Reports from Hancock and Beyond

Bring Drone Warfare Out of the Shadows


Guest Post by Beth Harris, 3/11/16

On Thursday evening, March 10, 2016, members of the Upstate New York Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars from Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Corning, Enfield and Ithaca met at the DeWitt Town Courthouse to celebrate Mary Anne Grady Flores being released from jail on bond and to provide support to Professor Harry Murray as he faced sentencing for a trespass conviction. Mary Anne’s and Harry’s arrests occurred during protests at the Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in DeWitt, New York, where drone operators sit in computer rooms directing drone assassinations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and possibly other countries.

Before Harry’s sentencing, there was a press conference, where Ed Kinane, Mary Anne, Harry and I spoke while other members of the Upstate Ground the Drone Coalition held signs with pictures of drone victims and messages protesting US drone warfare. Ed reminded us that the week had an ominous beginning with the news that US drone strikes had killed 150 people in Somalia, where the US has not declared war. We had a moment of silence for these unnamed victims.

For President Obama, the global network of US drone bases and the targeted assassinations from unmanned aerial vehicles have created a foundation for maintaining and expanding the reach of US empire. In “Garrisoning the Globe,” David Fine argues, “Although few Americans realize it, the United States likely has more bases in foreign lands than any other people, nation, or empire in history.” The US government asserts its authority to police the world without any system of accountability within the US or internationally.

The February 2016 report from the bipartisan Stimson Task Force on US Drone Policy describes the scope of the US drone program:

Since June 26, 2014, lethal UAV strikes have been reported in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan and Somalia, and against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Th­e use of such targeted strikes is expanding as demand for drones increases to support US military and counterterrorism operations around the world. At least twelve countries are believed to host US drones bases: Afghanistan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Niger, the Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

In addition there are now drone bases throughout the US, including the Hancock air base. In 2012, Public Intelligence compiled a list of 64 drone bases within US borders, including 12 with Reaper or Predator unmanned aerial vehicles that can be armed.

Under Obama’s watch US drone warfare has killed approximately 5000 people, and due to the government’s refusal to provide meaningful information about casualties, it is impossible to determine how many victims have been civilians, though researchers have estimated at least 1000. According to the leaked Drone Papers, during a five-month period in Afghanistan 90% of those killed by drone attacks had not been targets.

A shroud of secrecy, based on claims of executive privilege and national security, has been central to US drone warfare. The grotesque use of “Orders of Protection” against nonviolent protesters intends to silence their opposition to drone warfare and witnesses to the victims of drone attacks. In Mary Anne’s case, she had been issued an “order of protection” on behalf of the base commander after she participated in a protest at the Hancock air base in 2012. She was told that he wanted protesters away from his base. At a later protest, she was arrested for criminal contempt of this order of protection when she photographed demonstrators from the road in front of the Hancock air base. DeWitt Judge Gideon sentenced her to a year in prison for this terrible crime.

As we all know, secrecy about a government’s kill policies provides the perfect foundation for a complete lack of accountability and threatens the fabric of the societies of both the killers and those killed. For activists committed to justice, conventional means of reform have been thwarted. Consequently, whistle blowers and protesters have become essential to bring the drone kill policies to the attention of the public, to expose the military infrastructure and personnel responsible for the killings, to stop the murders, and to pressure our politicians to create a system of accountability that adheres to national and international law.

On Tuesday the New York Times published an op ed calling on President Obama to bring his drone warfare policy “out of the shadows to constrain the power he had unleashed before a new president takes power.” ACLU lawyers Jameel Jaffer and Brett Max Kaufman write that while government supplied data concerning drone strikes is inadequate, we do know that President Obama has approved of strikes far from combat zones and authorized the CIA to carry out “signature strikes,” which are aimed at people the agency does not know, but who are suspected of militant activities.

Jaffer and Kaufman warn, “President Obama has established a dangerous precedent, and consequently whoever prevails in November will inherit a sweeping power to use lethal force against suspected terrorists and militants, including Americans. The new president, whether a Democrat or a Republican, should also inherit policies that limit that power.”

Frontrunner Republican candidate Donald Trump brags that he is willing to carry out war crimes, such as torture and the killing of family members of those suspected to be terrorists. Furthermore, he is ready to fight and kill for US access to oil extraction in other countries. The establishment Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has helped to develop and defend Obama’s drone policies and has been an avid supporter of US military intervention throughout her political career. Sanders supports drone warfare, used in a selective way, which is consistent with Obama’s political rhetoric, and Sanders does not explain how the government can be held accountable to this notion of selectivity.

While the Obama administration releases some information to the public, it also continues to fight against FOIA requests for documents about the policies and impact of the drone program. The ACLU has called on the government to release the Presidential Policy Guidance, a document that has provided the legal and administrative framework for the drone campaign since 2013. The government has agreed to release sections of this document, but until the key legal terms are defined clearly, it will be impossible to determine whether there are meaningful constraints to the government’s kill policies. In addition, the ACLU argues that legal memos that justify drone strikes away from battlefields should be revealed. Finally, data about individual strikes, including dates, times, locations and casualties, should be public. Those strikes that kill “innocent civilians” should be investigated, and the results, including compensation for families, should be publicized. While compliance with the ACLU requests would not end drone warfare, it would provide information for the American public to understand the drone policies and create the possibility of informed public discussion about the legality, ethics and impact of US drone warfare.

Prior to Harry’s January trial, a Hancock base lawyer argued to quash the subpoena, which Judge Gideon had signed, for the base commander to produce information about Hancock drone strikes. Harry recounts,

“He told the judge that the information I had requested, including the number of children killed by drone strikes piloted out of Hancock, was classified and that Col. Semmel could be prosecuted if he answered any of those questions.  If letting the people know how many children its military has killed threatens the security of our nation, what does that say about the US as a country and as a democracy?”

Judge Gideon decided not to send Harry to jail, but not for any ethical or legal reason. He likes the professor and appreciates his respect for the judicial process. Sadly the U.S. government’s drone assassination policy was treated as irrelevant to Judge Gideon’s reasoning. The judge made an appeal to the protesters in the courtroom to respect the institution of the judiciary while ironically he undermined the legitimacy of his own role by refusing to grapple with concerns about truth, justice or equal treatment under the law in his explanation of his sentence.

It is alarming that shooting photos of protesters has become a criminal offense deserving incarceration while drone massacres are hidden from public view by our government. The US courts, Congress and mainstream media have normalized this impunity, paving the way to the continual expansion of US military threats throughout the globe. Ultimately the unchecked US role as global bully may undermine the possibility of security for anyone in the world.

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