Earlier this year, Obama defended the administration’s unprecedented use of armed drones during a “virtual interview” held online. He said:
“I want to make sure that people understand, actually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties. For the most part, they have been very precise precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates. And we are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied. So, I think that there’s this perception somehow that we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly. This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases, and so on. It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.”
However, earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that:
The United States has begun launching drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen under new authority approved by President Obama that allows the CIA and the military to fire even when the identity of those who could be killed is not known, U.S. officials said. […]
U.S. officials said that Obama approved the use of “signature” strikes this month and that the killing of an al-Qaeda operative near the border of Yemen’s Marib province this week was among the first attacks carried out under the new authority. 1
Yesterday’s Democracy Now! report looked into Obama’s expansion of the use of drones in conflicts around the world. They spoke with Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar, who represents families of civilians killed in US drone strikes. Akbar was finally granted a visa to enter the US this week after the State Department had tried to block his visit for over a year. Asked to respond to Obama’s statement, Akbar said:
But what I see here is that either President Obama is lying to the nation, or he is too naive, to believe on the reports which CIA is presenting to President, because CIA is the one who is taking out such strikes, and they are coming to President and say that “We are taking out the right targets.” […]
Now, if we took—if we were to believe President Obama, then it means that, on the ground, whatever we’re seeing is wrong, and we just have to believe that people who are remote-control killing these people in Pakistan, they even have the ample knowledge of their guilt, so that can they take out these targets.
They were also joined by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK and one of the organisers of this weekend’s “Drone Summit: Killing and Spying by Remote Control” being held in Washington DC. Benjamin is also the author of a new book called “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control”.
Benjamin says the proliferation of drones is not only happening in the conflicts in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, but with the expansion of drone bases, also into places like Kuwait, Oman, Ethiopia, Seychelles, Australia and Turkey. She also points out that although the US remains the number one producer of drones, “Israel is right behind, number two, and number two user of drones, as well,” whilst “right behind them in terms of producers, is China.” In fact, according to Benjamin, over 50 countries already have drones.
As for the recent change in policy, and Obama’s authorisation for the new “signature” strikes which permit “the CIA and the military to fire even when the identity of those who could be killed is not known”, Benjamin says:
Well, there’s a—they divide them between what’s called the “personality” strikes, when you actually have a hit list and you know the names of the people you’re trying to take out, and the other is the “signature” strikes, where it’s just by suspicious behavior, if you look like—if you’re with a group and you’re carrying guns and you look like you’re militants.
And this is done by pilots that are thousands of miles away, don’t know the culture, don’t know the people, don’t know the region. And so, they are given this tremendous responsibility. And they kill by day, and then they’re supposed to go home to their families at night. They’re sitting in a place like Creech Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas and supposed to integrate themselves into their families and their communities after spending the day watching remote control and using a PlayStation to kill people. We find that these pilots have PTSD just like soldiers on the battlefield have, as well. And I think it’s putting them in a terrible situation.
She then adds, pointing to the relative lack of criticism that Obama has received for his expansive warmongering:
I do want to say, [Juan,] that so many people who spoke out against George Bush’s extraordinary rendition and Guantánamo and indefinite detention have been very quiet when it comes to the Obama administration, who is not putting people in those same kind of conditions, instead is just taking them out and killing them. So we need to make people speak up and say that when Obama says this is on a tight leash, this is not true, this is a lie. And the American people have to become aware of it and not be partisan about that. We don’t care who’s doing the killing; we want the killing to stop.
Lastly, Benjamin speaks to the growing drone use within the borders of America:
Well, yes, you know, people should be aware that the administration has already killed Americans overseas. And Eric Holder has said that Americans are not guaranteed judicial process, so there is nothing stopping them from killing Americans here at home, either. In fact, when the head of the FBI was asked at a hearing whether drones could be used to kill Americans at home, he said he wasn’t sure about that.
But certainly drones are coming back for surveillance. They are being used now in an experimental way with police departments, but there is a very strong lobby of these drone manufacturers, who have 53 members of Congress who have formed their own drone caucus, and they are pressuring to get drones allowed in a much broader way into U.S. airspace. That will happen now by 2015. And every police department in this country wants its own drones. We will be—you have done so many great programs already, Amy, on the surveillance society. This will take it to another degree altogether if we have drones overhead, and drones can come right into your window and look inside your home. Get ready for another level of surveillance.
Click here to watch the video or read the full transcript on the Democracy Now! website.
More information about today’s Washington conference can be found on the CODEPINK website.
1 From an article entitled “White House approves broader Yemen drone campaign”, written by Greg Miller, published by the Washington Post on April 26, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/white-house-approves-broader-yemen-drone-campaign/2012/04/25/gIQA82U6hT_story.html