Threat from above

Q & A | published in Real Change on Aug. 8th, 2012
Interview with: Medea Benjamin

Unmanned aerial vehicles are being used to spy on people and kill “militants.” Peace activist Medea Benjamin wants to create a movement to combat their use

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It was virtually impossible to ignore the Blue Angels last week. In town for Seafair, the demonstration squadron of the U. S. Navy tore through the sky for weekday practice sessions, culminating in two bone-rattling weekend appearances that sent pets scurrying under furniture while people cursed a blue streak or hollered with joy. A jet-fueled marketing tool of the u.s. Navy, with a mission “to enhance Navy recruiting,” the blue-and-yellow F/A–18 Hornets provided a visual and aural experience few could miss.

If a drone flew overhead last week, however, chances are you missed it.  Unmanned vehicles operated from a remote location, drones can gather ground surveillance while soaring at a height of 60,000 feet, rendering the machine invisible from land. With a host of surveillance gadgets, a drone can employ facial recognition technology, infrared and ultraviolet imaging and license plate scanning systems. A single drone can provide reams of data: Air Force personnel process close to 1,500 hours of video from drones each day. And one other thing: A drone can kill.

Pilotless drones can enter territory too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for manned aircraft and, with an attached missile, conduct targeted killings. Civilians don’t know how many people have been killed by drones operated by the U.S. military; the armed forces won’t release any figures. The machines have nonetheless become weapons of choice since 9/11: The u.s. 2012 budget allocated almost $4 billion for them.

The covert use of drones by the military, cia and local law enforcement, unnerves Medea Benjamin. Co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK, Benjamin sought to uncover

what our government and armed forces want to keep hidden about drone use. Her research resulted in “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control” (OR Books, $16), a 200-page call to action that combines hard stats — in 2010, the u.s. Army operated nearly 7,500 aerial drones — with stories of (mostly foreign) lives upended, and ended, by drone attacks. She relates just about everything you’d want to know about drones in an easy-to-digest, straight-from-the-hip style that’s much like Benjamin herself.

In person, wearing a pink shirt and patterned pink scarf, Benjamin can be mistaken as meek … until she talks. Articulate and direct, her words are weighty. She thinks we need to ground drones for good. And on a Saturday morning in July, a week before the Blue Angels came to town, Benjamin sat in the Real Change editorial office and spoke about President Obama, the “sound of death,” video games and activism to end deadly warfare.

What’s your definition of a drone?

My definition of a drone is something that flies in the air, that has cameras on it that are relaying information back to whoever’s controlling the drone, and it doesn’t have a pilot in the cockpit.  And some of these drones are so tiny, like the size of an insect or a bird, that you couldn’t put a pilot in the cockpit. But some of them are huge, like the size of a commercial airplane, and they’re being piloted remotely. Some of them can be weaponized. Most of them are used for surveillance purposes.

When I hear the word drone I think of the male bees that fertilize the queen.

Do you know what happens to them after they fertilize the queen?

Well, if I’m correct, I believe they get stung to death by the queen.

As I recall, I think their penis falls off, and then they die.  [Laughs]

That’s kind of different than what happens with drone [planes].

Yeah, but it’s not clear where the word “drones” came from. Some say it’s the sound of the buzzing, but others say that it came from this idea that originally they were like dummies used for target practice, so they didn’t have a real purpose: They didn’t produce anything like honey. Who knows? The industry does not like the word “drones.”  They keep saying they’re UAVs and UASs: unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned aerial systems. You know, the fancier names. But we always go back to basics and call them drones.

How about you expand upon what a drone [can] do?

They are mostly used for surveillance purposes. [She gazes out the window near my desk.] Like those tiny ones, there could be one out your window right now that’s looking inside to see what you’re doing here. Or they could have some thermal imaging out there to see if you’re growing any marijuana in this building.

But it was also discovered that these very same drones that were used for spying could also be used for killing.  You can put weapons on these drones. The ones that are doing the killing are aptly called Predator and Reaper drones, and they are being remotely controlled from mostly the United States, like Air Force bases or cia headquarters.  And they’re being used to kill people in places far away, like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan.

You mention this disturbing story [in the book] about President Obama three days after his inauguration.

It turns out that this constitutional lawyer, Nobel Peace Prize-winning president likes these drones and sees that they are very convenient — or as his former National Intelligence Chief, Dennis Blair, who was pushed out of office, says: They are dangerously seductive.  And that’s because they can be used by the executive branch without consulting Congress and without consulting the judicial branch of government.  So decisions about getting involved in violent activities, including killing Americans overseas, can be taken by one branch of government alone. The Obama administration started using drones three days after getting into office, using them both in Pakistan and in Yemen and using them in lieu of capturing people and throwing them into places like Guantanamo that Obama said he was going to close, but he found it was hard to once he got into office because of opposition from Congress.  And instead of fighting it and saying, okay, we’re just going to close Guantanamo, he decided we’re not going to put new people in Guantanamo: We’re going to kill them instead.

One of the things that’s so disturbing about drones, is that they’re practically invisible to us, the people who could be surveyed.

Unless they fly low, and sometimes they do that on purpose because it’s part of the scare tactic of terrorizing local populations.  Like the Israelis do in Gaza or the u.s. has been doing in villages in Northern Pakistan.  They just let the drones be a presence in the sky that’s buzzing. They have words for it in Pashto and Arabic called “the sound of death,” because you never know if that drone is actually gonna fire a Hellfire missile or not.

When I was in a NATO protest in Chicago not long ago, there was a sighting of a drone, and they kept showing it on the local tv stations, that drones were being used in case they needed some kind of crowd control or information.  And they have been used at protests against the G8 meetings, in Paris, in St. Petersburg.  So there are a number of examples already of using drones in protest situations when the protestors don’t know they’re being watched.

I imagine it must be video that they’re capturing. What happens to it all?

It’s ironic how drones are sold to us as a cheap way to do either war or surveillance, because the drone itself is actually a lot cheaper than a manned aircraft — and I say “manned” because most of them are [operated by] men. But they take a lot of labor to look through countless hours of video that they are relaying back, and because they’re in the air for long periods of time, they’re sending massive amounts of data.  For a Reaper or a Predator drone, for example, it’s estimated that it takes about 168 people for one day’s work because of all the data that needs to be processed, all the maintenance that has to be done on the drone, the on-the-ground remote teams that are controlling the drone and the on-the-ground team that are actually launching the drone.  So they’re very labor intensive.

Where does all the data go?

I think it goes to “data land.”  I think there is a special place it resides, and it’s probably in Utah.

Now the subtitle is “Killing by Remote Control,” and that brings the image of people you see in parks who have the little planes they’re flying, and they have little remote controls in their hands.  Do you know what the remote controls look like for drones?

Well, for the killing drones they look like a PlayStation — they look like a video game.  They have the same joystick, and they were actually modeled on purpose after that because they wanted to recruit a lot of high school kids who grew up playing these games. In fact the u.n. has criticized the u.s. for creating this PlayStation mentality towards war, a lot of it being the physical look of the remote stations.

I used to be such a video gamer when I was young: It was all about Space Invaders and Galaga. All you did was shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot these creatures.

Then you could have just easily, almost seamlessly, moved from a gamer to a real-life killer by remote control because there’s not a lot of difference.  And in fact a lot of those guys that become these remote control pilots, they complain about it being very boring, because they’re sitting in front of these remote control stations for hours and hours and hours of time, and they want to be pressing that kill button, or else they want to be in the battlefield itself where the real action is.  But it seems, as a profession, one of the great complaints is boredom.

How many people have been killed by drones? Is there any accurate number?

There’s definitely no accurate number because our government doesn’t want to tell us, and some of these areas where drones are used are off [limits] for journalists or are very remote.  So it’s only through organizations like the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which is based in the U.K., that we get some idea.  They say that in the case of Pakistan alone, there’s over 3,000 people who have been killed by drones.  And they say that about 175 of them have been children and the rest, who knows who they are, because the administration calls anybody who is a male of military age, living in zones where we use drones, a “militant.”  So if you hear 12 militants killed on Saturday, 14 killed on Tuesday, all you know is they were probably not women and children.  But you don’t know that they were actually engaged in any violent activity aimed at somebody from the United States. Probably not.

There’s a name that keeps coming up in the book: General Atomics. Could you talk about that?

It’s a relatively small company by weapons manufacturers, the model of big ones like Boeing and Raytheon and General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.  It is the company that first started producing Predator and Reaper drones.  It was started by a Israeli engineer who was working for the Israeli military developing these spy planes, and then he moved to Southern California and started producing them in his two-car garage and selling them to the Pentagon.  Then it was bought by General Atomics, [that] turned them into weaponized drones.  So General Atomics produces the bulk of the drones that are being used lethally, but other companies are making parts of those drones or producing the missiles that are used or producing other drones they are selling to the Pentagon, [which] they hope will replace the Predator and Reaper.

It’s a multi-billion dollar industry right now, expected to double every 10 years. It’s called by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, “the only game in town,” and when there’s talk about making cuts in the military budget, he has said that the drone program will not be touched.

Why did you become interested in drones?

Well, I don’t like to see my government killing people, particularly innocent people.  And I don’t like to see my government killing people behind the backs of the American people and Congress, without consulting the courts and without letting the American people even know that it’s happening.  And using the most secretive entities in our government, the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, to wage wars — not that I want it to wage wars through the military, but at least if it’s in the military, it’s a little more open to the public.  This is totally done in secret.  And I’m worried about the kind of example we are sending to the rest of the world when we say we can go anywhere we want, kill anybody we want, on the basis of secret information.

So you mentioned Obama, and here it is coming up: November. He’s the Democratic nominee.  So what can people do now, when I imagine there still must be an anti-war movement?

It’s bigger than ever in terms of polls showing that the vast majority of Americans think the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.  And that includes a majority of Republicans.  And yet that’s not reflected in the policies of either Republicans or Democrats.  The Republicans would like us to stay there indefinitely.  And the Democrats go along with Obama’s plan to remove most of the troops by the end of 2014, but have the possibility of keeping a significant presence in Afghanistan for the next decade.

So what do people do?

Well, they vote for whomever they want. I’m going to vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, but people obviously should vote for whomever they think is the most appropriate candidate on all the issues of concern.  I understand that most people’s number one issue is not drone warfare. Important for me is a movement that’s independent from party politics, that unites all of these issues we care about, whether it’s money in politics or violence, police abuse or the corporate domination of our economic system or the environmental needs of this planet. Unless we bring those issues together, we will always find ourselves every two years and every four years in the same rut.

What were you like when you were young? Were you concerned about politics, governmental issues?  Fairness?

Fairness, definitely fairness. And young people are very attuned to issues of fairness.  In my youth I thought a charity approach was a positive thing to do, so every holiday season, my dad would take me out and we would buy presents for people in homeless shelters. He would always say don’t give your old stuff: buy the thing you really wanted and that’s the one you give away. Except I realized, as I got older, the charity model was not a good model, that it is really more about fairness, a level playing field.

In high school around the Vietnam War, people my age were being drafted.  My sister’s boyfriend got drafted: a nice football player, sweet guy. About six months later he sent her back an ear of a Viet Cong to wear as a necklace.  And I was so devastated by that, that I felt I’m going to dedicate my whole life to making sure that people didn’t think that other people’s body parts were souvenirs and that we couldn’t go thousands of miles away and kill people of color and not worry about it because they weren’t our people.

What is the direction we’re heading with this drone mentality?

The drone mentality is dangerous on so many levels.  There is an arms race already in drones, and there are over 60 countries that have drones now because they’re being sold by the United States, Israel, China.  And there are non-state entities that have drones because they are basically souped-up model airplanes. And then we’re moving forward domestically with new legislation that has forced the Federal Aviation Administration to open up U.S. air space to drones by September 2015, and manufacturers wanting to see every one of the 18,000 police departments in this country have drones. We are heading toward a 24/7 surveillance society here in the United States and a new level of lawlessness on the global scene. But we can do something about it!


Call [your] police department and ask them if they have drones, and what are they using them for. I’m working now with the Cato Institute, a rightwing, Koch-brother funded think tank to push the government to pass legislation that says you can’t use drones to spy on us without a warrant, and federal agencies can’t give money to local law enforcement agencies to buy drones.  And we’re telling people to pass resolutions in their cities calling it a “no-drone zone.”  And we’re taking people to Pakistan to do peace walks, and we are meeting with members of the intelligence committees in the House and Senate and saying, “Do your job.” We just got 100 leaders in the faith-based community to sign onto a call saying stop this immoral killing by drones. We want to reach out to the scientific community, the legal community. So many people are horrified internationally by the u.s. use of drone warfare, and people in legislatures of other countries: We’re calling on them to speak out.  We’re pushing the United Nations to do something.  We’re looking to allies wherever we can find them and saying this technology has way surpassed regulations both domestically and internationally and we’ve gotta put some rules in place.

So do you have hope?

I have tremendous hope because I see in the last couple of months, since this book is out, there’s so much talk now about drones that people’s ears perk up.  And they want to discuss it, and we have a chance to educate a lot of people given that one poll showed that eight in 10 Americans thought it was just fine and dandy to use drones to kill terror suspects. We can change a lot of minds.  And I think we can stop the influx of drones in the United States because there is so much concern about safety issues and privacy issues that if we build up the momentum before we see 20,000 to 30,000 drones in our air space, we can really make an impact.

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