Heckler-In-Chief: CodePink’s Medea Benjamin
CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin is at it again.
On Thursday, she repeatedly interrupted and even got into a back-and-forth exchange with President Obama, during his speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
Benjamin, a veteran antiwar activist who is about five feet tall, has made a career of disrupting high ranking officials and forcing them to confront uncomfortable truths.
The author of Drone Warfare, Killing by Remote Control, Benjamin is particularly concerned about of the U.S. use of unmanned aerial vehicles for “targeted killings.”
Because drone warfare is so secretive it’s difficult to tally the casualties.
In February Senator Lindsay Graham estimated that there have been 4,700 fatalities.
According to the London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism up to 1,727 people have been injured and up to 4,379 people have been killed by U.S. drone strikes between 2002 and 2013 in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. (These numbers don”t include the injured and dead in Afghanistan and Iraq.)
Of the dead, up to 209 have been children.
I caught up with Medea Benjamin on April 10 after she spoke at an Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace luncheon in Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles.
As Obama said when Benjamin repeatedly interrupted him: “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.”
Q: Tell us about the drone policy.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: There were between 46 and 52 drone strikes under the Bush administration. And now there are over 400 – that’s not counting Afghanistan. So this has been tremendously increased under the Obama administration. If you look at Afghanistan the numbers are even more astounding -- the last year where have figures for is 2012, and that’s 506 drone strikes, whereas there were very few drone strikes under Bush… The CIA runs the drone program in Pakistan solely, not with the military. Then there’s a joint CIA-military program in Yemen, then the CIA is involved in a lot of use of spy drones around the world and in the proliferation of bases.
Q: How are the subjects of the targeted killings selected?
Benjamin: They’re supposed to be high-level Al Qaeda operatives that pose an imminent threat to the U.S. and American personnel and citizens. There’s supposed to be no way to capture them. We have not been told how they try to capture them or what constitutes a “high level Al Qaeda operative”… The “kill list” is calculated in the “terror Tuesdays” at the White House every week, where the President and his advisors -- including CIA -- “nominate” people to be on the kill list. Ultimately, the President has to sign off on the kill list. From what we know it looks like there are two separate but overlapping kill lists: One is the CIA kill list, the other is the military kill list. It’s speculated that [having two lists] makes it more difficult to have Congressional oversight and the executive is not thrilled about having that.
Q: How much does drone warfare cost?
Benjamin: There are hidden costs, such as hellfire missiles costing $75,000 each and the requisite personnel, the expenditure is up to $20 million per drone and maybe 800 drones have been bought… It’s not as “cheap” as it’s put out to be. One predator drone in one day of activity supposedly needs 168 people… to carry out the day’s operations… They crash a lot. So when you calculate their costs, consider that the Air Force has said about a third of their drones have crashed.
Q: On February 7 CodePink disrupted the Senate hearings considering Obama’s nominee to become the CIA Director. Why?
Benjamin: John Brennan has been the mastermind of the drone program. He’s the one who’d convene the terror Tuesday meetings at the White House… He was high up in the CIA during the Bush years, the chief of staff in the CIA to George Tenet during the years when torture, extraordinary rendition and indefinite detention were used… I thought it was quite astounding that he’d even be nominated and I was flabbergasted when so many Democrats got on board behind him.
Q: While Brennan’s confirmation process was going on, during the live Academy Awards ceremony Mrs. Obama announced that Argo, a movie glorifying the CIA, won the Best Picture Oscar. What did you think about that?
Benjamin: There is a real attempt to sanitize the CIA killings and to glorify the CIA and to give it a new face. That’s what happened with Zero Dark Thirty, that’s what happened with Michelle Obama… When she appeared my jaw dropped; I couldn’t believe it… These were really a disgusting propaganda films, glorifying the role of the CIA… The fact that this was happening while the CIA is in one of its darkest periods ever in the history of this country -- there have been several times in our history when the CIA has gone rogue, and this is one of them… The CIA is absolutely out of control. The CIA has been on a killing spree… The CIA has become a death squad and to see these films get so much acclaim at the time when the CIA is in its rogue killing phase is very disturbing.
Q: What do you think about the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture remains classified?
Benjamin: It’s horrible. That information, those 6,000 pages, should be released to the public. It’s our right as U.S. citizens to know what our government has done in our name just as I think that these memos about the U.S. of drones should be released to the public.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist who writes regularly for The Progressive and is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States."
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