Campaign of the Month: Stopping the Proliferation of Lethal Killing Drones and Spy Drones

Medea Benjamin

With the CIA and the US military using drones around the world for killing and spying, the organisation CODEPINK, based in the United States, has launched a campaign to stop this proliferation both overseas and here at home.

Drone warfare raises a series of new concerns as the latest method of waging war in the 21st century. It is presented to the people in the US as a precise way to “get the bad guys” without risking the lives of its own people, which is why 82 percent of people in the US in a March 2012 poll supported drone attacks against terrorist suspects. The truth is that drone attacks kill many innocent people, radicalise the local population and increase anti-US sentiment and a desire for revenge. Drone warfare makes it easy for the president—any president—to get involved in conflicts without consulting Congress or the people. The US notion that the United States can attack any suspect, anywhere, violates international law and sets a terrible precedent for the rest of the world. Drones have also been used to kill US citizens overseas, violating any semblance of due process, and plans are underway for the widespread use of drones by police departments and other government agencies here at home.

Who makes them?

The Predator and Reaper drones are built by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI), a sister company of General Atomics. The drone factory is located about 25 miles northeast of the main headquarters in Poway, California. Between 1998 and 2003, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems had won over $980,000,000 in millitary contracts. General Atomics is a leading company in a multitude of high-tech resources giving generously to both Democrats and Republicans. In 2008, the General Atomics Political Action Commitee spent $173,800 contributing to the Democrats and $211,300 to the Republicans.

According to The San Diego Union-Tribune article "Prowling for Profit", the Predator and Reaper generally cost $4 million to $12 million each. The US Defense Appropriations FY2010 key investments included $489 million for 24 new Reaper drones. The upcoming US Defense Appropriations FY2011 includes: $2.2 billion for procurement of Predator-class aircraft to increase the Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) available to deployed forces from 37 to 65 by 2013; and doubling procurement of the MQ-9 Reaper over the next few years.

The campaign

CODEPINK seeks to educate the people in the US in order to change public perceptions about drones, and although we do not think we will be able to end the use of lethal and spy drones, we do believe we can regulate their use. To launch our campaign, we hosted a Drone Summit in April 2012 that brought together several hundred human rights advocates, robotics technology experts, lawyers, journalists and activists to share information about the use of both lethal and surveillance drones. Then we released the book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control and organised a 6-month book tour to meet with communities around the country.

This tour allows us to start building a broad coalition and to encourage local groups to take on one or many aspects of the campaign, such as the suggestions below:

  • Protest at one of the 64 sites around the country where drones are being based, or at the headquarters of a company involved in drone production. We will help people do research on what is happening in their area, including how to file a Freedom of Information Act request to disclose the names of local companies/organisations involved.
  • Sign on to the petition to President Obama expressing disgust with the “kill list” and asking him to ground the lethal drones.
  • Focus on getting drones out of the hands of the CIA, including signing up on our petition, setting up meetings with Congressional reps, and working with human rights groups.
  • Expose the ties between the 58-member Congressional Drone Caucus and the industry, including research on which companies have given money to their campaigns. We are trying to get some members of the Caucus to resign.
  • Try to restrict the domestic use of drones. Pass local resolutions regulating congress people to support bills that would restrict domestic drones (such as the one introduced by Senator Rand Paul); influence the FAA as it writes the regulations for opening up US airspace.
  • Reach out to faith-based leaders to get them to speak out on the ethical issues related to remote-controlled killing.
  • In universities that are collaborating with the military on research for lethal drones, work with students to push the university to stop the collaboration.
  • Link directly with people in affected countries and find more ways to get their voices out. For example, we are planning a delegation to Pakistan in October 2012 to meet with victims of drone warfare.
  • Work with the group International Committee for Robot Arms Control to pressure the UN to impose restrictions on the use of lethal drones.
  • Join www.droneswatch.org, a website we have created so people can get the latest information on drones and ideas for campaigns.

There are certainly many challenges that will make it difficult to accomplish these goals. The biggest obstacle is that drones are now a multi-billion dollar business. According to Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for the campaign to ban landmines, landmines are “chump change” compared to the profits being made on drones. The drone lobby, AUVSI, has strong allies in Congress that push through legislation to benefit the weapons industry.

Additionally, the way the media and the government have instilled the fear of terrorism in people in the US has created public support for a drone programme based on the belief that it is keeping the US safe. This state of mind not only leads people to condone the taking of innocent lives overseas, but also creates an opening to justify the use of drones by law enforcement agencies here at home.

Finally, the unwillingness of the Democrats to criticise President Obama, and the public perception of Obama as a liberal despite his policies, makes it harder to gain a wider base of support. But focusing on domestic drone use can help overcome this obstacle, as more and more conservative pundits and think tanks are criticising the domestic use of drones, and the media has been focusing more attention on drones in general. This gives us a chance to create a coalition that is broader than the anti-war community, one that expands beyond the traditional definitions of left and right.

We also have the opportunity to “go global,” reaching out to people in the affected countries, such as Pakistan and Yemen, as well as to people around the world who are opposed to drone warfare. For while the majority of people in the US approve of drone attacks, a new global poll of 22 countries shows that this policy is widely unpopular overseas. This gives us a lot of potential allies in the effort to stop the US from moving us towards a world of even greater chaos and lawlessness caused by snipers in the sky.

Medea Benjamin (medea@globalexchange.org), cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace, is the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.