Rand Paul’s marathon 13-hour filibuster was not the end of the conversation on drones. Suddenly, drones are everywhere, and so is the backlash. Efforts to counter drones at home and abroad are growing in the courts, at places of worship, outside air force bases, inside the UN, at state legislatures, inside Congress–and having an effect on policy.
April marks the national month of uprising against drone warfare. Activists in upstate New York are converging on the Hancock Air National Guard Base where Predator drones are operated. In San Diego, they will take on Predator-maker General Atomics at both its headquarters and the home of the CEO. In D.C., a coalition of national and local organizations are coming together to say no to drones at the White House. And all across the nation—including New York City, New Paltz, Chicago, Tucson and Dayton—activists are planning picket lines, workshops and sit-ins to protest the covert wars. The word has even spread to Islamabad, Pakistan, where activists are planning a vigil to honor victims.
There has been an unprecedented surge of activity in cities, counties and state legislatures across the country aimed at regulating domestic surveillance drones. After a raucous city council hearing in Seattle in February, the Mayor agreed to terminate its drones program and return the city’s two drones to the manufacturer. Also in February, the city of Charlottesville, VA passed a 2-year moratorium and other restrictions on drone use, and other local bills are pending in cities from Buffalo to Ft. Wayne. Simultaneously, bills have been proliferating on the state level. In Florida, a pending bill will require the police to get a warrant to use drones in an investigation; a Virginia statewide moratorium on drones passed both houses and awaits the governor’s signature, and similar legislation in pending in at least 13 other state legislatures.
Responding to the international outcry against drone warfare, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, is conducting an in-depth investigation of 25 drone attacks and will release his report in the Spring. Meanwhile, on March 15, having returned from a visit to Pakistan to meet drone victims and government officials, Emmerson condemned the U.S. drone program in Pakistan, as “it involves the use of force on the territory of another State without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty.”
Leaders in the faith-based community broke their silence and began mobilizing against the nomination of John Brennan, with over 100 leaders urging the Senate to reject Brennan. And in an astounding development, The National Black Church Initiative (NBCI), a faith-based coalition of 34,000 churches comprised of 15 denominations and 15.7 million African Americans, issued a scathing statement about Obama’s drone policy, calling it “evil”, “monstrous” and “immoral.” The group’s president, Rev. Anthony Evans, exhorted other black leaders to speak out, saying “If the church does not speak against this immoral policy we will lose our moral voice, our soul, and our right to represent and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In the past four years the Congressional committees that are supposed to exercise oversight over the drones have been mum. Finally, in February and March, the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee held their first public hearings, and the Constitution Subcommittee will hold a hearing on April 16 on the “constitutional and statutory authority for targeted killings, the scope of the battlefield and who can be targeted as a combatant.” Too little, too late, but at least Congress is feeling some pressure to exercise its authority.
The specter of tens of thousands of drones here at home when the FAA opens up US airspace to drones by 2015 has spurred new left/right alliances. Liberal Democratic Senator Ron Wyden joined Tea Party’s Rand Paul during his filibuster. The first bipartisan national legislation was introduced by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., saying drones used by law enforcement must be focused exclusively on criminal wrongdoing and subject to judicial approval, and prohibiting the arming of drones. Similar left-right coalitions have formed at the local level. And speaking of strange bedfellows, NRA president David Keene joined The Nation’s legal affairs correspondent David Cole in an op-ed lambasting the administration for the cloak of secrecy that undermines the system of checks and balances.
While trying to get redress in the courts for the killing of American citizens by drones in Yemen, the ACLU has been stymied by the Orwellian US government refusal to even acknowledge that the drone program exists. But on March 15, in an important victory for transparency, the D.C. Court of Appeals rejected the CIA’s absurd claims that it “cannot confirm or deny” possessing information about the government’s use of drones for targeted killing, and sent the case back to a federal judge.
Most Democrats have been all too willing to let President Obama carry on with his lethal drones, but on March 11, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and seven colleagues issued a letter to President Obama calling on him to publicly disclose the legal basis for drone killings, echoing a call that emerged in the Senate during the John Brennan hearing. The letter also requested a report to Congress with details about limiting civilian casualties by signature drone strikes, compensating innocent victims, and restructuring the drone program “within the framework of international law.”
There have even been signs of discontent within the military. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had approved a ludicrous high-level military medal that honored military personnel far from the battlefield, like drone pilots, due to their “extraordinary direct impacts on combat operations.” Moreover, it ranked above the Bronze Star, a medal awarded to troops for heroic acts performed in combat. Following intense backlash from the military and veteran community, as well as a push from a group of bipartisan senators, new Defense Secretary Senator Chuck Hagel decided to review the criteria for this new “Distinguished Warfare” medal.
Remote-control warfare is bad enough, but what is being developed is warfare by “killer robots” that don’t even have a human in the loop. A campaign against fully autonomous warfare will be launched this April at the UK’s House of Commons by human rights organizations, Nobel laureates and academics, many of whom were involved in the successful campaign to ban landmines. The goal of the campaign is to ban killer robots before they are used in battle.
Throughout the US–and the world–people are beginning to wake up to the danger of spy and killer drones. Their actions are already having an impact in forcing the Administration to share memos with Congress, reduce the number of strikes and begin a process of taking drones out of the hands of the CIA.
Medea Benjamin is author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. Noor Mir is the Drone Campaign Coordinator at CODEPINK.