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An Interview With Medea Benjamin About the Life-and-Death Decisions of Drone Warfare

(Image: OR Books)

Internationally renowned activist Medea Benjamin has written a compelling case against drones. Please help spread Benjamin’s message and support Truthout/BuzzFlash by getting a copy of her new book, “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.”

Mark Karlin: Your book is called “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.” Isn’t this a bit like making people feel “better” about capital punishment by using lethal injection instead of hanging, a firing squad or the electric chair?

Medea Benjamin: The American people are tired of war, particularly the “boots on the ground” kind where Americans are killed. However, they seem content to conduct war by other means, i.e. drones. One poll shows that eight out of ten Americans support the use of lethal drones. That’s because drones have been posed as a cheap alternative for killing our enemies that puts no American lives at risk and only hits the “bad guys.” In reality, they are not all that cheap (especially since they are constantly crashing), they kill lots of innocent people, and while they don’t put pilots at risk, they stir up anti-American sentiment and provoke new attacks against us. Drones may seem like “war made easy,” but that’s precisely the problem. War should not be easy, and drone attacks just guarantee that we will keep making new enemies faster than we can kill them.

Karlin: Come to think of it, in capital punishment (although innocent people are killed, which is good enough reason alone to end it) there is at least a trial. You’ve talked about how Attorney General Eric Holder says that killing people with drones is legal and includes due process. You quote, of all people, Stephen Colbert to illustrate how ludicrous the notion of “due process” is when it comes to drone murders. What exactly did he say, and why is that relevant?

Benjamin: When Eric Holder finally got around to talking about the secret drone program in March 2012, he said that the US has a mobile enemy that needs to be chased around the world. He tried to justify drone attacks on US citizens overseas, saying that the Constitution does not guarantee Americans “judicial process” but simply due process.

It was not the legal community but comedian Stephen Colbert who had the best response. He said, “Yes, the founders weren’t picky: trial by jury; trial by fire; rock, paper, scissors. Who cares? Due process just means there is a process that you do.” The current process, Colbert explained, is that the president meets with his advisors, decides who to kill, and then kills them. My favorite line was Colbert’s conclusion: “If we’re going to win our never-ending war against terror, there are bound to be casualties, and one of them just happens to be the Constitution.”

Colbert nails the absurdity of the Obama administration’s twisting of the Constitution, insisting that due process — which for hundreds of years has been thought of as something that happens in a court of law — can simply consist of internal deliberations by the executive branch, with no irksome checks and balances.

Karlin: The US government is increasingly relying on hi-tech killing technology in wars so that it can avoid Americans becoming upset about relatives being killed in a “boots on the ground” war. But isn’t this sort of technology reproducible by other nations to use on us? Heck, we flew a large drone right into Iran’s hands, hardly a nick on it. And, if I recall, President Obama seriously asked for the drone back from Iran, saying it was US property.

Benjamin: Yes, the Iranian government, trying to show it has a sense of humor, started making a $4 toy version of the American drone in various colors. They sent a pink one to Obama. A few months later, the Iranians announced that they had replicated the original, which happened to be a very sophisticated spy drone.

We’re not talking about nuclear technology here. We’re talking about models that can be easily replicated. But there’s not even a need to copy our drones, as the US, Israel and China are selling all kinds of drones and over 50 nations now have them. They are mainly for surveillance, but could be easily weaponized.

Israel is the largest exporter: by 2011 it had sold over 1,000 drones to 42 countries. Non-state entities like Hezbollah have drones. Would-be terrorists in the United States have already been caught trying to rig up a small drone with explosives. As I say in the book, “Watch out America: what goes around, comes around.”

Karlin: To what extent is drone warfare an extension of the US military-industrial complex to develop ever more exotic weapons to keep the funding flowing?

Benjamin: Yes, exactly. This is the complex that General Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about, the one that “takes food from the hungry and shelter from the homeless,” the one that spends, “the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” But remember that it is really the military-industrial-congressional complex. Indeed, many lawmakers are cheerleaders for the drone industry, setting up their own 58-member Congressional Drone Caucus (formally known as the Unmanned Systems Caucus) to lobby for more and better drones, to lift export restrictions, and to relax regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that limit the use of drones domestically. Their reward, of course, is plenty of money for their campaign coffers.

Karlin: You have talked – and I have read – that miniature drone technology is being developed, that some drones will be the size of an insect. What can be done with a drone, just out of curiosity, that is the size of an insect?

Benjamin: These are called micro air vehicles (MAV’s) and they are designed to look just like insects, including moving wings so that they won’t be noticed. Their job is to find and track adversaries, particularly in complex urban environments. They are the ultimate “fly on the wall,” providing sound, video, heat sensor, or other data to the operator.

Karlin: The US government has cleared drones for US by local police forces and other government agencies and consultants. Will we be seeing drones patrolling our skies and invading our privacy above our homes soon? It certainly sounds like we’ve just about reached the pinnacle of the surveillance state in terms of hi-tech.

Benjamin: Reached the pinnacle of our surveillance state? No way, it’s just beginning – if we don’t stop it. Thanks to the drone lobby and the Congressional Drone Caucus, Congress has just passed legislation that forces the FAA to open up US airspace to drones by 2015, and sooner for government agencies. Already, the FAA has given permits to some police departments to experiment with drones. In May, the FAA waved the application process for police use of drones weighing up to 25 pounds, and is now streamlining the approval process for larger drones. Drones are paving the way for the 24/7 surveillance society.

And drones could easily move from surveillance to offensive action. The CEO of Vanguard Defense Industries, the company that sold a drone to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s office in Texas, said it is designed to be weaponized and could easily be outfitted with tasers and stun batons. Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel of Montgomery County spoke enthusiastically about drones firing rubber rounds and tear gas.

There is a slippery slope between equipping drones with rubber bullets and strapping on more lethal weapons. The government is already using Hellfire missiles to kill Americans overseas. When FBI Director Robert Mueller was asked at a Congressional hearing in March if Americans could be targeted for assassination by drones here at home, he simply said, “I don’t know.” Now that’s frightening.

Karlin: Getting back to how many nations will or will shortly have drones. How will the US be able to say, “you better not use them on us” when it is using them wherever it wants – and to assassinate people, even US citizens?

Benjamin: Yes, just think of the precedent the US is setting. Were the US rationale to be applied by other countries, China might declare an ethnic Uighur activist living in New York City as an “enemy combatant” and send a missile into Manhattan; Russia could assert that it was legal to launch a drone attack against someone living in London whom they claim is linked to Chechen militants. Or consider the case of Luis Posada Carrilles, a Cuban-American living in Miami who is a known terrorist convicted of masterminding a 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Given the failure of the US legal system to bring Posada to justice, the Cuban government could claim that it has the right to send a drone into downtown Miami to kill an admitted terrorist and sworn enemy.

And then of course there are people we are fighting with overseas who might want to attack us at home, and drones would give them plenty of opportunities.

Karlin: How far away can a drone pilot in a control room be from the drone he or she is using to conduct surveillance or kill people?

Benjamin: The pilot can be thousands of miles away, like the pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada piloting drones in Afghanistan. Since radio, satellite and fiber-optic communications links are used, the range of drone teleoperation is basically anywhere on earth, though some regions are better covered than others.

But the drone must have a base from which it is launched, and this usually needs to be fairly near the area of operation, which is probably the main limitation on where the drones can operate.

Karlin: What’s to keep a drone from carrying a nuclear tipped rocket?

Benjamin: Drones like the Predator and Reaper are big enough to carry nuclear warheads, but most ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads over long distances would be too heavy. If you look up the payload capacities of various drones and the launch weights of various missiles, you can see which ones could theoretically be carried on which drones.

The US is considering replacing the B-2 bomber with a drone of some type that could carry nuclear weapons. A ban on any such “nuclear-armed robot” is one of the basic principles proposed by a group of scientists called the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

A related issue is the one of nuclear-powered drones. There are plans in the works for a new generation of nuclear-powered drones capable of flying over remote regions for months on end without refueling. But the danger of a crash that would turn the drone into a “dirty bomb” or the danger of having its nuclear propulsion system fall into the hands of unfriendly forces, these have not been operationalized.

Karlin: This gets to the larger issue of the “due process” question. But I can’t help returning to the inexplicable notion that President Obama, a constitutional lawyer, can so cavalierly ignore the notion of habeas corpus, the legal process required for determining innocence or guilt, and in general our individual rights as guaranteed under the Constitution? It is sort of mind-boggling that we are back to empowering one person with power over individual life or death. Drone warfare appears to be just one representation of this, yes?

Benjamin: Yes, but equally mind-boggling is the notion that Americans seem to like “tough leaders,” leaders who can make these life and death decisions without a lot of hand-wringing. There was a recent New York Times piece about President Obama and his intimate involvement in selecting the “kill lists” for drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. The piece is part of an election-time series looking at Obama’s leadership style, and was told mainly through interviews with Obama insiders. They said how easy it was for Obama to make these decisions, even the decision to target US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki. They were basically bragging about how the president is no shrinking violet when it comes to killing. So, yes, it is mind-boggling that we are empowering one person to make life-and-death decisions, but it is perhaps even more mind-boggling that this unconstitutional, immoral killing spree (that is making us more hated in the world) is perceived by many Americans as a positive example of strong leadership.