Interview: Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin outside the AUVSI convention in Washington DC on Aug. 22, 2013. By Dan Gettinger.
Medea Benjamin at an anti-drone protest outside the AUVSI convention in Washington DC on Aug. 22, 2013 (Dan Gettinger)

Medea Benjamin is an American writer and anti-drone activist. In 2002, she co-founded Code Pink, a women-initiated activist organization that has gained national attention for its protests against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, more recently, drones. The group is known for their public protest actions in the United States and in various countries abroad, including Egypt, Palestine, Israel, and Pakistan. In May, Benjamin interrupted President Obama’s speech on drones and national security at the National Defense University. Benjamin is the author of numerous books including Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. Before devoting her time to anti-war activism, Benjamin spent ten years working as an economist and nutritionist in Latin America for several different organizations including the World Health Organization.

Interview by Dan Gettinger

Can you explain the background and goals of Code Pink?

Code Pink started after the invasion of Afghanistan and before the invasion of Iraq. When there were the drumbeats of war for the Iraq invasion, we thought ‘the administration is making the people more and more fearful to justify another invasion.’ That is when they came up with the color coded alert system and we came up with Code Pink as kind of a joke in the beginning, making fun of that color coded alert system. But also to say that there needed to be another way to deal with the 9/11 tragedy and that more war was not the answer.

We still have the same goals of trying to stop war, of transferring so much of the funding of the military to more immediate needs of people such as health care and education. And now we’re trying to expose more about how the wars are continuing despite people’s perception that they have wound down.

Why are drones important to you and Code Pink?

We see that it’s important for American citizens to be informed about and actively discussing our foreign policy. When the US is engaged in covert wars where we’re not even told what the government’s doing, that’s antithetical to what we consider a democratic society to be about. So we feel it’s important to lift the curtains and see what’s behind there and give Americans a chance to understand what the government’s doing, debate what it’s doing and if I’m unhappy about it, oppose what the government’s doing. But you can’t do that when everything is covert.

Who is the target audience for your book and what did you hope to achieve by writing it?

I felt that there were a lot of people who, under the Bush administration, had protested the Iraq wars and when Obama came in, had faded away. We wanted to revive the interest and opposition of those people. What I saw was a handful of people who were opposing the drones, protesting at the bases. Small groups such as Code Pink and Catholic Worker. But where were the large numbers of people that we had mobilized under the Bush years. So the book wasn’t aimed so much at convincing unsympathetic people but trying to reach more of the large numbers of people who would have been opposed to these policies under the Bush administration but perhaps didn’t know about them.

You begin the introduction to your book, Drone Warfare, by relating the story of an Afghan family that was attacked by a drone-fired missile. At another point you say you were in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In what capacity did you visit these conflict zones and what did you hope to achieve by going?

The initial story happened even before we created Code Pink. I was part of another organization I helped create called Global Exchange and went in that capacity. But once we had the idea of doing Code Pink, it was important for us to go to the countries that were affected. One of the immediate things we did after forming Code Pink was to take a trip to Iraq and that was before the US invasion. And we’ve been there since as well as visiting a number of other nations where the United States has a negative relationship. We feel it’s important to be able to get that first-hand experience and stories.

You said that the Code Pink march against drones in Pakistan had achieved its purpose. What did you mean by that?

That visit we had hooked up beforehand with the former cricketeer turned politician Imran Khan, who was organizing a caravan to the tribal areas and we wanted to join in with that caravan. We also worked with a lawyer who had brought cases involved losses incurred by drones to the Pakistani courts. We wanted to show the Pakistani people that there were Americans who were opposed to the policies. We wanted to strengthen our contacts locally and get media attention as well as get first hand stories from drone victims. I think we managed to do all of these things.

In your book you often shift between accounts of the use of drones by the CIA and by the military. Do you see a difference in the ways that these weapons are employed by different agencies or do you disapprove of the use of drones across the board?

On the one hand I think that it’s just one more piece of technology that is in the hands of the military. It’s not my purpose to oppose a piece of a technology. It’s my purpose to oppose bad uses of that technology. I don’t think the CIA has any business having it’s own fleet of killer drones and I certainly think they should be taken out of the hands of the CIA. The military unfortunately has been as covert as the CIA in its use of drones. So while I don’t oppose the technology, I do oppose the covert nature of it. If the military is going to have drones, they should be used in ways that abide by international law, that allow the American people to know what’s being done, gives an accurate accounting of civilian casualties, provides for compensation to families who are harmed by mistake. And those things are not happening right now, whether it’s the military or the CIA. There’s no transparency or accountability and I think if drones are only in the hands of the military, we still have to have regulations in place.

While you briefly mention other robotic systems being used by the military, for you the drone seems to symbolize the presence of these machines on the battlefield. Do you differentiate between these systems and do you see any positive role that robots can play on the battlefield?

Well I’m somebody who is trying to stop war in general so it’s hard to answer that question. I certainly can understand how the technology of using a soldier’s risk on the ground, easing the soldier’s burden of carrying heavy loads, how this would be a positive thing in terms of making a soldier’s life easier. But if we really want to make a soldier’s life easier, we should try to stop the wars in the first place.

I think it’s interesting to look at UN peacekeepers and the role that drones might play there. I can see if the US were interested in strengthening the role of UN peacekeepers, that drones could play a positive role in finding out where the fighting was going on, how to assist the civilians who are caught in the middle; I could see all kinds of uses for drones in those circumstances.

Would UN surveillance drones be something you are in favor of then?

I think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered first and I’m not privy to the information. I’d like to know more. I’ve seen how the drones become a slippery slope when they start to be armed with less than lethal weapons. So I would really like to know what are the regulations of the UN in using these. But I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to it.

I would also like to add that there is a broader question about the good uses of drones. I think that there are potentially so many uses of drones and many of them positive, some of them either positive or negative and some of them are probably job destroyers such as messenger services. But I think it is also important to look at what is driving the industry and where the money is. The big money is in the military and in surveillance. We don’t really know except from projections what the commercial uses of drones might be but I think it’s so important also to recognize that, when we talk about commercial uses of drones, who’s going to have the biggest baddest drones? It’s going to be the biggest baddest corporations. The oil companies are going to have their fleet of drones to make sure they won’t be attacked by the local people who want their resources back. So, I think that while people might be saying, ‘oh, drones are cool and we want to be able to use them for all these cool purposes,’ lets not lose sight of who has the money not only in our country but globally and more money will be able to buy better drones. And probably be used for keeping the status-quo of poor people being poor and big corporations taking advantage of other people’s resources.

There appear to be many inside and out of the military who disapprove of drones being used by the CIA. The retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal has called drones a “covert fix for a complex problem.” John Brennan, as advisor to the President and now as CIA director, has repeatedly called for drones to be used exclusively by the US military where greater oversight is possible. In your opinion Is this shift a positive development? Does this change the meaning of ‘drone warfare’?

First of all, I haven’t seen it happen; so talk is cheap. Second, whenever I have heard it talked about, they say with the exception of Pakistan. Third, it is a potentially positive move but if it remains in the hands of the Joint Special Operations Command, one of the most secret parts of the military, then it’s not much of an improvement.

In chapter one of your book, while acknowledging that drones became popular with the military in part because of the conflicts the United States has engaged in, you seem to argue that drones, contrary to many assumptions, are in fact not more precise or cheaper. Can you explain how you came to that conclusion and how do the assumptions that people have about drones influence the policy choices?

The options being posed are that you either have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of soldiers on the ground at the cost of a million dollars per soldier per year versus drones. I think there’s a huge flaw in that because it doesn’t bring up other options. I think that after eleven years of dealing with extremism with military means, we should have learned our lesson that this is not a problem that the military can solve. This is a problem that we should deal with by policing, through negotiations and reappropriating people into the political system, rehabilitation programs for youth and development programs that try to improve the lives of people and give them other options for the future. I think it’s unfortunate that drones are seen as a technological fix for a problem that is more complex.

Marc Garlasco, one of our speakers in the Drone Center speaker series last semester at Bard College argued that ‘precision’ is the wrong word for drones but that drones are more discriminatory than other airborne platforms. Do you agree with this assessment?

Well, yes and no because they are dangerous in their easiness and very seductive. So we end up doing more drone strikes than may be done with piloted airplanes. We end up killing a lot more people because it is seen as more precise, more targeted. A lot of low level Taliban or al-Qaeda who are teenagers [are killed]. In my recent trip to Yemen, I got to meet with a lot of mothers whose children had joined al-Qaeda and it really struck me that it was sort of like kids in our country joining a gang. Do they deserve to be killed, especially by a foreign country? No, they deserve to be captured and rehabilitated. I think the drones, in the end, lead us to kill a lot more low level people who would not be killed if we weren’t using that technology.

Some argue that future wars in which drones are more prevalent will be more ‘humane’ since fewer humans are placed at risk. At several points in your book you quote Ron Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech University, who argues that autonomous systems are “capable of performing more ethically on the battlefield than are human soldiers.” Do you consider this to be a realistic scenario for the future? And how do you feel about the prospect of autonomous war?

I think it’s very frightening as a future. As a mother, I would hate this to be the world that we leave for our children, where we have these autonomous killer robots that we have going out and fighting, supposedly in our national interest. I think we put so much of our know-how, scientists and engineers, into killing machines instead of into ways that would make people’s lives better. It think the prospect of autonomous drones is something that to me is so scary.

You quote the experiences of several drone pilots and acknowledge the level of stress these pilots suffer from the carnage they witness. Would you say then that these pilots are more attuned to the reality of war than the pilots of manned aircraft?

As I state in the book, I think it affects every pilot in a different way. There are anecdotes of pilots who form a relationship with the family they are watching for days at a time. And others come away feeling like this is not real to them. I recently met an analyst with the drone program who is one of the many who are suffering from PTSD with this strange dichotomy in their lives that they are supposed to make. Either pressing the kill button or watching the drone strikes by day and then returning to their families at night. I think it’s almost a positive thing that there is psychological trauma among people engaged in this program because it shows that they are human. The ones who think it’s just fun are the ones we have to worry about.

In chapter 3, you note the rise in popularity of domestic drones for border patrol and law enforcement. Considering the recent admissions by the FBI in the past month, do you consider senators such as Rand Paul an ally in curbing uses of policing drones?

Yes, I think it’s important to have allies who are across the aisle and the whole spectrum. Just like with these revelations of NSA spying by Snowden there are a considerable number of Republicans who have come out to support Snowden. During a Democratic administration it’s hard to find our allies among the progressive Democrats who would naturally be allies in these issues. It has become more in the hands of libertarians to speak out against government spying. In terms of the drones, if we look across the country at all of these bills that are being debated at the state level as well as at the local, it’s very exciting to see a coalition of groups that span ideological spectrums.

At the Drone Center we are interested in what is predicted to be a large domestic market for drones in fields such as agriculture and journalism. What do you feel is the level of understanding here in the United States of the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

I think it has improved dramatically. If you look at the poll numbers over the past few years, it’s down from 80% to 60% of Americans who think this is a good program. For me, that is an indication that the more that people know, the less they will be supportive. Now, it’s still quite astounding when you look at US opinion in light of the global opinion. The Pew poll that came out yesterday showed that out of 39 countries, the only countries that thought the drones were good were the US, Israel and Kenya. I think Americans are learning more, questioning more, and our job is to get out more and more information about the civilian casualties, the danger of relying on this technological fix, and really keep moving public opinion in opposition.

What are some of your future plans for your drone activism?

We’re excited that the activism has taken off in the last year. There are regular protests at bases like the Hancock base here in upstate New York and at other bases around the country where the drones are being piloted. There are weekly protests at the CIA and the Pentagon, in front of the White House, at the headquarters of some of the corporations like General Atomics. We have forced the government to be more open about this program so we are going to continue to build that kind of activism as well as engage other issues as they arise. Just this week there will be another hearing in the DC courts about the case of the al-Awlaki’s. We plan to be at those hearings. We are organizing another drone summit and look forward to bringing people together. We are trying very hard to get people from the areas where we are using the drones and to get first hand information out. We think that if we are continuing to put pressure on Congress, the administration and the companies themselves, if we continue to turn around public opinion, this will have a change of policy. We also think it’s important to be working on the international level as well because any regulation on the uses of drones will have to come from outside US borders. I think we are already having an impact. The fact that President Obama and others have to talk about it, the fact that they have reduced the number of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan in the last year, the fact that there is more coverage of these issues; I think these are all measures of how effective the protests have been.

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