As Washington and Hollywood celebrities were busy getting ready for an evening of glamour and amusement at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, across town human rights and peace advocates, along with the family members of individuals who have been killed in US drone attacks, gathered to discuss the Obama Administration’s policies of targeted killing at the first International Drone Summit.
The event was organized by CODEPINK, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Reprieve, and facilitated by Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of CODEPINK and the author of a new book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.
Panelists and audience members alike spoke of the need for transparency and official acknowledgement of what the CIA is and has been doing in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
One never sees any images of drone victims in the American mainstream media—but Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve, which co-organized the Summit, showed the audience pictures of children who had been killed alongside images of missile parts from the weapons that took their lives. He asked, “How can we get people to pay attention?”
Chris Woods, a senior reporter with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and a leader of the Bureau’s covert war investigation team, offered a PowerPoint presentation challenging the Obama Administration and CIA’s unwillingness to acknowledge that there have been civilian casualties. According to TBIJ’s reporting, between 2004 and 2012, the CIA launched 321 drone strikes in Pakistan, 269 of which were carried out under President Obama’s command. Between 2,429 and 3,097 people have been killed in these drone strikes, including 479 to 811 civilians and 174 children.
The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill had audience members riveted by his passion, depth of knowledge, and understanding of shadowy covert affairs. He said, “We need to disavow ourselves of any notion that this [targeted killing] policy is markedly different than that of Bush and Cheney.” He explained how the U.S. killed American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, and said, “This is lawless activity that the United States is engaged in around the world. It goes up against every fiber that the Constitution is supposed to embody. Every single fiber of that document is violated in the preemptive assassination policy that this Administration is unleashing around the world.”
Scahill also talked about Congress’ failure to carry out its oversight responsibilities, and how this allowed the CIA to wreak havoc under the cloak and dagger of covert warfare. He explained the significance of the word “persons” in the 2001 “Authorization for Use of Military Force,” (AUMF) as a clear indicator that Congress was specifically authorizing assassination policy. The AUMF says: “That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Scahill explained how the CIA recently asked President Obama for an “expanded mandate” to carry out “signature strikes” in Yemen and Somalia.
“The idea of the signature strikes is that you can develop a pattern of life, and you can study a pattern of life being engaged in by certain people in Yemen, and you can determine without knowing their identity, or knowing that they’ve had any connection to terrorism whatsoever that they are a terrorist because of how they act, because of who they associate with, and that once you develop that pattern of life, you then develop a very efficient pattern of death for those people. Which is to bring in the drones and take them out. And this is what has been going on in Pakistan, of course, for many many years now, and it’s expanding into Yemen, and Somalia has been hit multiple times with drones, but also with cruise missiles launched from the sea, and also US covert forces going into Somalia, landing and capturing people or snatching them.”
According to TBIJ, since 2001, the U.S. has reportedly carried out 41 to 129 strikes in Yemen, 31 to 67 of them by drone. As a result, as many as 651 people have been killed in these strikes, including 55 to 105 civilians, and 24 children. In Somalia, since 2007, the U.S. has reportedly carried out 10 to 21 strikes, of which 3 to 9 were by drone, killing as many as 169 people.
But the ill effect of drones reaches far beyond casualties. Rafia Zakaria, the first Pakistani American woman to serve as Amnesty International USA’s Director, advocated greater consideration for the ways in which drone strikes impact families, communities, regions, and intra-national sources of strife, tension, and conflict. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees recently reported that over 181,000 people have been displaced by fighting and government security operations in northwest Pakistan.
A key message at the Drone Summit, which was touched upon time and again, was what David Cortwright, the Director of Policy Studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, referred to as “the illusion that you can counter terrorism by military force.” Extrajudicial killing has become the central feature of American counter-terrorism activities, and that feature continues to evolve behind a curtain of secrecy and lawlessness.
Raining terror from the sky upon people of far away lands has becoming a panacea for American insecurity—yet, as several panelists at the Drone Summit warned, the blowback created by repeatedly killing civilians simply creates more danger.
It’s hard to believe the mainstream American media doesn’t find this dangerous cycle of violence—yet the summit received no coverage. But if you were curious, across town, Rick Santorum took photos of Lindsay Lohan.