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Interview with Medea Benjamin, Code Pink founder.
Interview conducted by Making Contacts Lisa Rudman and Salima Hamirani– June 20, 2012
Lisa Rudman: Medea, for people who may not know what drones are, could you spell it out and maybe define what do we mean when we say drones and drone warfare?
Medea: It’s pretty simple. A drone is something that’s flying in the air and doesn’t have a pilot inside, but that could be something that’s really tiny, like the size of an insect and of course, you’re not going to fit a little pilot inside that. It can be a little bit bigger like the size of a hummingbird. It could be the size of something you put in a soldier’s backpack and they can launch it just by themselves. It can be the size of small airplane, a big commercial airplane, so they come in all shapes and sizes.
But what they have in common is they fly and they do something like record images, most of them are used for surveillance purposes. And then there’s the type of drone that’s used for killing, lethal drones.
Lisa: So how prevalent is the use of drones, what are we talking about, how recently and give us a little more on that.
Medea: The use of drones goes back decades when they were first being developed for surveillance purposes, but it was really September 11 that you could say was the coming of age of the drones. When Sept. 11 happened they were perhaps about 50 drones in the whole Pentagon arsenal and today there are many thousands, perhaps over 7,000 and who knows how many the CIA has because we’re not privy to that information.
But it was the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that really put the drones on the map. They were part of the shock and awe. They were part of the precision bombing that took out so many ministries in both countries. They were part of the attacks on the Taliban that lead to the death of a lot of innocent people, but the American people didn’t know about that because we were told we’re in this new era of precise, clean weapons that are laser guided or smart bombs. And so the American people didn’t have to worry about things like civilian casualties.
Lisa: So I get the impression that you don’t think these are so clean. What’s your problem with drones?
Medea: They kill a lot less people than carpet bombing did in the World Wars and certainly the kind of bombing that was done in the days of Vietnam, but they are not these surgically precise weapons that they’re touted as. And when they’re in the hands of secret organizations like the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, also known as JSOC of the military, they actually expand the wars.
So that it was bad enough the US has been involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but then really unbeknownst to the American people, we have seen the wars going beyond that to spill over into Pakistan and then into Yemen, into Somalia. There have been some drone strikes in the Philippines, there’s talk about using them in Nigeria. There’s new drone bases that are now spreading around the world.
And this is a very determined effort by our Pentagon and our government to have the latitude to continue waging war without some of the problems that have come with it in the past, like soldiers dying, American people complaining and this is their way of saying okay, it’s war on the cheap and it’s war outside of the view of the public.
Lisa: So, Medea, you sketched out the reasons the US finds it efficient to use drones, but can you tell us a little bit more about the total cost, not just the price?
Medea: The cost, there’s so many ways to look at cost. If you look at it from the point of view as how much does a Reaper Predator, which is the killing drones, how much do they cost? Well, they do seem pretty cheap. Now you can get one of those for $10 million, $15 million and that’s nothing in the Pentagon budget.
But there’s a lot of things that go into the cost. One is they crash all the time, so a third of them, says the Air Force, have crashed, which means you have to keep replacing these. They have a lot of maintenance problems. It seems like for every hour in the air they need an hour of maintenance.
There’s a lot of labor involved. It’s almost counterintuitive because you’d think without the pilot in the cockpit you’d be saving on labor, but to the contrary. You need more people because there’s the ground crew where the physical drone is that’s maintaining it, that’s launching it.
There’s the ground crew that’s operating the drone, which might be 8,000 or 10,000 miles away from where the drone physically is.
And then there’s the crew that’s needed to look at the hours, and hours and hours of video footage that the drone is collecting. So it’s estimated that for one of these lethal drones it maybe takes about 168 people to maintain that drone in its day’s work.
Lisa: And the human cost on the other side of the drones?
Medea: Well, then there’s the issue about the human cost. Yes, you’re saving the potential life of a pilot. They’re not going to be shot down, they’re not going to be captured by the enemy, there’s certainly an advantage not having a pilot in the cockpit.
But there’s other costs. One is the cost of what is it doing the pilots on the ground and the kind of PTSD that they’re getting because here they’re doing this very surreal kind of activity of killing by day and supposed to be lovers and fathers and good members of the community by night. And most of our brains aren’t wired like that, so you’re finding a lot of mental problems that the pilots are going through.
And then there’s the cost in terms of the morality of this and what is it saying to the rest of the world that United States is so committed to these fights that we’re willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent people on the receiving end, but we’re not willing to sacrifice the lives of the military or the pilots on the operating end.
Lisa: And I’m curious about hearing more about people on the receiving end, the human costs where the bombs and the drones fall. Can you talk about that and kind of quantify that because I don’t know if people know the scope of what’s going on?
Medea: People don’t know the scope of what’s going on because they’ve not been told because this is a secret program. And until really 2012 we didn’t hear anything about it. There was a ridiculous kind of silence because the rest of the world knew what was happening, but the American people didn’t.
The only way we know these numbers is from what’s been pieced together by organizations like the Bureau for Investigative Reporting in England that puts together some of the statistics. And they say that in Pakistan alone there have been over 320 drone strikes, the majority, the overwhelming majority of them under the Obama administration.
And that some 3,000 people have been killed, 175 of them children. And who knows about the rest of them. We are only able to name 170 people who’ve been killed and many people in Pakistan would say that the vast majority of the rest of them have been killed are either totally innocent people who have nothing to do with the fighting, or very low level Taliban who were not out to get Americans, or Taliban sympathizers.
And when we have discovered through a piece of writing in The New York Times that came out on May 29 of 2012, we have discovered that President Obama is so intimately involved in this killing that he sits around on Terror Tuesdays with notes that resemble baseball cards, and look through this list and decide who’s gonna live and who’s gonna die.
And that they have made a determination beforehand that every military age male in the strike area is going to be labeled a combatant, a militant. So automatically then we hear in our news reports, oh, 20 militants died on Saturday and 12 militants died on Monday. And we can’t believe those reports at all because their definition of a militant is basically any man who’s old enough to have a little facial hair and lives in in this case, northern Pakistan or lives in the parts of Yemen where we’re doing our drone strikes.
Lisa: So can you sketch for us what that might mean if you’re a 17 or 18-year-old pilot in a bunker in the Nevada desert seeing this on a screen? What does it look, what does a militant look like if you’re one of the people remotely piloting a drone?
Medea: A militant looks like a guy with a beard who wears a turban and carries a gun, and goes around with other guys with beards who wear turbans and carry guns. And that is the definition of just about every man in northern Pakistan. And so if the community is having a meeting about internal issues that it’s called a jurga, and they have gathered a lot of these men with beards, and turbans and guns to this 18-19 year old pilot who is in the desert in Nevada, that looks very suspicious. And there have been occasions when they have bombed these jurgas and killed many, many of the tribal leaders at one time.
And you can imagine the kind of repercussions that happen after that because these are not just individuals who have been killed, these are people who are part of a clan, part of a tribe, part of an extended family and many times like in the case of these gatherings called jurgas they are the leaders, the elders, the most respected members of the community.
So when as has happened, the US takes out 50 elders and tribal leaders at one time, it’s gonna take years if not decades to stop the hatred toward Americans that results from those strikes.
Lisa: So it sounds like you’re referring to the blowback and the results of people who are on the receiving end of drones, some people might say though it’s just necessary, there’s a war on terror and negotiations don’t work and what we need is these kinds of targeted killings. I mean people really feel fearful in the United States, what do you say to that and what’s been the history of negotiations versus killings versus other ways of ending conflict?
Medea: I wish that after the killing of Osama bin Laden the Obama administration could’ve said okay, victory, go home now. We have killed most everybody who was involved in 9/11 and we should be able to say done. We did it a terrible way, we killed all these Iraqis who had nothing to do with it. We’ve killed all these Afghans who had nothing to do with it, but indeed the Obama administration could say we have done our job of finding those people who were responsible for 9/11, whatever they wanna say to get out of it. And say now we’re gonna focus on keeping ourselves safe at home, on defense, which is what the Department of Defense is supposed to be about.
Instead, we’re still out there mucking things up and creating more enemies faster than we can kill them. And it really seems that the ones that benefit from this are the military industrial complex who keep manufacturing, and selling weapons and keep this war going, but it certainly doesn’t make us safer here at home.
Every time we kill somebody we’re creating more enemies and the people who are now joining the Taliban or al-Qaeda were probably 10 or 11 when 9/11 happened. The only thing they know about the United States is that we are killing their people with drone strikes. They think we have a war against the Muslim world and unfortunately, a lot of people in this country think that as well.
And I think at this point after 10 years we’ve gotta understand that there is no military solution, that we are punishing the wrong people right now, creating more enemies in the process and their only way out of this is negotiations, withdrawal from occupying countries we shouldn’t be in. And sure, we could be working with the local military and the police to make sure that they have the wherewithal to keep their own population safe, but the way we’re going about it now certainly doesn’t work.
And let me give you one example and that is in the case of Yemen. So the US government says we were focusing on Pakistan because that was where the Taliban were going after they fled from Afghanistan, and now that we’re hitting them in Pakistan they have moved onto Yemen.
And this is called the whack a mole approach to foreign policy, that you hit somebody in one place and they pop up somewhere else. So in the case of Yemen when the Obama administration began its drone strikes there was in 2009. In 2009 there were maybe at most 200 members of a group called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and they didn’t control any territory.
If you look at today after the drone strikes you have over a thousand militants who are part of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and they control significant territory. We have taken also what was an internal conflict inside Yemen and we are turning it into an international conflict. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, even people who joined it were not interested in attacking the United States, but once the United States gets involved in this and starts killing people it becomes an international conflict.
And we can see people in the administration who are speaking out and saying uh-oh, this isn’t looking so good. We’re being responsible now for turning this into an international conflict, maybe we should reflect for a while. And there’s the others who say no, just go in with the whack a mole approach and keep in fact, extend the drone strikes.
Lisa: Let me just make sure I’m hearing this clearly, whack a mole, that’s a term? Let’s talk about the language if you will of dehumanizing or reducing our adversaries to rodents that might pop up somewhere, right? Is that my understanding, you said it so quickly, whack a mole, what is this normalization of this kind of remote killing from the way pilots are trained even before they’re in the military to for the whole population, for all of us in the United States, a certain amount of normalization of this and dehumanization of terms like whack a mole.
Medea: Theres the whack a mole and then there’s the bug splat which is what they see on their screens when they squish somebody. You kill somebody and it looks like a bug, and so the victim is a bug splat and the people who are running away when the drones strike are called squirters, and often times they double tap it’s called, so you hit the first time and you hit the bug splat, and then you hit the second time to get the squirters. What that results in, the US killing people who are running into rescue the first people who were hit.
So it’s dehumanization on almost a surreal type of level and you don’t even have to be training people to hate the enemy because now it’s just a game.
Lisa: Tell us more about the game. Tell us more about the pilots and to understand how this works.
Medea: It was on purpose that the manufacturers of the drones created the console that would be just like the video games platforms that teenagers grew up using. And they recruit actually from high schools and find that those who are most nimble at this, so people who have been playing war games for a long time. And the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings has said that the US is creating a play station mentality towards war, and that is certainly what’s happening.
If you’re sitting in an air conditioned room in an ergonomic chair in the desert in Las Vegas and killing people 10,000 miles away, you have, it’s really hard to I think tell yourself it is real. That it seems very much like a game.
And the other thing that the pilots have told me when I have had a chance to talk to these remote control pilots is that it’s really, really boring. They’re just sitting and looking at the screen hour after hour after hour, and these planes are hovering over a compound or over a rural area for not only hours at a time, sometimes days at a time.
So one of their biggest problems is boredom. In fact they said they’d love to be in the battlefield, they’d rather be out there in the action. They joined the military because they want a piece of the action and here they are sitting in a chair in a room thousands of miles away.
I think they enjoy when they are able to provide the intelligence to the troops on the ground by doing the surveilling with the drones, and then they’re talking in real time to the troops on the ground and feeling like they’re part of the firefight and the action. But when they’re just sitting in front of this screen day in and day out, they’re looking for suspicious behavior because they want to kill somebody.
And on top of that you’re taking young people who’ve often times never been out of the country, don’t even speak other languages, much less the language of the people they’re trying to kill, certainly have no understanding of their culture. And so the simplest things can look suspicious…men sitting around in a circle and talking to each other and holding hands, as is the cultural norm in northern Pakistan, look like people who are sitting and plotting some terrible plot against the US.
And there are a number of examples that I give in the book of mistakes. The other thing you should think about it how many failures were there in the people that we captured and took to Guantanamo? And that was a case of our intelligence on the ground being so faulty that 80% of the people who were in Guantanamo were found to be innocent and release, yet we were told by Dick Cheney at that time that these were the worst of the worst.
And then you look at Afghanistan where we’ve had boots on the ground for 10 years and we’re still going after the wrong people. We’re still killing innocent people. And then think of the intelligence where we don’t have boots on the ground. How bad is that intelligence?
Well, we see it in the case of Yemen for example, when the former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was telling the United States, oh, get that guy over there and he’s al-Qaeda, and this guy’s al-Qaeda and this guy’s al-Qaeda. And the US is obediently going around killing whoever the dictator is saying is al-Qaeda. And it turns out they’re his political enemies that are rising up, trying to overthrow a dictator.
So the US has been using faulty intelligence and there’s no reason to think that whether it’s the pilots sitting in an air force base outside of Las Vegas or if it’s President Obama sitting in the White House looking at baseball cards on Terror Tuesday, they really have very little idea about who they’re putting on a kill list.
Lisa: So we’re talking about drones now, but there’s something that sounds very resonant with how the atomic bomb was sold, how fear was whipped up, how it was supposed to be a worst weapon that would never be used again. And there’s something about drones being promoted as this kind of a sales job that resonates with the A-bomb. Any sort of connection in your mind as far as the culture and ideological buy-in for this?
Medea: There’s similarities and differences; similarities are that each new technological development in warfare is supposed to be a way to end war and that’s how it’s sold to us. And each one is supposed to be a more civilized way of saying that if we have the A-bomb we will deter other people from going to war.
And the difference is that in the case of drones it’s such a more simple technology. it’s so much easier to get your hands on it whether you’re a state that’s buying them or duplicating them. We have the example of the most sophisticated drone that the US has in terms of the spy drone is a drone that the Iranians hacked into and brought it down and have now duplicated.
And they’re, Iran was already developing its own drones and selling them to non-state entities like Hezbollah and working with the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez to have their factory to develop their own drones.
So the US might think that it’s able to control this new technology and it is one of the few things that the US continues to be number one in manufacturing, but there is such a proliferation of drones, way more than in the case of nuclear weapons and easy not only for large organizations or states to have, but for individuals to have as well.
I mean you’re not gonna go in your backyard and build your own nuclear bomb, but you can go in your backyard and build your ow drone. In fact, the drones that are used to kill people now were first developed in somebody’s garage.
Lisa: So it sounds like you’re saying in a way the genie is out of the bottle in a way that we used to talk about the atomic bomb. Are there depleted uranium tips on, I mean is there any kind of nuclear capabilities for the drones that are crossover that way? What’s your sense of that direction?
Medea: Drones can carry anything. It’s a question of weight. Of course, you have the big drones and small drones, so they could carry nuclear weapons theoretically. There is also experimentation to have nuclear powered drones. In both of those cases it’s seen as not very advisable since these drones crash a lot, you could suddenly have a dirty bomb someplace very different than where you intended it to go. But the drones can carry just about any kind of weapon you want them to carry.
Lisa: As far as the buying and the selling of the technology equipment, what corporations are involved?
Medea: The corporation that’s most known for the killer drones, the Predator and Reaper drones is General Atomics, which is in southern California, originally founded by an Israeli engineer who worked for the Israeli military, came to the United States, started his own company that got sold and then got sold again and became General Atomics.
There’s a smaller company in California known as Aero Environment that’s producing a lot of the small drones and uses this bio mimicry to take the beauty of nature and try and replicate it and turn it into drones.
And then there’s the usual, the big, the big guys on the block, and that’s the Raytheon and the Boeing, and the Northrop Grumman. And they are making drone parts, they are making the sensors for the drones, they’re making the missiles to strap onto the drones…everybody wants a piece of the drone pie. And now since there are so many different kinds of drones just about every single weapons company is involved in drone productions.
I think when they heard the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta say drones were the only game in town, they wanted to make sure they were part of the game.
Lisa: And sounds like it’s a growth market. Can you give us a sense of the scale of you know, what sort of scale is this industry and where’s it going?
Medea: It’s about a $6 billion industry right now and it’s planned to double by 2018 and will probably just keep doubling every couple of years because there’s so many potential uses for drones. And you know, we should be clear that there are good drones and bad drones. And in the potential for good drones there’s all kinds of things that commercial groups want to use drones for. Realty listing agents want to use them for surveilling land. Post offices might use them for delivering the mail as well as all kinds of major services. Farmers might want to use them for spraying their crops, and cattle ranchers want to use them for finding their cattle. And there are restaurants that have talked about using them to deliver your lunch, although they can’t figure out how to keep it warm or how to keep you from stealing the drone once you’ve got the lunch.
So there’s all kinds of potentials. And then there’s environmentalists that use drones to catch whalers on the highs seas. Brazilian government using drones to catch illegal logging in the Amazon, forest fighters trying to use drones to pin down where the fire is coming from. So there’s all those potential uses.
But what is driving the drone industry right now is the killing and the spying. And it’s in the spying where the drone manufacturers see tremendous possibilities. They would love to see every police department in the United States have at least a drone if not a fleet of drones, and you can imagine all these private detectives, we would all love drones. I mean you could watch your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend…there’s all kinds of things you could do to spy on people with drones.
Lisa: So what’s holding back the further proliferation and tell us more about the drone lobby and the drone caucus. You’ve used those terms, could you sort of talk about that?
Medea: The drone manufacturers compete with each other. They also understand the capitalist way is you come together as a lobby while you’re competing with each other. And that lobby has become a very powerful lobby and they do what lobbies do, they go to congress, they go to the White House, they push their issues, but they’ve been so successful in the case of congress that they managed to get 58 members of congress, mostly republicans, but also democrats, including some liberal democrats to join a caucus.
And it says in the mission statement that the job of that caucus is to push the urgent need to push for the further deployment of unarm–, unmanned aerial vehicles both overseas and in the United States for law enforcement and commercial ends.
So this drone caucus has written new legislation, passed it through congress, signed by the Obama administration February 14, 2012, Valentine’s Day, a big present for the drone industry to say that you must start issuing lots, and lots and lots, thousands of permits for drones.
And the Federal Aviation Administration and the reluctant because they know the drones crash, there’s nobody up in the sky that’s looking around to see who else is up in the sky and so there have been billions of dollars now being put into retooling the industry so that drones can be incorporated into our airspace by the end of September 2015 at the latest, and before that for law enforcement agencies.
So right now we have police stations, they’re experimenting with drones. FBI has drones, Border Security has drones, Homeland Security has drones, but this is still in the experimental stage and unless we do something about it we are going to see tens of thousands of drones in our own airspace, many of them used to spy and surveil the American people.
Lisa: But given the economy and the strapped budgets of police departments, how can municipalities afford these?
Medea: Very good question and that’s what the sheriff’s departments are asking themselves. They’re saying hey, we’re getting cuts, we’re having to cut the pensions of our officers, we don’t have money for these drones. And they’re comes Homeland Security to the rescue and says hey, we’ve got lots of money…we’ll give you a couple of hundred thousand here, a couple of hundred thousand there, you buy these drones, you test them out, we’ll train your officers on how to use them. And low and behold you get a police station that’s hooked on drones.
And of course, the neighboring police station says hey, how come they have drones and we don’t? We gotta keep up with the Joneses and they want their drone. So I would say Homeland Security is playing the role of the drug pusher in trying to hook our law enforcement agencies on drones and wanting to see it spread, and working hand in glove with the drone industry.
Lisa: Just to let you know, Salima, I’m gonna kind of wrap up with kind of the resistance and movement stuff, and then you can maybe segue to the international resistance on behalf of the stories of people. So that’s where I’m going next with this. Any followup before I go to that?
Lisa: You talk about Terror Tuesdays. What is that?
Medea: Well, it seems that Terror Tuesdays is when President Obama gathers the guys in the White House and they’re probably almost all guys. And they sit around and look at who’s gonna be on the kill list. So they have the profiles and the pictures of people and it seems that it’s sort of like baseball cards. They’re flipping through and they’re discussing each person, and they’re playing this role of prosecutor, of judge, or jury and of executioner, deciding who’s gonna get on the kill list, who’s gonna be targeted by our drones.
These can be people as young as 17 years old or as old as 80 something, whatever, can be men or women, but it’s mostly men. And we know very little about them because this is a secretive process, but just the idea that our president is playing this kind of a role of deciding who’s gonna live and who’s to die on the basis of such little information and understanding is quite astounding.
And when the present and past members of the Obama administration talked to The New York Times about this they, it seems it was part of an election strategy that they wanted to make the president look like a tough guy and make sure that these independent voters who might be still a little squeamish about President Obama as some kind of socialist or not, would be reassured that he is as tough as it comes, that he can make these decisions, that he can put people on the kill list even if they’re American citizens. And they said it’s very easy for him. He doesn’t do a lot of hand wringing.
Interesting after that piece came out that the reactions were not as perhaps the Obama administration has planned. One is that there are a lot of people who are actually horrified by this idea, this whole image that it conjures up of what our president is doing. And then the administration had to deal with something else which is how come these people were leaking this to the press if this is such a super secret program that congress is not allowed to talk about it, not even to mention the word drones when it comes to killing. And how come people in the administration were able to do it.
And so you’ve got the republicans saying lordy, lordy, where are these leaks coming from? We’ve gotta have a special prosecutor, we’ve gotta investigate this. And then you have democrats who felt they had to fall in line too and say oh, my goodness, these leaks, isn’t it terrible?
Well, think about that for a minute. The response of congress is oh, my goodness who’s leaking this information and telling the American public what our government is really doing instead of oh, my goodness, look at what they’re doing! A kill list, Terror Tuesdays, baseball cards. They’re just going wild, a killing spree on an industrial scale, what is happening in this White House and what are we gonna do to stop it? No, that was not the reaction of our congress.
Lisa: Medea, you’ve been a long time activist for peace. You’re very active now in the campaign to stop weaponized drones. Could you tell us about the Creech 14 and some of the long time protests, and sort of from the side of this where we do see people becoming aware and outraged, even if you’re saying congress is not concerned. Tell us about the concern that you’re helping to generate among the population and activists. If you can start off with the story of the Creech 14.
Medea: The conscious, the conscience of this nation is not coming from the White House. It’s not coming from congress. It’s not coming anywhere from Washington. It’s really coming from outlying areas in this country where people are beginning to stand up to these atrocities. And many people have discovered that the air force bases in their communities are where these drone pilots are being trained, or the drones are being operated. And they have become outraged and decided to protest against it.
And one group is a group that was protesting outside the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. And it was on Good Friday. They crossed the line into the base. They asked the people on the base to have a meal with them. The folks on the base were not too interested in breaking bread with these good Catholics. And many of them were from the Catholic worker community and decided instead to have them arrested.
They then used their trial in a very beautiful way to bring on these issues of international law, of the obligation to violate that are not just. And they brought in members of the international community who are known for their expertise in international law and turned the courtroom really into an educational session about drones, the violation of international law, the violation of our constitution.
And the example of that group in Creech was then replicated by a group in upstate New York on the Air Force Base called Hancock, where 35 of them did something similar. And many of them became part of the Catholic community known as Catholic Workers and they got arrested and in turn used their trial as a platform for talking about these larger issues.
And that has inspired other groups then to do similar kinds of actions at other air force bases. And I find as I travel around the country that these really are the heart and soul of our nation, the people who do care about the lives of innocent people overseas and are willing to put their own lives at risk, willing to go to jail for their beliefs.
And there are more and more of them as people are becoming more and more aware of the drone program. And not only are they at air force bases, but they’re also protesting at the headquarters of the drone manufacturers. They’re doing die-ins at the offices of these drone manufacturers and they’re going into congress to protest when the drone lobby is exhibiting these weapons in the halls of congress. They’re popping up at press conferences by the drone industry to speak out on behalf of the victims.
And looking for venues where we can bring out this I would call this prophetic voice to say no to the killings.
Lisa: So just very briefly tell us about the drone-free zones. What are those?
Medea: Well, the fact that there may well be drones coming to every community in this country if we d on’t do something about it has sparked a new movement to get the discussion going at the local level by trying to pass local resolutions saying that drones will not be used in our community to spy on us and to violate our privacy rights. And this is, there’s a sample resolution on our website called droneswatch.org and there are a number of different communities that are trying to get this passed now.
And another thing that’s happening that’s very exciting, because all you have to do is dial a number on your phone, and that is people calling their police departments and asking very simple questions…do you have any drones, do you have any plans to buy any drones? And if you do, where will the money come from for those drones and what are the plans in place to make sure that our privacy rights are respected. And then of course to say why do we need these drones in the first place?
So we are working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation that has launched this I think very exciting campaign for people to call their local police departments. So there’s things that you can do from the simplest giving a call or getting the dialogue going by passing a resolution locally, to talking to your congress people. And I know people are tired of talking to congress people. They don’t see a lot of benefit out of it, but let me tell you, congress is not hearing enough about this issue. In fact, they’re just starting to hear about this issue.
In fact I would say in the beginning of 2012 when we started talking about drones and going to congress, the congress people would say what? Why do you care about this issue? Nobody in my constituency is telling me about it. Six months later I would say by June 2012 the situation is really starting to change very dramatically.
In fact, there are examples of republican congress people saying that I was shopping in Walmart when people approached me and wanted to know what are we doing about these drones and I’m very concerned about them. I thought that was a pretty funny example of this issue reaching middle America.
But there’s so many examples now of congress people on the left and the right who are being asked by their constituents, why are we having the Homeland Security give money to police departments to surveil us and why is the government buying more and more of these drones…and we think that it’s time to cut the budgets. And a lot of these people are small government kind of people and so they’re going at it from the point of view that we don’t want big brother and we don’t want big government.
And I think this gives us an opportunity to reach out left, right, democrat, republican, independent, Ron Paul supporters, and to focus a lot on trying to stop the drones from invading our own community and then we can make the connections between stopping the drones from killing other people overseas.
Salima: Okay, so we’re gonna switch gears a little bit and talk more about the victims of the drone strikes internationally in Pakistan. There’s been a lot of international outrage at the drones specifically. You seem to be in the minority with accepting them, but is there anything that’s more morally reprehensible about drones than on the ground combat?
Medea: There are people who would say that on the ground combat is, is a more in-tuned with the rules of warfare where you see your enemy, where you’re putting your own lives at risk. If you as a nation are so committed to this fight then you should be willing to put your fighters in the fight. And what we’re having now is our nation more willing to put at risk the non combatants living in the areas where our enemies are and not put at risk the lives of our own combatants.
And in the international rules of warfare and also the tenets of what’s called Of Just War, these drone strikes are seen as barbaric, which is quite interesting because if you ask an American what’s a barbaric kind of warfare they would say somebody taking a machete maybe and chopping off someone’s head. And that certainly seems barbaric to me, but to the victims on the ground this kind of hellfire missile that’s coming out of the sky from nowhere and just obliterates people in an instant with no chance to surrender, no chance of proving their innocence is seen as barbaric from the victim’s point of view.
Salima: What countries are for the drones? I mean we’re not joined by that many people.
Medea: Well, there was an interesting poll that was taken by the polling group called Pew. And they polled 22 different nations and they looked at, they asked the question about the drone strikes. And it turned out that the United States and England were countries where the majority of people said it was cool to use the drones to kill people; and the rest of the countries in differing degrees said no.
And when you looked at some countries like Egypt, or Jordan, which is a US ally, or Greece, a country in Europe, 9 out of 10 people in those countries said that the, voiced their opposition to the drone strikes.
So the majority of people in the world think that this is a pretty barbaric, unfair, unjust, pretty inhumane way of waging war.
Salima: So let’s go back for a second to this idea of not risking US lives. What is it about that, like why is it okay to not risk US lives but to kill civilians it’s okay in another country.
Medea: I think it’s an expediency on the part of our government that they recognize that when Americans are killed you read about it in the newspapers. You know, in the beginning of the wars post 9/11 photographers were not allowed to even take pictures of the caskets of the bodies coming home. And the family members actually fought that because they wanted people to see that their sons and daughters were coming home in a box.
And the US government has tried to keep this war away from the American people, but when an American person dies the local newspaper talks about it, there’s mentions often times in the press and people don’t like that. They don’t like seeing our sons and daughters coming home in a box or traumatized, or brain injuries or amputated legs.
And so our government has recognized that it’s easier to keep these wars going if American lives are not at risk.
I would say it’s unethical. I would say it’s immoral, but it is expedient for our government if it wants to continue waging war and the American people as they are, are tired of war.
Salima: What about these victims, who are they? I mean I know you’ve talked to a few people from Pakistan who’ve been survivors of drone attacks. Could you tell us some of those stories?
Medea: Yeah, but first to talk about who are these victims, I was recently at a meeting with the California director of, Senator Diane Feinstein’s office. And we were going on and on about this issue and he kept talking about the enemy, the enemy, the enemy. And I just said who is the enemy? And he just raised his hands up in the air, exasperated, and he says damned if I know!
We don’t know who this enemy is, but it’s this perpetual enemy that we have. And when this is a secretive program as it is right now and is killing people that are the enemy, but we don’t have journalists there to tell us who these people really are, it’s very hard to get these stories.
And I was determined to get the story and went myself to Pakistan and Afghanistan right after 9/11 because I didn’t believe my government when they said we have these high precision weapons and we only get the bad guys. And I didn’t even have to get into Afghanistan to find out that that was a big lie because I saw the stream of refugees coming out of Afghanistan after the US had launched all of these attacks.
And I talk in the book about the first girl I met on the streets of Peshawar was a 13-year-old girl named Roya and she was begging on the streets. And when I found out that she was from Kabul I asked if I could get her story. And we got a translator and sat down. She took us back to the mud hut that she lived in. And it was just horrifying to hear her tale because she lived in Kabul on the outskirts of a Taliban compound.
And her father was a laborer, a farmer and her mother was at home one day with a couple of her sons and daughters when suddenly a drone attacked and a missile hit the wrong place, and hit her house.
And she had been out of the house with her father. When they came home they found bits and pieces of the family on trees around what had been their home. The mother had been vaporized. Two of the sons and one daughter had been killed as well. And she described how her father went and carefully collected the little bits and pieces of body parts that he could find, buried them and gave them a ceremony…prayed and then never spoke again.
And I met this man and I’ll never forget this man because he was a beautiful, big tall, 6′ strong guy with strong hands. You could just see the callouses from all the work in the fields. And there he sat on the edge of this bed made of straw and sat and looked into space. And this 13-year-old girl said he doesn’t speak, he hasn’t worked a day since that happened.
And after the family suffered that tragedy this young girl, Roya, had to collect whatever goods they could find and take the father and the three remaining siblings and start walking, walking, walking through very treacherous territory in the Khyber Pass to get into Pakistan where now they are trying to survive by begging in the streets of a very, very, very poor community. And that was the first time I had a chance to meet a victim of our drone attacks.
And it has stayed with me ever since, 10 years later it’s still with me and it will continue to be with me. And it’s one of the things that keeps me going because Roya was the same age as my younger daughter and I wonder what has happened to her, what has happened to her father, how is the family surviving. And I look at my own family, the kind of opportunities that my children have and I think that you know, how can we continue to live with ourselves when we are so concerned and we’ll do everything in the world to project, to protect our own children, but will allow our government to kill the families of other people without regard for who we’ve killed and what’s happened to those survivors.
Because remember, we’re not only killing individuals, we’re orphaning thousands of young children who then have little ways of surviving, few opportunities and they’re living in one of the poorest parts of the entire planet.
Salima: So we’ve kind of created this community of trauma in northern Pakistan. How do they view the US? Is there any talk of reparations? What happens to this community in the future if this is their collective memory?
Medea: That’s a good question. And I think we are destabilizing a nuclear country, which is Pakistan. We’re destabilizing a very populated country. We’re destabilizing a country that already has ethnic countries and that we are unleashing perhaps really terrible divisions like we did in the case of Iraq.
And the traumatized people are now fleeing from the place they came for refuge in northern Pakistan. They’re fleeing into the teaming cities like the city of Karachi and creating all kinds of new problems in those already overcrowded cities.
So who knows what the ripple effects of these drone strikes will be, but they will not be pretty. And I think the US government and the military have no conception, just like they did in Iraq, about how their limited view of taking out a dictator like Saddam Hussein or of trying to find some al-Qaeda members, but doing it in the indiscriminate way that they are doing it now, the kind of effects that it has on massive numbers of people and the potential for tremendous instability and the tremendous blowback that might come.
How do people int hat region view America? They hate America. They hate Americans. They would hate you and me if they met us because it would be very hard for them to distinguish between you and me and our government. And how can you blame them? That’s all they know of the United States, all they seen from us is the buzzing overhead of an ominous killing machine and the destruction of their communities.
Salima: What kind of resistance has formed on the ground in Pakistan? Is there anybody trying to fight the drones or document what’s going on with survivors?
Medea: Well, you know, we haven’t talked about the Taliban, and the Taliban in many cases are pretty treacherous and have killed a lot of innocent people as well. And so most of the people in that region are caught between a rock and hard place. When we kill family members they often join the Taliban, not because they believe in the Taliban ideology, but they’re looking for revenge and that’s the only way that they can see to do that.
But most of the people as in people all over the world are peace loving people who want to see an end to the violence, whether it’s the violence of the Taliban, the violence of al-Qaeda or the violence of US drones.
Salima: What about government attempts to go to the UN and talk about drone attacks, to stop drone attacks in Pakistan?
Medea: It wasn’t until June of 2012 that this issue really came up at the United Nations. And the UN Commission on Human Rights had commissioned a report and the report is very damning of the United States. And it calls on the United States to disclose under what rationale and what legal justification they have for these drone strikes, and is also pointing out that under international law you must give your enemy a chance to surrender.
And drones do not give the enemy a chance to surrender. And they’re also asking the United States to give reparations to the drone victims. This is very important. This is the first time that the United Nations has brought up this issue of reparations. And I think it gives us an opening to work with people around the world to strengthen that voice to be saying to the United States you must account for the victims that you’ve killed…you must bear responsibility for them and you must compensate their families.
Now, we want them to stop, but part of the effort and the campaign to get the US government to stop something like that is to first get them to acknowledge and accept responsibility and pay reparations.
Salima: What about community responses? Journalists are not allowed on the ground in this area so what about documentation or community responses to victims and their trauma?
Medea: There has been an outpouring of response from the Pakistani people and it’s interesting because it cuts across political parties. There’s tremendous division among political parties in Pakistan, but when this issue came to the legislature they voted unanimously, probably something unheard of in the Pakistani legislature, unanimously to call on the United States to end the drone strikes.
And then at the grass roots level there have been rallies of hundreds of thousands of people who have come out. The best known athlete in Pakistan was a former rockstar when it came to sports is Imran Khan. He has his own political party and he has made this issue of drone strikes a central issue and has lead protests with hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis.
There are also Pakistanis who have sat down in the road in front of the US base to not allow the US to continue to use the base there, which is a big issue now between the US government and Pakistani government.
The majority of, the vast majority of Pakistanis matter their political feelings and probably their opposition to the Taliban, they still are vehemently against the drone strikes.
Lisa: I think there’s also Palestine if you want to get to that eventually, but stay on Pakistan because like I just don’t think people have heard about the athlete and the grassroots and the lawyers in Pakistan, things like that.
Medea: The lawyers, yeah, the legal community is also starting to come out in Pakistan to try to investigate these drone attacks. And we have recently made friends with a man who is a, he was a corporate lawyer. He worked with the US Agency for International Development. He used to come back and forth to the United States with an expedited Visa. And then he started looking into the drone attacks, left his practice, works for free for drone victims and has become pretty much persona non grata in the United States because he sued the CIA in Pakistan for murder.
In fact, he sued the head, the chief of the CIA is Islamabad by name. They weren’t able to get very far with the lawsuit, but they did manage to make sure that the chief had to flee the country. And they are trying to sue their own government for not stopping the US. They say hey, if our government says that the US has no right to be here and shouldn’t be here, why isn’t our military shooting down these US drones?
So they are suing anywhere they can, even in the UK where the laws are easier because the UK is giving information to the US and working together with them on the drone strikes. So it’s very interesting to see how the legal community is finding different ways to use the court system to try to challenge this.
Salima: Is there any attempt to get documentation from within northern Pakistan through people who are living there because journalists can’t go in and there’s very little information about victims.
Medea: Yeah, I think it’s in the interest of the Pakistani government, of the US government and the Taliban not to release information, so there’s really a conspiracy among strange bedfellows to keep people uninformed about what’s happening in that region. And that’s why there was a meeting in 2011 that brought together hundreds of people from the region to the capital city of Islamabad, including about 80 family members of victims to talk about this.
And one of the things they came up with was that they had to train some of their own people with video cameras and still cameras to become the citizen journalists so that this information could get out into the international community.
But there is a very tragic incident that happened just after this gathering, and that is about the young boy, a 16-year-old named Tariq Aziz and he was very upset about the drones because his cousin had been killed by a drone and was very eager to be one of the citizen journalists. He did the training, he was given a video camera and low and behold the first investigation that was done after this gathering was his own death, which happened two days later by a drone strike.
This, unlike other drone victims, got out into the international press because lawyers from around the world had just been with this young boy, had just met him. They talked about having just shook his hand, touched his flesh, looked into his eyes, taught him things. And they were outraged that this young man had suddenly been killed, but it shows how the lack of information we have, the lack of humanization and when it happened to somebody that had met people from the outside world it caused a wave of outrage.
And I think this just shows that we have to continue to find ways and that’s why we are taking a group to Pakistan the first week of October, the first ever US peace delegation. We want to walk through the region. We want to get in there. We want to be together with the drone victims and their family members, and the people who are terrified by hearing the buzzing of the drones overhead day in and day out. And so we’re hoping that our government and the Pakistani government will allow us to do this and we will be able to show the millions of people in Pakistan and people around the world that there are indeed Americans who care about them and are determined to stop our government from killing them.
Salima: So funny because people are outraged that this child was human and they realized that.
Medea: Well, what, there’s something else just to say about Tariq Aziz who was killed. And that is first the US government said oh, he wasn’t 16, he was 18, 19, 20 as if that made it okay. And then they said and he was connected to the Taliban.
Well, the lawyers who were there said wait a minute, he was four days in the capital city in a hotel known to everybody. If he were indeed a dangerous Taliban militant you could’ve just walked in that hotel and arrested him, why didn’t you do that?
And I think that’s a very important question to ask, why isn’t the US working with the Pakistani government to have people arrested? Why aren’t they working with the government in Yemen to have people arrested? And it goes back to this issue we talked about earlier how it’s much easier to just kill people, get rid of the problem than it is to arrest people and follow the international law of people any chance for a fair trial.
Salima: Question more for us, is there any way to access the footage that is coming out of these citizen journalists?
Medea: There is a group in the UK known as Reprive and they are collecting some of this footage. There’s also a group of students at the law school at Stanford University that recently went to Pakistan and interviewed victims themselves. And they will be releasing some of their footage. They didn’t get into the area of northern Pakistan, but they met with the victims in Islamabad. That’s second best perhaps, but it is important footage and we’ve gotten a couple of the interviews, and they hope to be releasing more and making these available more widely.
Salima: Okay, so we’re gonna take a step back and you mentioned that there was an Israeli engineer who sort of brought drone technology to the US, so Israel has sort of been involved. Can you talk about the use of drones in Gaza and the use of drones by Israel?
Medea: Israel is very advanced in this technology. They brag when they sell the technology overseas or in their marketing for it they say that this has been tested time and time again. And it’s been tested on real human beings and those human beings are Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip. So it’s doubly disgusting that not only are they killing so many people, but they are using it as a marketing point to say yes, that we have tested this not in some fake laboratory, but in the real world.
And they use the drones in a big way during the Operation Cast Lead invasion of 2008-2009 over, there were 1,400 people killed. Over 800 of them were killed by drones. And I give examples in the book that it’s not only a drone coming into launch a hellfire missile, but drones that are buzzing overhead in this tiny concentrated dense piece of territory where the people have become terrified by these drones because they hover. That’s what a drone does, it just sits in position for a while.
And the people hear it. They have their own local words that they say in Arabic for the drone and the humming of the drone. And parents talk about how their children can’t sleep at night or wet their beds because they’re terrified by hearing this buzzing because they know it’s the sound of death. And they have no idea who is going to die, when they’re going to die. It seems to them like a game of Russian roulette, but it’s I would say perhaps in a Machiavellian sense a brilliant way to terrorize an entire population.
Salima: How many Palestinians have been killed by drones?
Medea: Over 800 Palestinians have been killed by drones.
This was during Gaza occupation, this was during the invasion that happened in December of 2008, Operation Cast Lead. But the drones continued to be used in Gaza. They’re used constantly for surveillance in Gaza. You know, the Israelis say that they withdrew from Gaza and that they’re not occupying it anymore, but they occupy Gaza by sea and they occupy Gaza by controlling the border, and they occupy Gaza from the sky. And the drones are a very important part of that because they can surveil the population on a regular basis. And when they want to they can drop a missile from the drones and kill somebody, which they do often.
Salima: And the US seems to have followed suit in that because we are using drones for surveillance in areas where we’ve technically pulled out from.
Medea: Yes, in the case of Iraq, for example, we now have given the state department drones and drones are being used widely for surveillance. I mean we know that they’ve been used for years in surveillance of Iran because the Iranians were able to bring one down. But the fact that we now have drone bases in places like Kuwait, and Qatar, and Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Seychelles, Turkey, Australia, means that we are using these drones for spying on countries that we the American people have no idea we’re using.
And that’s very important to understand because you could say that first comes spying, then comes dropping of lethal weapons. And then if it doesn’t work out as planned could come the boots on the ground. So these drones, while seen as an alternative to the boots on the ground, could really in the end just be the opposite, beginning of getting us into conflicts that then we have to send int he troops.
Salima: So you mean the places where we have drones now could end up being places where we actually instigate war, like on the ground war.
Medea: Sure. I think that in the case of Libya it was not clear that a military intervention by air was going to be enough to overthrow Gadaffi. In this case it was. If it wasn’t would that NATO intervention have lead to NATO troops on the ground? Perhaps. If there is a military intervention in Syria and the US uses drones and says no Americans are gonna be at risk, but it doesn’t work out as planned, might there then be a push to have US troops be involved in a ground war? It could very well happen.
There are many instances now where our drones have gotten us involved in conflicts like in the case of Turkey where we’re using US drones for surveillance purposes and giving that information to the Turkish government that is then using that information to bomb Kurds. It’s putting the US in the middle of a conflict between the Turks and the Kurds.
So I think this conventional wisdom that drones are an alternative to boots on the ground could unfortunately be just the opposite.
Salima: And how many other countries have drone technology at this point, like exported it it seems.
Medea: Well, we don’t really know because a lot of this is secret information and we don’t know everybody that the Chinese has sold to, but we do know that about 60 countries have drones because we know that the Israelis alone have sold drones to 50 different countries. And that’s, a lot of them are European countries.
I was surprised to see that so many of them were countries in Latin America that they sold drones to — Argentina, Brazil, Peru, El Salvador — that there are drones being used for border surveillance by all of these countries. And they’re being used to control their own people. And we’ve seen drones being used at G8 Summits both in France and in Russia. Drones were sighted overhead when NATO was meeting in Chicago. The local TV stations kept putting on a clip of a drone.
So there are many countries that use drones. They’re using them for many different purposes and some of those purposes are to stop people from gathering and doing things like protesting.
Salima: So do you have any other stories of victims of drone strikes, anything that was particularly striking when you were talking to people on the ground?
Medea: There’s a chapter of the book where I give stories of a number of victims and perhaps I could just read a little bit here. I want to tell the story about a schoolteacher who was killed. And this was on December 31, 2009. He was, in this case the government, the US government said that they were going after a local militant, but the villagers said that this militant was nowhere to be seen.
This is the story of a man named Karim Kahn because he survived and is a witness to tell what happened. This drone strike happened in Pakistan on December 31, 2009. And when the drone hit Kahn’s brother and his son had been blown to bits.
The news report had alleged that the target of the drone attack been a Taliban commander, Hadji Omar , but the villagers said that Hadji Omar was nowhere to be seen.
The tragedy that forever scarred Karim’s family was a mistake. Karim’s son had just graduated high school and come home, and his brother was not a militant or militant sympathizer, but a schoolteacher with a Masters degree in English literature. For eight years he’d been teaching at that small village school. And when he was killed he left behind a young wife. His widow was so distraught that she couldn’t speak for weeks after the attack. His 2-year-old boy would never remember his father.
And he left behind hundreds of students with a scant chance of every resuming their education. People now mired in hatred for the drone that killed their teacher and aching for revenge.
Salima: So that’s the type of man that the US classifies as a militant.
Medea: Well, yes, and what’s interesting about this case is this man was fighting the edicts of the Taliban, that the Taliban had been trying to get him to close the school and the insisted on keeping the school open. He used his own meager resources to keep the store open.
He convinced the young people in the village that it was better to put their focus on education and not on firearms, so he was a peacemaker and a mentor to hundreds of students. And the fact that they would kill this teacher and a young man who recently returned to his village to join in teaching is something that will have reverberations in that village for a long time to come because the school was closed afterwards.
The students will not have a chance to resume their education and what will they be wanting to do? To do something to avenge the life of the teacher that they so loved.