Testimony by Medea Benjamin, author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control; cofounder of Global Exchange and Code Pink
November 16, 2012
I recently returned from leading a US delegation of 34 Americans to Pakistan, looking at the results of US drone attacks. We found that drones are actually jeopardizing our security by spreading hatred of Americans and sowing the seeds of violence for decades to come. Drones help extremists recruit more discontented youth. In the tribal society of Waziristan where the drones are attacking, we learned that people who have lost their family members in these deadly attacks are bound by the Pashtun honor code — Pashtunwali — to retaliate and seek revenge.
While for the most part we were received with great hospitality, we found intense anger over the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and what people perceived as a cavalier attitude towards their lives. “To Americans, we are disposable people; our lives are worth nothing” an angry young man told me. At a meeting with the Islamabad Bar Association, we were confronted by a group of lawyers yelling, “Americans, go home. You are all a bunch of terrorists.”
A June 2012 Pew Research poll found that 3 out of 4 Pakistanis considered the US their enemy. With a population of over 180 million, that means 133 million people! Surely that cannot be good for our national security. When Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was asked why there was so animosity towards the United States, she gave a one word answer: drones.
Suspending drone strikes won’t automatically make us loved or stop Islamic radicals, but continuing the strikes only exacerbates the problem. Whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia—Al Qaeda, the Taliban or Al Shabab may be callously killing innocent people, local police and armed forces, but by capitalizing on the fear of drones and the intrusion of Westerners, they cast themselves as defenders of the people.
The US Use of Drones Is Setting a Dangerous Precedent
The US is using drones as if it were the only country to possess them. But the overwhelming US dominance is coming to an end, with the technology falling into the hands of other nations, friends and foes alike.
According to a GAO report, by 2012 more than 75 countries have acquired drones. Most of these are for surveillance and reconnaissance missions but many countries—including Israel, Britain, France, Russia, Turkey, China, India and Iran—either have or are seeking weaponized drones.
Israel is the world’s leading exporter of drones, with more than 1,000 sold in 42 countries. China is producing some 25 different types of drones. Iran has already begun deploying its own reconnaissance drones and weapons-ready models are in the works. In October the Iranian government announced a new long-range drone that can fly 2,000 kilometers; just weeks ago, an Iranian drone launched by Hezbollah flew in Israeli airspace for three hours, beaming back live images of secret Israeli military bases before being shot down by the Israeli military.
A 2012 GAO study reported that “certain terrorist organizations” have acquired small, more rudimentary drones, such as radio-controlled aircraft that are available through the Internet. But if terrorists were able to equip these drones with even a small quantity of chemical or biological weapons, it could produce lethal results.
The proliferation of drones should evoke reflection on the precedent that the US is setting by killing anyone it wants, anywhere it wants, on the basis of secret information. Other nations and non-state entities are watching—and are bound to start acting in a similar fashion.
Surveillance Drones at Home
Here at home, the use of surveillance drones is about to explode thanks in large measure to the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus. Self-described as “industry’s voice on Capitol Hill”, this group of fifty lawmakers has close ties with the powerful industry lobby group: the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
The Caucus not only pushes to lift export restrictions, but also to relax regulations that limit the use of drones domestically. It pushed through legislation that requires the FAA to fully integrate drones into US airspace by September 15, 2015.
Some police departments have already applied for—and received—permission to test out various kinds of drones. From Miami to Houston to Mesa Country, Colorado, police departments have drones that can be equipped with tasers, stun batons, grenade launchers, shotguns, tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.
These drones can also be outfitted with high-powered cameras, thermal imaging devices, license plate readers, and laser radar. In the near future, they might add biometric recognition that can track individuals based on height, age, gender, and skin color and will soon have the capacity to see through walls and ceilings.
All the pieces appear to be lining up to introduce routine aerial surveillance into American life—a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States. This is especially worrisome since our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values.
Drones at home also pose a threat to our safety because the technology is still in its early stages and many drones don’t have adequate “detect sense and avoid” technology to prevent midair collisions. In 2009, the Air Force admitted that more than a third of their drones had crashed. In August 2012 a drone in Afghanistan collided with a C-130 cargo plane, forcing it to make an emergency landing.
In June 2012 the military’s largest drone, the Global Hawk, did not crash in some far-flung overseas outpost but right here in southern Maryland. The aircraft, valued at $176 million, was on a Navy test mission when the ground pilot lost control. Luckily, it crashed into a marsh, not a residential neighborhood.
The way forward
The burden is now squarely on Congress and the public to push back against the proliferation of drones as a military and law enforcement tool.
Peace groups such as CODEPINK, Voices of Creative Non-Violence, and Catholic Workers are part of a growing movement protesting at US bases where lethal drones are remotely operated and at the headquarters of drone manufacturers. Faith-based leaders are questioning the morality of killer drones.
More and more, people of conscience are calling for international guidelines to curb robotic warfare, as the world community has done in the case of land mines and cluster bombs.
We are calling on friends in Congress to act as a counterweight to the pro-drone Caucus and the drone lobby. We need congresspeople who will stand up to a lethal presidential policy run amok, who will advocate on behalf of the privacy and safety of Americans at home, and on behalf of the rule of law overseas, who will demand that the CIA revert to being an intelligence-gathering agency, who will say that after 10 years of waging a war on terror by terrorizing people, it’s time to try another way—a way that includes speeding up the US troop exit from Afghanistan, stopping the deadly drone strikes, promoting peace talks and helping to educate and provide economic opportunities to people in the conflict regions.
The response to the brutal shooting of 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousefzai points in that direction. While the police undertook a nationwide search for her aggressors, Malala’s shooting awoke Pakistani’s silent majority who are saying “Enough” to Taliban threats and oppression. Pakistanis organized rallies throughout the country; girls everywhere, even in SWAT Valley where Malala was shot, expressed their determination to return to school; fathers vowed to protect the schools themselves; and citizens delivered one million signatures to the government demanding free and compulsory education.
Right now, less than half of Pakistani children are enrolled in school; in the tribal areas the figures are less than 20 percent, and only one in five students is female. The numbers are even worse in Yemen and Somalia.
For the cost of one Hellfire missile, we could educate 750 children a year. For the cost of one Predator drone, we could send 37,000 children to school. What a great way to fight extremism, build a better future for the youth of these nations, and make ourselves safer by winning the hearts and minds of the people. Schools not drones should not just be a catchy slogan, but a radical shift away from a 10-plus year failed policy of endless war towards one based on making peace with our Muslim neighbors.