During President Obama’s speech on Thursday about counterterrorism practices including the use of drones and closing of Guantánamo Bay, there was a courageous woman who interrupted and demanded an explanation. It was none other than Medea Benjamin, Code Pink co-founder and political activist who advocates for social justice. She has organized rallies to spread information about drone strikes abroad and has even been known to perform peaceful protests with recently detained Adam Kokesh.
This wasn’t her first time making a scene during a counterterrorism speech. In fact, Benjamin has a history of standing up for the innocent civilians who have died as a result of extrajudicial targeting from predator drones. Just over one year ago, she stood up to address CIA counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as he gave a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. She interrupted him after he made the remark, “More broadly, Al-Qaeda’s killing of innocents, mostly Muslim men, women, and children, has badly tarnished its image and appeal in the eyes of Muslims around the world.”
Benjamin inquired, “Excuse me, will you speak out about the innocents killed by the United States? What about the hundreds of innocent people we are killing with our drone strikes in Pakistan and in Yemen and Somalia? I speak out on behalf of those innocent victims.” She was promptly hauled out of Brennan’s speech by security as she continued speaking out saying that she loves the rule of law and our country, but drone strikes are making us less safe.
At the time of Brennan’s speech, the CIA was still pretty mute about the use of drones abroad and was denying allegations on the total number of innocent civilian casualties. Just before Brennan gave his speech, Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism gave a fantastic analysis of the CIA drone program in which he criticized the Obama administration for its hush-hush approach to the total amount of civilian casualties and the legality of drone warfare as a whole. “The highly classified nature of the campaign in Pakistan and Yemen has been used to curtail scrutiny. When the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International sought details of the legal basis of the campaign, ‘state secrets privilege’ was invoked,” he wrote. Benjamin eagerly attended Brennan’s speech in hopes of addressing some of these issues of transparency.
Thursday, Benjamin was persistent in addressing President Obama about his use of drones. She continued to talk over President Obama until he acknowledged her. This time when she was hauled out, she probed, “Can you tell the Muslims that their lives are as precious as our lives? Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activity? Will you compensate the families of innocent victims you have killed?”
When Obama paused and acknowledged her passion, he stated, “I'm willing to cut that young lady interrupting me some slack, because it's worth being passionate about," he said. "The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to."
The Obama administration and CIA counterterrorism adviser John Brennan have had to face these questions before. Medea Benjamin asked them at a previous counterterrorism speech, and the ACLU sued the administration in 2012 under the Freedom of Information Act “to release basic — and accurate — information about the government’s targeted killing program.”
President Obama stated in his speech on Thursday: “By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life. Indeed, our efforts must also be measured against the history of putting American troops in distant lands among hostile populations.” The majority of his speech focused on the safety of American troops and justifying the killing of American citizens with drone strikes (without due process) but paid little attention to the civilians from other nations caught in the crossfire. So much for transparency.