Drone Free Zone

At the second annual Drone Summit, Code Pink and Cornel West argue that all lives are equal.

Cole Stangler November 20, 2013

Activists held a march and action Friday, before this weekend's Drone Summit, to protest the United States' use of drones. (Photo Courtesy of Code Pink.)

After near­ly a decade of being shroud­ed in secre­cy and fail­ing to spark the inter­est of the polit­i­cal main­stream, the White House’s tar­get­ed killing pro­gram has been the sub­ject of increased Con­gres­sion­al scruti­ny in recent months. Much of the con­ver­sa­tion has focused on the con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty of killing Amer­i­can cit­i­zens with­out tri­al, fueled in large part by Sen­a­tor Rand Paul (R‑Ky.)’s near­ly 13-hour fil­i­buster in March against the nom­i­na­tion of John Bren­nan — who, as Obama’s coun­tert­er­ror­ism advi­sor, over­saw the administration’s expand­ed use of drone strikes over­seas — to head the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency.

Global pressure may be also playing a role. Last month, two different UN reports said that some American strikes had violated international law and called for increased transparency.

But while con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly inspired anx­i­eties over due process and sur­veil­lance are on the upsurge, anti-war group Code Pink pre­sent­ed a deep­er, more rad­i­cal cri­tique of drone war­fare at the group’s sec­ond-ever Drone Sum­mit, held at the George­town Uni­ver­si­ty Law Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., this week­end. It’s a cri­tique that has roots in the peace move­ment and prides itself on not mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion between Amer­i­can and for­eign lives. Of the 2,0004,000 peo­ple killed in America’s covert drone wars in Pak­istan, Yemen and Soma­lia, accord­ing to esti­mates from the Lon­don-based Bureau of Inves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism, only five were U.S. citizens.

Philoso­pher Cor­nel West set the tone of the con­fer­ence with his keynote address on Sat­ur­day morn­ing. The pre­cious babies who are killed by U.S. drones in Pak­istan, in Soma­lia, in Yemen have exact­ly the same val­ue as those price­less white chil­dren who were killed in New­town, Con­necti­cut, as those black broth­ers and sis­ters on the South Side of Chica­go, brown broth­ers and sis­ters in bar­rios, red broth­ers and sis­ters on reser­va­tions [and] yel­low broth­ers and sis­ters,” he said.

There was a marked­ly inter­na­tion­al spir­it to the affair, which fea­tured speak­ers from coun­tries tar­get­ed by strikes, such as Yemen and Pak­istan. Also rep­re­sent­ed were the Unit­ed King­dom, which uses drones in Afghanistan, and Ger­many, where key U.S. mil­i­tary bases help car­ry out strikes in Soma­lia. In the main hall on Sat­ur­day, con­fer­ence atten­dees were greet­ed by a col­lec­tion of mock-graves bear­ing the names of vic­tims. Also on exhib­it was The U.S. Drones Quilt, a project over­seen by the group Vet­er­ans for Peace, which devotes each of its indi­vid­ual pan­els to hon­or­ing civil­ian victims.

Dur­ing one of the most mov­ing pan­els, View from Yemen,” the soft-spo­ken Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni civ­il engi­neer who lost both his broth­er-in-law and a nephew in an Amer­i­can drone strike in August 2012, recount­ed his family’s sto­ry and called on the Unit­ed States to halt the strikes altogether.

They know the real­i­ty of this but they don’t have the audac­i­ty to apol­o­gize about what they’re caus­ing,” Jaber said of the White House.

The group from Yemen was met with thun­der­ing applause and a stand­ing ova­tion, with some in the crowd tak­ing to the micro­phone to express a mix of sol­i­dar­i­ty and tear­ful apologies.

Bin Ali Jaber was joined on the pan­el by Ente­sar al Qad­hi and Baraa Shiban, two youth rep­re­sen­ta­tives on Yemen’s Nation­al Dia­logue Con­fer­ence—which recent­ly called for the coun­try to out­law drone strikes in its post-rebel­lion con­sti­tu­tion. But much like the increas­ing­ly severe protes­ta­tions from the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment, that ban can only car­ry so much weight — the Unit­ed States has con­tin­ued to car­ry out strikes in both nations. As Shiban point­ed out, the peo­ple with their hands on the trig­ger are here in America.”

So on the Mon­day after the con­fer­ence, Code Pink and oth­er sum­mit atten­dees went to Capi­tol Hill to lob­by the peo­ple with their hands on the trig­ger. Ben­jamin says they orga­nized vis­its with 16 dif­fer­ent Sen­ate offices. Four peace activists were arrest­ed at Charles Schumer (D‑N.Y.)’s office after shout­ing out the names of drone strike vic­tims and call­ing on Schumer to demand an end to the tar­get­ed killing program.

It’s dif­fi­cult to dis­cern the actu­al impact of this kind of street heat, at least when it comes to influ­enc­ing pol­i­cy in the Unit­ed States. With the excep­tion of one offi­cial Sen­ate hear­ing on the con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty of the tar­get­ed killing pro­gram, a few oth­er infor­mal brief­in­gs held on Capi­tol Hill includ­ing the del­e­ga­tion from Yemen, and a hand­ful of out­spo­ken crit­ics in Con­gress, the administration’s drone wars have received rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle push­back from lawmakers.

So the sum­mit par­tic­i­pants focused on a very mod­est goal — urg­ing leg­is­la­tors to pass a bill that would force the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion to pub­licly release infor­ma­tion on the num­ber of drone strike casu­al­ties each year in an annu­al report. The mea­sure already passed the Sen­ate Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee ear­li­er this month by a 13 – 2 vote, a good sign that it stands a shot at pass­ing the broad­er Sen­ate. Orga­niz­ers hope the mea­sure can be attached as an amend­ment to the annu­al Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act.

At a pan­el on Sun­day called Pres­sur­ing Gov­ern­ments for Change,” Robert Naiman, pol­i­cy direc­tor at Just For­eign Pol­i­cy, talked about why it’s impor­tant to get behind what may appear to some as an exceed­ing­ly weak demand. The public’s broad sup­port for drone war­fare, Naiman told the crowd, thrives on the administration’s abil­i­ty to make two key claims: that the strikes are nar­row­ly focused on high-lev­el Al Qae­da fig­ures and that civil­ian casu­al­ties are extreme­ly rare.

A key rea­son we need to force out more infor­ma­tion from the admin­is­tra­tion is so they have to defend these two claims on the record, where they can be chal­lenged,” Naiman said. Crit­ics say X,’ anony­mous admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials say No, that’s not true.’ And that’s the end of the story.”

Lay­ing the ground­work for informed pub­lic debate is a long way from, say, repeal­ing the Autho­riza­tion for the Use of Mil­i­tary Force, which was passed in the after­math of 911 and has since served as the basis for the Unit­ed States’ covert mil­i­tary action over­seas. But in a polit­i­cal cli­mate in which the admin­is­tra­tion refus­es to even release the legal memo jus­ti­fy­ing its tar­get­ed killing pro­gram, it’s easy to grasp the impor­tance of these kinds of baby steps.

In spite of what might seem like slow-mov­ing progress in the pol­i­cy are­na, Medea Ben­jamin is opti­mistic that the work of Code Pink and oth­ers is hav­ing an impact.” She points out slow­ly shift­ing pub­lic opin­ion on drones—a poll in March showed that 65 per­cent of Amer­i­cans sup­port­ed strikes against sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ists,” as opposed to 83 per­cent in ear­ly 2012. Ben­jamin also sees the steep decline in the sheer num­ber of strikes over the last cou­ple of years and the grow­ing oppo­si­tion in the Unit­ed Nations as signs that the admin­is­tra­tion is feel­ing the heat.

If you look at the work many of us did around Iraq and Afghanistan for years and years, mobi­liz­ing huge protests and see­ing noth­ing as a result of our work, year after year after year, this is pret­ty excit­ing,” Ben­jamin says. Because we do see the change happening.”

Glob­al pres­sure may be also play­ing a role. Last month, two dif­fer­ent UN reports said that some Amer­i­can strikes had vio­lat­ed inter­na­tion­al law and called for increased transparency.

In addi­tion to get­ting Con­gress to pass the bill putting drone casu­al­ties on the record, Ben­jamin thinks that enough pub­lic pres­sure could force the admin­is­tra­tion to release its mem­os jus­ti­fy­ing drone pol­i­cy and get the CIA to ful­ly relin­quish its over­sight of strikes in Pak­istan to the Depart­ment of Defense, where they’d be sub­ject to more trans­paren­cy. She also thinks the admin­is­tra­tion may be on the verge of end­ing its prac­tice of sig­na­ture strikes” — where­by drones tar­get indi­vid­u­als whose activ­i­ty fits the pro­file of ter­ror­ist suspects.

Joe Scar­ry of the No Drones Net­work sounds a more cau­tious note. Though he finds the slow swing in pub­lic opin­ion heart­en­ing, he points out that there’s not a uni­fied front of pub­lic oppo­si­tion to the technology’s most trou­bling appli­ca­tions. If Code Pink is most crit­i­cal of how drones makes it eas­i­er to wage wars abroad, there’s a sep­a­rate camp of civ­il lib­er­tar­i­ans who are more trou­bled by the pri­va­cy impli­ca­tions of UAV tech­nol­o­gy at home. There is a wing of this move­ment that is con­cerned about sur­veil­lance; there is a wing of this move­ment that’s con­cerned about phys­i­cal injury to peo­ple. If there is one area where there is not always full com­mu­ni­ca­tion, coor­di­na­tion or agree­ment, that’s it,” says Scarry.

With­out coa­les­cence between these two camps of drone crit­ics, Scar­ry isn’t so sure that the progress Ben­jamin hopes for is with­in reach.

But if the peo­ple who feel most con­cerned about sur­veil­lance are actu­al­ly suc­cess­ful at sit­ting togeth­er with the peo­ple con­cerned about phys­i­cal injury,” he notes, this is going to be an incred­i­bly pow­er­ful movement.”

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Fol­low him @colestangler.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH