Obama interrupted: Why Guantanamo and the U.S. drone war are 'worth paying attention to'

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U.S. and global media reported Thursday that an "angry heckler" disrupted U.S. President Barack Obama's speech on foreign policy and counterterrorism. That description, however, does not do justice to long-time peace and justice activist Medea Benjamin. 

Democracy Now! reported Friday on the interruption of President Barack Obama's speech: "During President Obama’s first major counterterrorism address of his second term, he said the United States cannot continue waging what he described as a boundless global war on terror. He also discussed his administration’s efforts to close down the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay. He was repeatedly confronted by CodePink's Medea Benjamin in the audience, ultimately stopping his speech to address her directly ... 'The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to," Obama said in response to Benjamin. "Obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said..." 

Benjamin, who is a leader of the women's peace organization CodePink, explains her actions in this article. 

Having worked for years on the issues of drones and Guantanamo, I was delighted to get a pass (the source will remain anonymous) to attend President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University. I had read many press reports anticipating what the President might say. There was much talk about major policy shifts that would include transparency with the public, new guidelines for the use of drones, taking lethal drones out of the purview of the CIA, and in the case of Guantanamo, invoking the “waiver system” to begin the transfer of prisoners already cleared for release.

Sitting at the back of the auditorium, I hung on every word the President said. I kept waiting to hear an announcement about changes that would represent a significant shift in policy. Unfortunately, I heard nice words, not the resetting of failed policies.

Instead of announcing the transfer of drone strikes from the CIA to the exclusive domain of the military, Obama never even mentioned the CIA—much less acknowledge the killing spree that the CIA has been carrying out in Pakistan during his administration. While there were predictions that he would declare an end to signature strikes, strikes based merely on suspicious behavior that have been responsible for so many civilian casualties, no such announcement was made.

"Speaking out isn't rude... Terrorizing villages with Hellfire missiles that vaporize innocent people is rude. Violating the sovereignty of nations like Pakistan is rude. Keeping 86 prisoners in Guantanamo long after they have been cleared for release is rude."

The bulk of the president's speech was devoted to justifying drone strikes. I was shocked when the President claimed that his administration did everything it could to capture suspects instead of killing them. That is just not true. Obama’s reliance on drones is precisely because he did not want to be bothered with capturing suspects and bringing them to trial. Take the case of 16-year-old Pakistani Tariz Aziz, who could have been picked up while attending a conference at a major hotel in the capital, Islamabad, but was instead killed by a drone strike, with his 12-year-old cousin, two days later. Or the drone strike that 23-year-old Yemini Farea al-Muslimi talked about when he testified in Congress. He said the man targeted in his village of Wessab was a man who everyone knew, who met regularly with government officials and who could have easily been brought in for questioning.

When the President was coming to the end of this speech, he started talking about Guantanamo. As he has done in the past, he stated his desire to close the prison, but blamed Congress. That’s when I felt compelled to speak out. With the men in Guantanamo on hunger strike, being brutally forced fed and bereft of all hope, I couldn’t let the President continue to act as if he were some helpless official at the mercy of Congress.

“Excuse me, Mr. President,” I said, “but you’re the Commander-in-Chief. You could close Guantanamo tomorrow and release the 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release.” We went on to have quite an exchange.

While I have received a deluge of support, there are others, including journalists, who have called me “rude.” But terrorizing villages with Hellfire missiles that vaporize innocent people is rude. Violating the sovereignty of nations like Pakistan is rude. Keeping 86 prisoners in Guantanamo long after they have been cleared for release is rude. Shoving feeding tubes down prisoners' throats instead of giving them justice is certainly rude.

At one point during his speech, President Obama said that the deaths of innocent people from the drone attacks will haunt him as long as he lives. But he is still unwilling to acknowledge those deaths, apologize to the families, or compensate them. In Afghanistan, the US military has a policy of compensating the families of victims who they killed or wounded by mistake. It is not always done, and many families refuse to take the money, but at least it represents some accounting for taking the lives of innocent people. Why can’t the President set up a similar policy when drone strikes are used in countries with which we are not at war?

There are many things the President could and should have said, but he didn’t. So it is up to us to speak out.

Benjamin also issued the following letter to supporters Friday explaining her actions and the response they have elicited: 

After I interrupted the President's foreign policy speech yesterday, CODEPINK has been getting tremendous media attention and an outpouring of appreciation. One of our posts explaining why my interruption was not "rude" got 45,000 views and over 1,000 shares! Throughout the world, and especially from places that the U.S. is bombing, people are sending messages like this one: "You renew my faith in the American people. Bless you for showing that there are Americans who care about our lives."

Our next step to reach out to the people who have been directly affected by Obama's "counterterrorism" policies is a trip to Yemen. In June, we will travel to meet with grieving mothers who want their innocent sons set free from Guantanamo (57 Yemeni prisoners have been cleared for release for years, but remain in prison) and the families of innocent drone victims who are ignored and kept invisible by Obama's policies. Write a message of solidarity to the people of Yemen, and we'll bring it with us.

We also need your financial support for our trip. Our delegation will include 9/11 family members, veterans, policy analysts, and journalists. We need funds to organize the delegation, and to help the people on the ground who are the victims of our policies

It takes constant pressure to change policy. In the last two weeks, CODEPINK has been relentless. We have held countless protests. Diane Wilson was arrested on the 17th day of her solidarity hunger strike for chaining herself to the White House fence. Jodie Evans delivered 300,000 petition signatures inside the White House to the President’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, calling on Obama to close Gitmo. And yesterday, I had the opportunity to add important information to President Obama’s speech on foreign policy.  

Obama's speech yesterday was a result of the activism and pressure we have all been applying. The decline in drone strikes is a direct results of pressure. When CODEPINK went to Pakistan, we made headlines across the US, highlighting the terror and destruction caused by our killer drones. Since we blew the administration’s cover, drone strikes in Pakistan have drastically decreased. Now we must do the same thing in Yemen, and worldwide. Please help us ground the drones and close Guantanamo.

Onwards towards accountability, transparency and peace,

Medea Benjamin


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