‘Shame on You’: Why I interrupted Obama counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan

Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan spoke at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington DC on April 30 to mark the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was the first time a high level member of the Obama Administration spoke at length about the U.S. drone strikes that the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command have been carrying out in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

“President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts,” Brennan explained.

I had just co-organized a Drone Summit over the weekend, where Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar told us heart-wrenching stories about the hundreds of innocent victims of our drone attacks. We saw horrific photos of people whose bodies were blown apart by Hellfire missiles, with only a hand or a slab of flesh remaining. We saw poor children on the receiving end of our attacks—maimed for life, with no legs, no eyes, no future. And for all these innocents, there was no apology, no compensation, not even an acknowledgement of their losses. Nothing.

The U.S. government refuses to disclose who has been killed, for what reason, and with what collateral consequences. It deems the entire world a war zone, where it can operate at will, beyond the confines of international law.

So there I was at the Wilson Center, listening to Brennan describe our policies as ethical, “wise,” and in compliance with international law. He spoke as if the only people we kill with our drone strikes are militants bent on killing Americans. “It is unfortunate that to save innocent lives we are sometimes obliged to take lives – the lives of terrorists who seek to murder our fellow citizens.” The only mention of taking innocent lives referred to Al Qaeda. “Al Qaeda’s killing of innocent civilians, mostly Muslim men, women and children, has badly tarnished its image and appeal in the eyes of Muslims around the world.” This is true, but the same must be said of U.S. policies that fuel anti-American sentiments in the eyes of Muslims around the world.

So I stood up and in a calm voice, spoke out.

“Excuse me, Mr. Brennan, will you speak out about the innocents killed by the United States in our drone strikes? What about the hundreds of innocent people we are killing with drone strikes in the Philippines, in Yemen, in Somalia? I speak out on behalf of those innocent victims. They deserve an apology from you, Mr. Brennan. How many people are you willing to sacrifice? Why are you lying to the American people and not saying how many innocents have been killed?”

My heart was racing as a female security guard and then a burly Federal Protection Service policeman started pulling me out, but I kept talking.

“I speak out on behalf of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old in Pakistan who was killed simply because he wanted to document the drone strikes. I speak out on behalf of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old born in Denver, killed in Yemen just because his father was someone we don’t like. I speak out on behalf of the Constitution and the rule of law.” My parting words as they dragged me out the door were, “I love the rule of law and I love my country. You are making us less safe by killing so many innocent people. Shame on you, John Brennan.”

I was handcuffed and taken to the basement of the building, where I was questioned about my background and motives. To their credit, it seems the Wilson Center thought it would not be good to have someone arrested for exercising their right to free speech, so I was released.

Brennan’s speech came the day after another U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, one that  killed three alleged militants. After the strike, the Pakistani government voiced its strongest and most public condemnation yet, accusing the United States of violating Pakistani sovereignty, calling the campaign “a total contravention of international law and established norms of interstate relations.” Earlier in April the Pakistani Parliament unanimously condemned drone strikes and established a new set of guidelines for rebuilding the country’s frayed relationship with the United States, which included the immediate cessation of all drone strikes in Pakistani territory.

The attacks in Pakistan, carried out by the CIA, started in 2004. Since then, there have been over 300 strikes. The areas where the strikes take place have been sealed off by the Pakistani security forces, so it has been difficult to get accurate reports about deaths and damages. John Brennan has denied that innocents have even been killed. Speaking in June 2011 about the preceding year, he said “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” Mr. Brennan later adjusted his statement somewhat, saying, “Fortunately, for more than a year, due to our discretion and precision, the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq.”

This is just not true. The UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism is the group that keeps the best count of casualties from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. According to its figures, since 2004, U.S. has killed between about 2,500-3,000 people in Pakistan. Of those, between 479 and 811 were civilians, 174 of them children.

Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who has been representing drone victims and who started the group Foundation for Fundamental Rights, disputes even these figures and claims that the vast majority of those killed are ordinary civilians. “I have a problem with this word ‘militant.’ Most of the victims who are labeled militants might be Taliban sympathizers but they are not involved in any criminal or terrorist acts, and certainly not against the United States,” he claimed. He said the Americans often assumes that if someone wears a turban, has a beard and carries a weapon, he is a combatant. “That is a description of all the men in that region of Pakistan. It is part of their culture.” Shahzad believes that only those people who the Americans label “high-value targets”, which would be less than 200, should be considered militants; all others should be considered civilian victims.

While President Obama is gearing up for an election campaign and using his drone-strike killing spree to as a sign of his tough stance on national security, people from across the United States and around the world are organizing to rein in the drones.

Gathering in Washington DC on April 28-29, they came up with a new campaign to educate the American public about civilian deaths in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere as a result of the use of drones for illegal killing and to pressure members of Congress, President Obama, federal agencies, and state and local governments to restrict the use of drones for illegal killing and surveillance. The tactics include court challenges, delegations to the affected regions, direct action at U.S. bases from where the drones are operated, student campaigns to divest from companies involved in the production of killer drones and outreach to faith-based communities.

(Crossposted on Common Dreams)

About Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin (@medeabenjamin), cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace, is the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.
Posted in US Policy in the Middle East, US Politics

{ 45 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Kathleen says:

    Amy Goodman played the whole speak out. I pulled my truck to the side of the road here in Colorado and cried. Medea your commitment to human rights issues knows no bounds. Such an inspiration. So clear, fact based, calm. Loved when you said “I love the law”

    Medea “rocks the casbah”………“Excuse me, Mr. Brennan, will you speak out about the innocents killed by the United States in our drone strikes? What about the hundreds of innocent people we are killing with drone strikes in the Philippines, in Yemen, in Somalia? I speak out on behalf of those innocent victims. They deserve an apology from you, Mr. Brennan. How many people are you willing to sacrifice? Why are you lying to the American people and not saying how many innocents have been killed?”

    My heart was racing as a female security guard and then a burly Federal Protection Service policeman started pulling me out, but I kept talking.

    “I speak out on behalf of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old in Pakistan who was killed simply because he wanted to document the drone strikes. I speak out on behalf of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old born in Denver, killed in Yemen just because his father was someone we don’t like. I speak out on behalf of the Constitution and the rule of law.” My parting words as they dragged me out the door were, “I love the rule of law and I love my country. You are making us less safe by killing so many innocent people. Shame on you, John Brennan.”

    • I pulled my truck to the side of the road here in Colorado and cried

      i burst out in tears too. i even wrote medea and told her it made me cry.

      • Kathleen says:

        And Medea almost always responds to any suggestions and ideas. She was a late comer to this issue..but when that lady gets on a bus she basically starts driving it. Medea is incredible!

    • My heart was racing as a female security guard and then a burly Federal Protection Service policeman started pulling me out, but I kept talking.

      i wonder what it must be like sometimes to have such overwhelming courage. maybe in my next life. i ask rae abileah about hers and how she handled it..she said she prayed. she relies a lot on her faith she said.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Wish Chris Hayes Up program would have Dr. Marcy Wheeler, Glenn Greenwald and others who have stayed so focused on illegal and growing U.S. drone killings.

    Marcy/emptywheel.net has kept her keen intellect focused on drone killing and many other critical issues
    link to emptywheel.net
    “All the past times when Brennan happily leaked classified information made it clear the Administration politicizes such claims to secrecy. So there’s no reason for any person to take John Brennan’s claims to secrecy seriously–he’s not a credible messenger on that front. (But hell, at this point every invocation of secrecy might just be a reference to the Wizard of Oz.)

    The timing undermines the message too. Brennan made it clear that his comments addressed only strikes targeted at known individuals.

    Broadly speaking, the debate over strikes targeted at individual members of al-Qa’ida has centered on their legality, their ethics, the wisdom of using them, and the standards by which they are approved.”

    Marcy has written many articles about this topic. Go scrolling at Emptywheels and learn so much

    • kathleen, i rec marcy on the recent Scott Horton radio Interview link to antiwar.com

    • Hostage says:

      Broadly speaking, the debate over strikes targeted at individual members of al-Qa’ida has centered on their legality, their ethics, the wisdom of using them, and the standards by which they are approved.”

      Even if an accused person is a member of al-Qaeda, the relevant rules in customary international law say that:
      a) The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.
      b) Civilians are protected against attack unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.

      So the law only allows attacks on civilians based upon the person’s actual conduct at a given moment in time, not upon their previous status, or membership in an organization. Even the Israeli Supreme Court was smart enough to prohibit the sort of attacks John Brennan is describing. link to elyon1.court.gov.il

      Anat Kamm and Uri Blau subsequently published IDF documents which proved beyond any doubt that the Israeli military leadership was simply ignoring the law and carrying-out premeditated murders. The Court likewise turned a blind eye to the damning evidence of IDF wrong doing.

      There is an article at Opinio Juris which points out some of the flaws in Brennan’s policy speech. link to opiniojuris.org

  3. Bumblebye says:

    Medea was speaking to Dotun Adebayo (bbcR5Live, “Up All Night”) over the weekend, about a book she’s written wrt the drone strikes. why no mention of that? I didn’t catch the title.

  4. pabelmont says:

    It would be interesting if GoP (Pakistan) took President Obama as CinC, USA, to the ICC, claiming war crimes (of unprovoked war of aggression against his country, by drones, and deliberate targeting of people not sufficiently known to be militants on a field of battle, by drones). (I assume that some such charges are within the remit of the ICC). It might not have much effect, but there must (one would hope) be a way to replace the USA’s (and Israel’s) self-serving pronouncements that they are conforming to the law of war with a judicial determination of that very interesting question.

  5. Pixel says:

    Medea, you’re truly amazing.

    Cool how you got it all out there, audibly and articulately, even as they tried to grab you

    Perfect that “Shame on you” were your closing words, just as the door was closed behind you.

    Very dramatic, very powerful, very courageous.

    Regarding other members of the audience: You could hear a pin drop. They heard every word you said.

  6. HarryLaw says:

    Medea, I admire your courageous efforts, I thought you were some superhuman being, especially after confronting Condolisa, so I am comforted when you honestly said your heart was racing, how many other people would have the courage to do what you did, bravo, but its a good job you do not look like ‘the other’ unlike the UC Irvine and Riverside students with Ambassador Oren.

  7. Amar says:

    I loved her article “10 reasons why AIPAC is so dangerous”. Clear, concise, to the point and compelling.

    link to mondoweiss.net

  8. Elliot says:

    Medea – I saw you in action at the J Street conference in 2010. You heckled a congressman (I forget which one) as he left the conference room and took the escalator up to the ground floor. I was impressed by your courage and command of the situation. You pushed hard enough to be heard, chose a defined space and time (the escalator) yet you did not cross the line that would have invited security intervention or an act of violence. You broke through that invisible bubble that public figures project. I continued up the chain of escalators after you left and he and his entourage continued to react to your speech. My sense was that they were unsure what to think.

    I second Harrylaw’s appreciation for your timing. Did you rehearse this in advance with security?

    You are one smart, brave lady. Thank you for your inspiring efforts.

    • American says:

      I so second that! Love this woman.

      • It’s easy to point a finger and a lot harder to pull a trigger.

        • Taxi says:

          A rogue military Apartheid state like israel, as well as all militant imperialists, counting here their supporters and enablers too: my (un)dear proudzionist777, this morally unkempt mishmash of criminals are the REAL cowards in this picture: picking on unarmed civilians, their women and their innocent children as state policy – heck that’s gotta be the epitome of outrageous cowardice!

          You know I’d love to be a fly on the wall with you and Medea stuck in a lift.

        • talknic says:

          “It’s easy to point a finger and a lot harder to pull a trigger.”

          Israel does both with practiced ease. And the supporters of a Greater Israel, the same people for the most part who defend these ghastly war machines used by the USA half way around the world in someone else’s country to further only its own ‘interests’, are also fantastic finger pointers.. ‘oh look at what’s happening in Sudan etc etc’ any and every time Israel breaks the law again (and again and again)… As if it somehow lessens Israels crimes.

        • American says:

          It occurs to me that the people out there upsetting applecarts and getting in faces like this in public are mostly women …..like Medea…. never underestimate the female of the species.
          Some study I read long ago about gun owners said that if a woman has a gun she’s 10 times more likey to actually use it than a man.

        • Taxi says:

          American,

          Here’s some info on another cool women’s activism from UK – back in the day:
          link to en.wikipedia.org

        • Tell me about it! Usually when shooting at unarmed protesters, my finger slips off trigger repeatedly, due to all the flowing snot and tears. Oy, I’m SO conflicted!

          But then I remind myself, “Never Again!” I just close my eyes, and “spray ‘n’ pray.” (The praying part is what keeps it moral.)

        • Taxi says:

          Well you “sprayed ‘n’ prayed” then ran away from Hizbollah.

  9. lysias says:

    Somewhat OT, the 9th Circuit has ruled that John Yoo has immunity for authorizing what was done to Padilla: Yoo Entitled to Immunity From Padilla Lawsuit, Court Rules.

  10. HarryLaw says:

    Pakistans Foreign Minister said drone strikes must stop because they are a violation of Pakistans sovereignty, she said the US just does not listen, one way to make them listen is to keep the supply lines closed through Pakistan, the US are lying when they say they can do without this route, even with this route a gallon of petrol costs $1000, I hope the Pakistanis show some backbone and reclaim some self respect, if the US continue with the drones, just shoot them down.

  11. No one stood up in her defence. No one exhibited shock at the way she was silenced and aggressively hauled out. No one applauded her.

    I don’t understand. Maybe I understand too well.

    Medea, you’re amazing. Thank you

  12. German Lefty says:

    I learnt about this incident from “Democracy Now”. Really brave woman! I was very moved by what she said. When the policeman dragged her out of the room, I wondered, “So that’s how much the USA values freedom of speech!?”

  13. Kathleen says:

    I went to the very first Code Pink gathering/march in DC hell is that 9 years ago. I don’t know I forget. And have gone to many of their activities since. The first time I met Medea I asked “what is the point of all the pink, the costumes, the boas, etc etc” She shared that it was purposely done to pull the cameras.We know when you lobby, petition, do a general protest in the street they ignore you. Code Pink knows how to visually draw attention to critical issues. Medea is so compassionate, so articulate, so committed to human rights issues.

  14. Clif Brown says:

    A clear voice speaking the truth. May there be thousands of comments in thanks. As for the lack of reaction of the audience there at the time, at least it’s an improvement over audiences jumping up to attack the protester(s) as we have seen numerous times. The glacier is melting, can you feel it?

  15. Taxi says:

    A gargantuan BRAVO (with honey and cinnamon) to Medea!

    What impeccable timing!

    What clarity of thought!

    What astounding calm focus alchemized by fearlessness.

    This is no ordinary protest. This is Political Performance Art at its highest level of expression.

    Millions of people thank you, citizen Medea.

  16. Taxi says:

    How many in the audience knows even a single name and age of a USA Drone victim?

  17. yourstruly says:

    so cool under fire, so courageous, so articulate, so humbling

  18. lysias says:

    I got on my Kindle Sibel Edmonds’s new book Confidential Woman a couple of days ago, and have begun to read it. It is so engrossing that I am nearly halfway through it.

    It gives a Kafkaesque view of the American national security state.

    She hasn’t said much about Israel in what I have read so far, but I have no doubt Israel was involved in some way in the corruption within the American government that she details. Certainly neoconservatives like Feith and Wolfowitz were (as well as Marc Grossman, Lantos, and Solarz).

    She has a lot more to say about Turkish involvement. But since we’re talking about the time frame 2001-2, I think this was with the Turkish deep state, at a time when Turkey was very much still Israel’s ally.

  19. karendevito says:

    Thank you Medea for being in the right place at the right time and for steadfastly delivering an articulate, thoughtful message.
    Medea’s instincts are spot-on. Washington is where it happens–although all initiatives are meaningful,that is where the impact counts double.
    A thought: we can individually support Medea by buying her new book about drone warfare, reviewing it for our local alternative press, spreading the word.

  20. MHughes976 says:

    It’s rather a bad sign when the response to hecklers is simply to remove them. However, I’d be interested to know if Brennan was prepared to take questions and comments at the end of his remarks and whether anyone took the opportunity to express radical disagreement with him and, if that situation did arise, how he responded.

  21. LarryBlucher says:

    Well done! That would have made our forefathers very proud. Truly one of the most patriotic displays I have seen. My sincere thanks.