Last May, a woman interrupted President Obama’s address on national security at National Defense University. Then she interrupted him twice more before she was forcibly removed. President Obama’s address was intended to redefine the administration’s approach to counterterrorism by narrowing the scope from global warfare to targeting terrorist groups. The president promised to constrain the use of drones, a technology that has proved divisive on both the right and the left. The heckler, Medea Benjamin, is the co-founder of Code Pink, a group opposed to United States military action abroad. Benjamin has been a vocal, disruptive, and often theatrical critic of the Obama administration’s utilization of drones in its counterterrorism strategy. Her book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, asks whether the perceived benefits of drone use in counterterrorism outweigh its costs. Benjamin was interviewed by Allegra Funsten earlier this year shortly after the publication of Drone Warfare.
Allegra Funsten: You’re the co-founder of CODEPINK. Can you talk a little bit about CODEPINK’s mission?
Medea Benjamin: CODEPINK started out right after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. We recognized that the Bush administration was making noises about attacking Iraq and thought that this was going to be disastrous. And we had been a group of women and started talking about the disastrous response to 9/11 and the Bush administration’s color-coded alert system, and jokingly said we needed a different color-coded alert and came up with the CODEPINK idea. We weren’t successful in stopping that war, but in the process we created a strong organization.
AF: How did you get interested in drones?
MB: We saw that the public opinion had been shifting over the years, from one of great support for the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, to more weariness, where Americans didn’t think it was worthwhile to continue to risk the lives of Americans or to pay the massive amounts of money that these wars were costing us. And so the government in the process had started shifting away from the notion of tens of thousands of boots on the ground to the notion of using drones as a preferred way of waging war. And I saw the war spilling over into Pakistan. I visited there several times, heard about the drone victims, and ended up taking a delegation to actually meet with drone strike victims. And more and more I became very concerned about how this technology was allowing the US government to get us involved in conflicts that the American people didn’t even know about because it was being done in a covert way. And how there was something about the technology itself that made it easier to go to war and easier to kill people instead of capturing them.
AF: Your book focuses on drone use abroad. Is drone use a domestic issue too? And if so, what are the implications for security and privacy?
MB: The drone industry is very anxious to sell drones here in the United States, and has been pushing legislation that passed on February 14 of 2012 that US airspace would have to be opened up to drones by September of 2015. The drone industry has been anxious to sell drones commercially and to sell drones for law enforcement purposes. Drones are already being used on the southern and northern border. And while the Federal Aviation Administration is trying to work out how to incorporate drones into our airspace while keeping us safe, there have been several hundred permits given out to experiment with drones, and many of those experiments have been carried out by law enforcement agencies — Homeland Security, FBI, and local police stations. I think the industry would love to sell its drones to the 18,000 police stations in this country.
AF: How has the use of drones affected foreign relations and the US’s standing in the international community?
MB: I think that drones have been counterproductive in terms of creating not only more extremists who join organizations like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or join the Taliban, but also created much more generic anti-American sentiment. There is a misperception that drones are so precise that it only kills the “bad guys,” whereas it seems that drones have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people, and every time that happens it creates new recruits. I met a man whose son was killed in a drone strike, and he said he certainly wanted to seek revenge. If he could kill Americans, if he could kill American soldiers, he would certainly do that. This was a very nice, educated man who previously had no animosity towards the United States.
AF: In your book, you ask your reader to empathize with Pakistani citizens and to think about what it would be like if other countries — you use the example of China — had this technology and chose to use drones against US citizens. Is the genie out of the bottle? Now that the technology is available, can we stop the use of drones by the US or other members of the international community?
MB: I think that the genie is out of the bottle in terms of the drone technology now proliferating if there are indeed 76 countries that have drones, most of them surveillance drones. But if a number of countries are already in the process of weaponizing those surveillance drones, then it’s going to be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. What needs to be done is to put regulations in place that govern the use of lethal drones. Right now the US has been setting a model that says that the US alone can determine the properties of drones, the US alone can stretch the definition of imminent threat to one that is not in accordance, as I believe, with what would be the real definition of immediate threat. The US has stretched the definition of what is an appropriate target to mean anywhere in the world. Given the model that the US has put forth, I think we are going to see other countries starting to use the drones in a way that we’re going to be very upset about, but yet unable to criticize because of the model we have put forth.
AF: Do you think that the US has an obligation to regulate its use of drones even if there are countries that aren’t as restricted?
MB: The US has an obligation because the US has set a terrible precedent. I think it’s positive that there’s been so much attention that the president has had to come forward and say that the administration is going to have a more restrained use of drones. But we can’t allow that to just be self-regulated by the executive branch. I think if Congress was a more robust, effective entity, it would have already done a lot more to regulate the US's use of drones. But it’s pretty much unable to function in that capacity because it’s so partisan. And so I think that leaves it to international bodies like the United Nations. I hope that there will be some effort at the international level to write the rules that will regulate this new technology.
AF: Ken Anderson, a professor of law at American University, has written, “Those who see only the snapshot of civilian harm today are angered by civilian deaths. But barring an outbreak of world peace, it is foolish and immoral not to encourage the development and use of more sparing and exact weapons.” Do you think that drones could get to the point where they are better tools than traditional means?
MB: One of the biggest problems we’ve seen since 9/11 is that the US has focused so much on military response. We’ve created more enemies in the process, and we have solved very few problems despite trillions of dollars and many thousands of US lives, and millions of lives of people in Iraq and Afghanistan. So I think it’s time to really reflect on the paths not chosen and those paths not chosen include policing instead of a military focus, include focusing on our defenses here at home and not seeking out and creating new enemies overseas. And focusing on the muscle that has been so deteriorated in the last 10 years and that’s diplomacy. I think it’s about time that we started focusing on third options — not the boots on the ground, not the killing by remote control, but the creative efforts at diplomacy that we’ve failed to even explore in the last 11 years.
AF: Your book had some descriptions of young children whose families had been impacted by drone strikes.
MB: Yes, these are stories that we don’t hear about in the United States, when we even read the statistics that journalist groups, like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, [that suggest drones are responsible for the deaths of 178 Pakistani children]. If that was happening in the United States, we would hear about every single one of those lives.
AF: Why do you think [the US media has not reported these stories]?
MB: I think it’s partly because a lot of the deaths are happening in areas that are difficult to get to, but I also think there’s either a lack of real, good reporting on the part of journalists, or, according to some journalists I’ve talked to, their stories just never make it into the newspapers or onto television screens. I think it’s a tremendous indictment of our media that it has done so little to give Americans the human victims of our policies. The victims’ lives are seared into my brain.
AF: You recently disrupted President Obama’s speech on national security. Additionally, in the final chapter of Drone Warfare, you describe the work of other anti-drone activists, many of who were arrested as a result of their protests. When is disruption for the purpose of getting the message out okay, and how far is too far?
MB: I would say that it’s always good to get the message out in whatever venue you can as long as it’s done nonviolently. The line in the sand would be to constantly be aware that our goal is to build a less violent world, and we need to be sure that the tactics we use are consistent with that. Speaking out is certainly a nonviolent tool that we need to exercise, and I’d say exercise it more. We should be speaking out when we have a chance to confront officials at the higher levels of government. And I think that the opponents of the drone policy have been putting their lives at risk by getting arrested at military bases. A friend of mine just got released from six months in jail for having literally just crossed over into a military base to try to hand in a letter protesting the use of drones. We have taken great risks, and many people have suffered great consequences because of it. That’s what peace activism is all about.
AF: Can you describe why those particular methods are the most effective?
MB: Well, none of our methods are the most effective. And I don’t want to give the impression that I think that there are … I say that we have to try all different kinds of nonviolent tactics, from protests at air force bases, to protests at the manufacturing bases where the drones are being made, to protests at the CIA, the Pentagon, Congress, the White House — we have to look for the actors who are involved in this and try to focus attention on them and get their attention. You never know when you’re part of a movement which tactic is going to work, but usually it’s the sum of them all.
AF: Your critics have said that your protests actually hurt the antiwar movement. How do you respond to them?
MB: I respond by saying that those are probably people who are not even involved in this, and those who are involved have been cheering the fact that we got the president to respond to these issues from our perspective, and that we’ve forced many of the journalists to take up the issues that we have been pushing and they have failed to do. All the change-makers throughout history have been criticized personally, and it’s not about individuals, it’s about getting issues out, having them debated, and I think things like an interaction with the president of the United States on these issues contributes to dialogue and policy change.
AF: I watched your CNN interview on Friday, and I was disappointed that the reporter who was interviewing you spent the time asking you to defend your actions rather than talking about your position on drones.
MB: But if I hadn’t done the protest, I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be on CNN. We ask to be on CNN every single week and never get a response. So the only reason I was on is because I did a disruption.
AF: Do you have any advice for budding activists out there?
MB: I think that I’d develop thick skin early on, because you’ll get criticized no matter what, and to recognize that it’s not about you, even if you have your 15 minutes of fame. It isn’t about you, it’s about the issues. And constantly be searching for more creative ways to get the message out. In this day and age, when it’s very hard to get the attention of the mainstream media, it makes it harder to pierce the veil of government secrecy or the veil of the one-sided debate that we normally hear.