put them in indefinite detention, and where were they going to have trials, would they be civilian trials, would they be military trials. It was just a messy process.

So they prefer the drone strikes. Just kill people. It is

a cleaner way of doing things.

So over 85% of the drone strikes have been under the Obama administration. In Pakistan alone there have been about 325 drone strikes. Some reports have said that 175 of the victims have been children. Raise your hand if you have ever seen a drone victim on the TV screen. One person says they did. I can guarantee you it wasn’t on a U.S. mainstream TV station. And raise your hand if you have seen a photo of a drone victim in a mainstream U.S. newspaper. Nobody.

Just think about that a little bit. Think about how perhaps this is why so many Americans think it’s okay to use these drone strikes, because they don’t see pictures of the people being killed, they don’t see the mutilated bodies of children who have been killed, they don’t see the charred remains from these lethal weapons. They don’t have a chance to develop the kind of compassion one feels when one sees real people who have been so mutilated by these weapons.

In fact, the very first drone strike under the Obama administration in Pakistan came just three days after the President came into office. And it was a mistake. The drone hit an elder in the family who was a member of the pro-peace committee, killed his family members as well as a neighboring shopkeeper and two of the other neighbors. There was only one young man who survived that attack, and he too was severely wounded.

I go into great detail in the book about another incident. That’s the killing of a family of a man named Karim Khan. This was also in northern Pakistan. I want to read you just a short piece from the book.

On December 31, 2009, the drone didn’t just hover overhead watching the movement of the villagers below, as it had done on so many other occasions. No, this time it let loose a missile into the very heart of Karim’s family compound. When the chaos of the explosion dissipated, Khan’s brother and son had been blown to bits. News reports allege that the target of the drone had been Haji Omar, a Taliban commander, but the villagers insisted that Haji Omar had been nowhere near the village that night.

The tragedy that forever scarred the lives of Karim Khan’s family was the product of a mistake, a mistake made by a far-away aggressor who would face no punishment for pressing the fire button without looking long enough, without checking, without double-checking.

Karim’s son had just graduated from high school and had returned to the small village to be a teacher. Karim’s brother was not a militant, or even a militant sympathizer, but a schoolteacher with a master’s degree in English literature. For eight years he had been teaching children in the small village school with whatever meager resources he could muster. He left behind a young wife, now a widow so distraught she could not speak for weeks after the attack, and a 2-year-old boy who would never remember his father. He also left behind hundreds of students with scant chance of resuming their education, young people now mired in hatred for the drone that killed their teacher, aching for revenge.

There are also examples of drone strikes that have killed large numbers of the most respected members of the community. This is a case of a drone strike that happened on March 17, 2011, when there was a community meeting going on called a jirga. A jirga is a gathering of community leaders that happens on a regular basis. But perhaps in the eyes of somebody 8,000 miles away, one of the drone pilots, this looked like a bunch of Taliban people planning an attack. Indeed, there were people with beards, with turbans, with guns, but that characterizes just about every man in northern Pakistan. So some drone pilot unleashed the Hellfire missile and killed over 50 members of the community, the most respected leaders in the community. You can imagine the kind of hatred that spread after that attack.

I want to talk about the case of a 16-year-old boy. His name was Tariq Aziz. He was very upset about the drone strikes because his cousin had been killed by a drone strike. But instead of taking up a gun and joining the Taliban, he was given the opportunity to do something else, and that was to travel to the capital of Pakistan, to Islamabad, with about 80 other drone-strike victims and their families to meet with lawyers from Pakistan and from England who wanted to hear their stories. What was decided at the meeting was that because journalists are not allowed into that area of Pakistan, they would train some of these young people to be citizen journalists. They equipped them with video cameras and they gave them lessons about how to use the cameras.

Tariq Aziz was very excited about the chance to go back into his community and document the drone strikes. He told the lawyers that the drones in his community were not just something that happened on an occasional basis, coming in and out, but they were constantly in the community, buzzing overhead, terrifying the children. They called it “the sound of death,” and they would never know if there would be a missile unleashed and who it would kill. So he returned from that gathering eager to document the drones.

Little did he know that the first documentation after that gathering would be his own death, that happened two days afterwards. There was nothing left of his body when the drone strike hit him and his cousin. Many of the lawyers who were at that meeting were outraged about this, and they went to the U.S. government and they went to the Pakistani government and they said,

Why did you kill this young man?

First, the U.S. said,

Well, he wasn’t 16 years old, he was 21 years old,

as if 21 years old then justified it. And then they said,

He was a militant.

And the lawyers said,

Well, if indeed you had any proof that he was a militant, why didn’t you send somebody into the hotel where he was staying for four days in the capital? Or why didn’t you send somebody into the public meeting we were having for four days to capture him and give him a chance for a trial?

There was no answer to that question. What has been the response of the Pakistani people and the Pakistani government? We know from the WikiLeaks cables that at first the Pakistani government said to the U.S.,

Okay, we’ll let you do the drone strikes, but we’ll pretend that we know nothing about it or we’ll complain about it publicly.

That went on for a while, until the government realized that this was just not working, that the drone strikes were counterproductive, that it was radicalizing the local population, turning them into Taliban sympathizers, and making them anti-Pakistani government and anti-American. So they went to the U.S. government and said,

These drone strikes really ought to stop.

And the U.S. government said,

Sorry, we don’t agree.

So it went to the legislature in Pakistan, and they voted once, they voted twice, they voted three times unanimously—something almost unheard of in Pakistan—to demand that the U.S. Government stop the drone strikes. But the U.S. Government said sorry. It seems that while the U.S. says it promotes democracy around the world, when a democratically elected government tells the U.S. to stop killing its people, the U.S. Government doesn’t listen.

Not only that, they take the same program that has been so counterproductive in the case of Afghanistan and transfer it to another country. And that is Yemen. The first drone strike under the Obama administration in Yemen was also a mistake. In this case it was a drone strike in 2009 that left 14 women and 21 children dead. Only one of the dozens of those who were killed were identified as having connections with al-Qaeda. There was another drone strike in May of 2010 that killed one of the most prominent sheikhs and a deputy governor in Yemen. The entire tribe was so outraged they started to attack government infrastructure, including a pipeline, that led to a billion dollars’ worth of damages.

If you want to understand how unproductive this program is in the case of Yemen, in 2009 there were perhaps 200 people who identified as members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, and they held no territory. Today, there are over 1,000 people with al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, and they hold significant territory.

There was an op-ed that came out in The New York Times on June 13 written by a young Yemeni activist. It was called “How Drones Help al-Qaeda.” He was pleading with the U.S., saying how the drone strikes were causing more people to join the radical militants, driven not by
ideology but by revenge and despair. He said,

The shortterm gains from killing military leaders is minuscule compared to the long-term damage the drone program is causing.

The U.S. Government is not only killing people from Yemen, but it is also killing people in Yemen who are American citizens. Raise your hands if you’ve heard of the case of Anwar al-Awlaki. This is an unusual audience because a lot of you have heard of that. Most people in the U.S. have probably never heard of him. This is a cleric born in the U.S. who moved to Yemen, known for his fiery sermons. He was put on the kill list by the President, and he was killed with a drone strike along with another American called Samir Khan. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights sued the American government on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki’s family saying,

We need to see the evidence that you used to put him on the kill list. All that is public is that he had fiery sermons, but we want to know what evidence you have that he was actually involved in activities designed to kill Americans.

The U.S. Government has refused to make that information public, and the U.S. courts have gone along with the U.S. Government in saying that that information does not have to be made public, on the basis of national security grounds.

But worse than that is that just two weeks later another American was killed with a U.S. drone in Yemen, and that was the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Denver-born teenager named Abdulrahman. This is a case that particularly pains me, because I find it hard to comprehend that my government is able to kill an American teenager with absolutely no proof of any wrongdoing and absolutely no attempt to capture or provide any kind of judicial process. In the case of Abdulrahman, you can see his Facebook page that shows the pictures of a smiling young boy. It said on his Facebook page that he liked rap and hip-hop and swimming. His friends said he was a typical American boy and that he had absolutely no interest and no involvement with any militant activities. It seems he was killed simply because he was the son of somebody that the U.S. had put on a kill list.

While there hasn’t been a huge outcry in the U.S. about all of these killings, there have been some demands by some of the legal community to ask the administration to tell on what legal basis is this killing spree happening. It wasn’t until March of this year, 2012, that the Attorney General, Eric Holder, talked to a group of law students at Northwestern University and started to give some kind of justification for the program: The U.S. Government says that it has the right to self-defense.

Well, the right to self-defense, according to international law, is a very narrowly defined right. It means that if you are in danger of an imminent attack, if somebody is just about to bomb you, or if they are amassing troops right at your border getting ready to attack, you have the right to self-defense. But you have to give your enemy a chance to surrender, and you have to make sure that this is the only way that you can do this, and the lives that you will be saving are disproportionately greater than the lives that you will be taking. It does mean that you can kill somebody because they have suspicious behavior, that someday, sometime they might want to kill you.

The U.S. Government also says they are justified by U.S. law. Remember, post 9/11 there was a terrible piece of legislation that was passed that gave the green light to the government to use military force. It was the authorization for the use of force. And there was only one Congressperson in the entire Congress who voted against that. Does anybody remember who that was? Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

So that continues to be one of the grounds the U.S. Government is using for the justification under U.S. law to use violence anywhere it wants. But there’s a problem with that, because the law specifically said that violence was authorized to kill people associated with the attack on 9/11. A lot of the people that we are killing today were maybe about 10 or 11 years old at the time of 9/11, and the groups like the group in Yemen didn’t even exist at the time of 9/11.

The U.S. Government is also saying they have the right to kill U.S. citizens overseas. Many lawyers questioned how that could be possible. Well, Eric Holder said that it seems many people are under the misunderstanding that somehow the Constitution gives them the right to due process.

Raise your hand if you thought maybe you had the right to due process. A lot of you were under some kind of misunderstanding, it seems. Said Eric Holder:

You don’t, by the Constitution, have the right to any kind of judicial process.

That’s the trick. You only have the right to something strangely called due process. And that can mean that folks get together in the White House and decide to put you on the kill list.

The best answer to Eric Holder I found did not come from Harvard legal scholars but came from a late-night comedian called Stephen Colbert. Stephen Colbert said,

Yes, the Founders weren’t picky. Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock-paper-scissors. Who cares? Do process just means there is a process that you do. In the current process, the President meets with his advisers, decides who to kill, and then kills them.

If we are going to win our never-ending war against terror, there are bound to be casualties, and one of them just happens to be the U.S. Constitution.

Let’s give a hand to Colbert for being the truth teller of our times.

This all might work for the U.S. if the U.S. were the only country that has drones. But that is not the case. In fact, there are many countries that have drones. The U.S. is the number-1 producer and user of drones. In fact, we don’t produce many things in this country at all, but we still produce a lot of weapons. And then there is a number-2 producer of drones, and that is Israel. And then there is another country that is really getting into the drone business, understands the growth market, and that is China. China is developing dozens of different kinds of drones and selling them overseas.

So you have to think, what are other countries thinking? What is China thinking? Maybe it is thinking,

We should go get some of those Tibetans or those Uighurs who we are fighting with, and they are living in the U.S. Why don’t we kill them with a Hellfire missile here?

Or maybe the Russians are thinking,

Why don’t we go get some of those Chechens who are living overseas? We think they’re extremists and militants.

Or the Cubans are probably thinking,

Why don’t we find some of those terrorists who are living in Miami and send a Hellfire missile into their Miami condominium. Maybe a couple of neighbors will get killed in the process, but, hey, that’s what the U.S. does.

Or the Iranians. You might remember when the Iranians just a few months ago downed a spy drone that they said they hacked into the system and brought it down without a scratch and put it in front of the TV cameras and said,

Thank you very much, President Obama, for this very sophisticated gift that you have given us.

They made little toy drones and they sent one to Obama, but they also reverse-engineered the big drone, and they are now producing them. They are also working with the Venezuelans to build a drone factory in Venezuela.

So these drones are in the hands of all kinds of governments as well as non-government entities. We should think that what goes around, comes around.

We don’t have to wait, though, for a drone to come at us from the hands of an enemy in a foreign land, because we already have drones here at home. Raise your hand if you think there are lots of drones, like thousands of drones, already being used here in the U.S. [many hands] And raise your hands if you don’t think there are so many drones here in the U.S. [two hands]

You two people have the right answer. That is because we don’t have thousands of drones flying in the airspace. Yet.

Let’s look at why. The airspace is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA. One of their mandates is to keep our airspace safe, and they take that mandate very seriously. So they have been giving out permits to different entities in small numbers.

Unfortunately, they haven’t wanted to reveal to us, the public, how many permits they’ve given out, who they’ve been given out to. It took a lawsuit and a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to start getting some of this information. So we now know that there have been over 700 permits given out, but only 300 of them are active right now. That some of the entities that have those permits are government agencies, like the FBI, Homeland Security, the Border Patrol. The Border Patrol is already using them on the southern and the northern borders.

We also know that some of the companies that are making the drones have gotten permits to test them here. Some of the universities—and many of them are state universities that work with the military on the drone research—have permits. And about a dozen police stations have gotten
permits for the experimental use of drones.

There is something called the drone lobby, and they are very unhappy with the FAA. They say,

Come on, guys. We’re losing a market already in Iraq, and who knows how long we’ll have this market in Afghanistan. We need to sell more of these drones. And, yes, we’re trying to sell more overseas, but we need a domestic market.

So the lobby does what lobbies do, which is, they lobby Congress. And they were so successful at lobbying Congress that there is now, believe it or not, a Drone Caucus in the Congress. A Drone Caucus in Congress, think about that. This is a group of 58 people, mostly Republicans, but also Democrats—and it includes some liberal Democrats—who feel, as in their mission statement, that there is an

urgent need to rapidly develop and deploy more unmanned systems in support of ongoing civil, military, and law enforcement operations.

So the drone lobby wrote the legislation, they gave it to their buddies in the Drone Caucus, the Drone Caucus pushed it through Congress, and President Obama signed it on Valentine’s Day, 2012. A big gift to the drone industry. This legislation says that the FAA must open up the airspace to drones by September 2015 at the latest for commercial drones, and for law enforcement it must be before that. Already, right now, the FAA is speeding up this process.

The drone industry is looking at all the different places that it can sell these drones. There are all kinds of ideas for the commercial use of drones. FedEx would love its own fleet of drones. There are restaurants that say they would like to deliver your lunch by a drone, although nobody can figure out how to keep it hot or how to keep you from stealing the drone once you got your sandwich.

But the drone manufacturers are really drooling at the idea of police stations, because there are 18,000 police stations across this country, and they would love to have every police station have their own fleet of drones.

Of the police stations that are already experimenting with drones, one is outside of Houston, Texas. It’s the Montgomery County police station. They have a cute little drone that’s worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars. You might say,

How can a little police station have a couple of hundred thousand dollars to buy a little drone?

Anybody have an idea? Very good. Homeland Security. Homeland Security is taking your tax dollars, my tax dollars, our tax dollars and giving grants to police stations so they can buy these drones. This is like a drug pusher saying,

Hey, little girl, wouldn’t you like to try a little bit of this?

get you hooked on the drones, and then get the other police stations in the area to say,

Hey, we want some drones, too.

What would these drones be used for? The Montgomery County folks were very excited about their new drone, and they held a press conference to show it off. The CEO of the company, called Vanguard Defense, was also very proud of selling the drone. He said,

It’s supposed to be used for things like search-and-rescue missions, but it could also be weaponized with what we call “less lethal systems.”

So let me tell you what some of these “less lethal systems” could be. Tasers that electrocute suspects on the ground, beanbag firing guns called stun batons, grenade launchers, tear gas, rubber bullets, or even a 12-gauge shotgun. Of course, they can also be equipped with very fancy surveillance kind of equipment: they can be equipped with thermal imaging, facial recognition techniques, Wi-Fi networking, cracking capabilities, and systems to intercept text messages and phone calls.

The sheriff was there at the press conference and he said,

You know, no matter what we do in law enforcement, somebody’s going to question it. But we’re going to do the right thing, and I can assure you of that.

Are you feeling reassured? Neither am I. I think with these drones everything is in place for a 24/7 surveillance society that would profoundly change the nature of life in this country.

So what are we going to do about it? My organization, CODEPINK, decided that one of the first things we could do was bring together folks in Washington to look at the drones that were being used overseas and the drones that are being used at home and might well in the future be used in the many, many thousands. In fact, there are predictions that in the next 15 years there would be 20,000 or 30,000 drones in our airspace.

We came up with some ideas for some campaigns. I’ll just talk about some of them now. These include ramping up the visibility of the protests against the drones. For the last couple of years there have been some organizations, like my group, CODEPINK, like Catholic Workers, Veterans for Peace, and some of the other folks in the peace movement who have been going to the Air Force bases, protesting outside the bases, trying to talk to the drone pilots, getting media attention, and raising awareness in the communities. Because, you know, by international law the places where the drones are being piloted and also manufactured would be considered legitimate targets for our enemies.

So they have not been only protesting outside the bases; they have been walking onto the bases, they have been risking arrest, they have been arrested, they have been using their trials as a way to publicize the horrendous use of these weapons, to bring in experts in international law, and to try to create a venue to talk about the violations of international law and the grotesque drone program. So we need to step up the protests, the visibility, the media attention.

We had a number of international law experts who were at the conference, and they said,

You might want to take lethal drones out of the hands of the military and the CIA. But we recommend that you start with the issue of the CIA, because, according to all international law, the CIA is a nonmilitary organization, and there is no justification for the CIA to have these kinds of lethal drones.

In fact, the law experts tell us that the CIA personnel and the private contractors who work directly with the CIA by international law are considered unlawful combatants. You’ve heard that term before with reference to the Taliban. Now you know the CIA are unlawful combatants.

You might also be asking,

What is the UN doing? Why isn’t the UN trying to stop the U.S.?

For the years the UN did come out and condemn this program. The person in the UN who is the special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings has been saying over and over that This is just wrong.

But nobody in the U.S. government has paid much attention to the UN. But just in June of this year it came up at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The head of the UN Human Rights Commission for the first time spoke out against the U.S. drone program, and they commissioned a 28-page report extremely damning of the U.S. That report says that the Obama administration must justify why they are assassinating people rather than capturing them, and it calls for accountability, justice, and reparations for the victims and their families.

Then there is also the issue in Geneva of arms control and how do you get weapons like these banned at the United Nations. There is a group of scientists that is horrified by this use of drones.

And they’re also horrified by what they see coming down the pike, because they say this drone technology is just in its beginning stages, and that this is the stage of the Wright brothers in terms of the airplane. They tell us that what is being researched and produced in research facilities are drones that do not even need a pilot in the remote cockpit. They wouldn’t need a pilot at all. These would be autonomous drones without, as they say, a human in the loop. They would be preprogrammed and they would go off and kill on their own. And they would have the ability to call in other drones—big ones, small ones—in what they call a swarm.

So these scientists are trying to bring this to the United Nations. They’re looking at the models that were done successfully in the case of banning landmines and cluster bombs, and they are trying to stop the use of autonomous lethal drones and to get some regulations for the use of all kinds of lethal drones. So we are supporting them in their activities.

Then there’s the issue of drones at home. In this I think there is a lot we can do, because it’s not just folks who might call themselves progressive, it’s not just folks who care about the lives of people in places like Pakistan and Yemen. It’s folks who care about privacy here at home. And that, fortunately or unfortunately, is a much broader community. It includes libertarians, it includes Republicans, it includes Ron Paul supporters. So it is quite a large universe. In fact, some of you might have heard the statements of some folks like Charles Krauthammer, a neocon, who wrote a piece called “Rifles in the Air, America.” He said,

The first American who shoots down a drone that’s hovering over his house will be a folk hero.

I don’t know if those in the peace community want to clap for shooting down anything, but we do understand the sentiment. And there are hackers who can in other ways bring down drones and are already very excited about that chance. In fact, there is a professor and his students from the University of Austin who just hacked down a drone that the university was producing. And they showed how easily it can be done, with just a thousand dollars’ worth of equipment.

My organization, CODEPINK, has been working with a very conservative organization called The Cato Institute. You might know about The Cato Institute because they took lot of money from the Koch brothers. We certainly do not agree with them on a lot of other issues, but in this issue we are on the same page. In fact, we co-authored an op-ed piece that said that we want the government to pass legislation that says that no government agency, including Homeland Security, would be allowed to give grants to any police department for the use of drones. And Rand Paul has introduced legislation saying that law enforcement agencies cannot use drones to invade our privacy. So we have some unlikely, some strange bedfellows that we can work with on this.

We are also telling people around the country to call their police departments and ask if they have drones, if they have any plans to use drones, and tell them you do not want them to use drones. And we are also asking people in their communities to introduce legislation into their city councils to make their cities drone-free zones.

I just want to end by saying that some of you might have seen me get dragged out of a place in Washington, D.C., recently where the counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, was giving his justification for this drone policy. This is a man who called our drone policy “just, wise, surgically precise and ethical.” Well, I couldn’t sit in that audience and hear that, and I had to get up and say something. Because I don’t know how anybody could call this policy ethical. It just reflects such a huge problem that we have, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican in office, that we are an economy, we are a country that is run by a military-industrial complex, and that we have a war economy.

I was just in Hood River [Oregon]. I was speaking, and an engineer came up to me afterwards and said, “Can we talk?” He worked in a drone factory. He said that he hates it, that the other engineers hate it. “But,” he said,

there’s no other work for people like me. And there’s no way to use this technology in a positive way that is economically viable, because it’s only viable with the millions and millions of dollars we get from the Pentagon.

So the task before us is much, much greater than grounding the lethal drones or stopping drones from invading our privacy at home. It’s the much, much bigger question of how do we turn from a foreign policy and economy that is based on war and militarism into a foreign policy and an economy that is based on peace, that is based on life-affirming activities, that is based on regenerating this planet that we have so destroyed, that is based on showing love and kindness and generosity to each other and to people around the world. So let’s build that kind of life-affirming economy and that life-affirming foreign policy that we so desperately need in this country and we so desperately need to show people around the world.

Thank you so much.

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