Exploring Trump’s Drone Program, 50 Years of Comedy and ‘Undocumented and Unafraid’ Activism
The latest episode of Joshua Scheer’s podcast “Informed Rant,” explores three subjects. First, Scheer sits down with journalist Ben Norton to discuss what Donald Trump’s election victory means for the U.S. drone program.
“This is one of the most terrifying things that the Obama administration has opened the door for a Trump administration to continue,” Norton says.
Scheer then speaks with actor and comedian Philip Proctor about the 50th anniversary of the comedy troupe the Firesign Theater. Proctor shares numerous stories about his time working with other comedians throughout the decades.
Finally, Scheer speaks with a young immigrant activist about International Workers’ Day and what the future may look like under a Trump administration.
Listen to the full podcast below, and scroll down for the transcript of Scheer’s interview with Norton:
—Posted by Emma NilesTranscript of Ben Norton and Joshua Scheer on “Informed Rant”:Joshua Scheer:
My guest is Ben Norton. He’s a journalist writer, staff writer for Salon. Thank you for joining me.
Ben Norton: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Joshua Scheer: Obviously we can talk a lot about Donald Trump and Barack Obama and everything else but I want to specifically target one piece, target is a pun but target about drones with Obama leaving office. There was a piece in the Guardian today. There is your piece in Salon. Discuss this thing. We have an unstable leader with the capability of killing anyone in the world, right?
Ben Norton: Absolutely. This is one of the most terrifying things that the Obama administration has opened the door for a Trump administration to continue. Under president Obama, the US government has reserved the right to essentially assassinate anyone in the world without charge or trial including at least six US citizens. The targeted killing program, that’s the name used by the Obama administration for the drone assassination program has killed thousands of people according to the US government itself. It released the report in July claiming that between some 60 and approximately a hundred civilians in this program since Obama took office in 2009. Experts say that the actual figure is significantly higher.
The gear for investigative journalism has monitored this for some time now and a very conservative estimate according to them, they say somewhere between six and 800 civilians have been killed. The actual figure is likely even higher. Some estimates say thousands of civilians have been killed in the drone program. But even more than just that, I mean, the civilians who have been killed in some of these strikes that have targeted militants is one thing but there is at least one instance in which the US government under president Obama’s administration killed a US target, purposely targeted a US citizen. His name was Anwar al-Awlaki. He was an extremist Islamist preacher who was in Yemen at the time. The US government accused him of spreading propaganda on behalf of al-Qaeda.
This certainly was not a good guy. That’s not a problem. The problem is that he is never given a trial. He was never formally charged of a crime and this is a US citizen who was killed abroad. Many Democrats and liberals defended what Obama did and even worst, after Anwar al-Awlaki was killed, his son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was also killed in a drone strike in Yemen along with at least five other civilians. He himself was a US citizen. This is very concerning. We now know, the Guardian as you mentioned, released a report this week that showed that when president Obama leaves office, he actually is not going to restrict the drone strike playbook that he created and he’s going … Trump will inherit Obama’s targeted killing program.
This should be very concerning to anyone who is concerned with human rights, with transparency, with accountability. Just as Obama expanded the drone program which was began by president Bush, it’s very likely that president Trump will continue to expand the drone program.
Joshua Scheer: To continue on the drone program, this was from 2013, I think the last time a lot of people were talking about drones and Rand Paul questioned Eric Holder about the ability of the US to kill someone on US soil. This was a letter that Eric Holder did. This was, I suppose, to imagine extraordinary circumstances in it might be necessary and appropriate under US law for the president authorize military to use lethal force within the United States. When we’ve given this now, this new leader, Neo-Fascist leader, the ability to possibly kill people on US soil as well. I mean, yes, there were terrorists involved but a lot of times they’re shooting in weddings and everything else. There are a lot of casualties with this drone war.
I remember from the same time, when asked what does an enemy combatant look like, it’s any male between the ages of 13 and 30 who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I mean, the Obama administration has been terrible on this. I can’t imagine what Trump might be going forward.
Ben Norton: Absolutely. The irony of this is when the Obama administration released the report in July claiming that between some 60 to approximately 100 civilians have been killed, the irony is it was claiming that this is supposed act of transparency but in fact all it did was further muddy the waters. Instead of being more transparent, the administration was being less accountable. As you mentioned, I mean, we now know, the New York Times reported in 2012, several years ago, that the Obama administration was using a method for counting civilian casualties that essentially said all military age males in the zone that was struck were combatants. This is a very concerning aspect that is likely only going to continue under president Trump.
As you mentioned, under president Obama, drone strikes have hit weddings that have killed scores of civilians. They’ve also hit vehicles carrying civilians. As to your question about drones potentially being used against people domestically, this is something that has not been done yet, at least weaponized drones. The thing about drones is that not all drones are same. Killer drones, predator drones, I mean, whichever term people use, UAVs, unmanned area vehicles, are very diverse. Most of the drones used inside the US are used for surveillance. In fact, we now know the FBI is using drones to monitor protesters. We’ve seen it in the Black Lives Matter movement that drones have been used as a form of surveillance. It’s likely that that will continue. The Trump administration has made it clear that it is not supportive of transparency measures.
In his campaign, president Trump, president elect Trump strongly opposed whistle blowers, he strongly opposed journalists. These are very concerning signs. It’s very possible that he could open this whole new can of worms. I think if our current administration as it’s admitted in a recent interview, if it is committed to the transparency that it says it is, that it should take action within the next few months to limit the jurisdiction of this program but it looks like the Obama administration is not going to do that. In an interview with Jonathan Chait several months ago, president Obama admitted that he was absolutely concerned that he has actually opened a kind of Pandora’s box if you will. We now know from the Guardian report I mentioned earlier by the journalist Seth Ackerman, that … Spencer Ackerman rather that Obama is likely going to not take any actions. It’s hard to be optimistic about this.
Joshua Scheer: No, it’s not. It’s very hard to be optimistic. One thing people should remember, there was a gang of [inaudible 07:33], a reporter from Pakistan who in his speech to a large group of other journalists discussed this problem and saying when you shoot these missiles into Pakistan, into a wedding situation, you have now created all these enemies, I mean, rightfully so. You’ve killed all these innocents. Those people will never trust you, will never … I mean, this is not a good way to do foreign policy for Obama and certainly not with the president elect Trump.
Ben Norton: This is actually interesting considering retired army general Mike Flynn who has now become a senior part of the Trump camp, he’s actually … He’s being eyed right now to be national security adviser. He spoke with the RNC. He’s in very staunchly in support of Trump’s campaign. Even Mike Flynn admitted in an interview with Al Jazeera in 2015 that the drone program actually made terrorism worst. As you mentioned, not only do you have instances in which civilians are killed in this program whose death radicalized others, you also have an intense fear that people live under because in parts of, for instance, Waziristan which has the most dense, received the most dense drone strikes, this is a rural part of Pakistan, you have civilians there who are constantly living in fear that one day, an invisible robot to their eyes flying above will just shoot them and kill them, will destroy their family.
There are stories, horrific stories that have been shared of young Pakistani children who have seen their family members killed. There’s one very compelling story actually by a young child who testified before US congress even though very few representatives showed up and spoke of how this child’s grandmother was disintegrated by US drone strike while picking okra in a field. This is, I think, one of the less interrogated aspects of the Obama administration and it’s one of the more repugnant ones. I think that, again, anyone who’s concerned with human rights or transparency or accountability should be very terrified. The prospects of Trump controlling this program, especially given his proclivities towards a kind of extreme hawkishness should be very big warning signs.
The Trump administration right now, it’s hard to tell how exactly he’s going to react when it comes to international affairs and foreign policy. Trump in some ways campaigned on a kind of isolationist platform. He said that he was critical of wars abroad but then at the same time, when he was asked, he really pushed hard and said he would do things like kill the families of suspected terrorists, he would return to the use of waterboarding and other extreme forms of torture. He said that if he were responsible for the war in Iraq, he would have perpetually left soldiers there in order to take all of the country’s oil. Even with Libya which was bombed by NATO in 2011 in a regime change operation that has left chaos in its wake, he was critical of that at the time.
But then he also said, “Look, if we’re going to bomb Libya, we should take all its oil.” He’s now surrounded himself with architects of the Iraq war, with Neoconservatives, with the same people he claimed to oppose in his campaign. I think these are all very dangerous signs and we should be very cautious in the four years coming forward.
Joshua Scheer: My guest is Ben Norton. He’s a journalist and writer. You can find his work at Salon. We’re discussing his drone piece, Among Drones with Trump and now war with Trump and his work that he’s been covering for a number of years here. You talked about that dangerous thing yet because that was always the thought was, “He won’t invade a country. Hillary Clinton will bomb and invade a country.” I mean, what are we left to do in terms of obviously protest. We protested the Iraq war, it still happened. What are the things we should be keeping our eyes on with the last few minutes that you have here? Certainly, this is one line I’ll leave from the Amnesty International, “Maybe on the left, no one will believe that Trump had a steady hand but Obama has normalized the idea that presidents get that secret large scale killing programs at their disposal.”
I mean, with that thought in mind, as you’re talking about Neocons kind of coming back into the Trump camp where a lot of them were in the Hillary camp, now they’re probably … Because they want their ideology to make it through. What should we be keeping our eyes on and how can we stop this? Because Trump has galvanized a lot of people in a lot of the issues. Do you think this is one that we’ll have full scale galvanization that if he starts to randomly kill innocent people, will either accept it or is this something where the country so has such a blood lust that they might go forward and hope that we do invade one of these countries to assert our ideology?
Ben Norton: Well, I mean, I think to preface that, I mean, it’s an important question but the preface I should say that the US government is already killing civilians as we speak, the war in Yemen has gotten very little little media coverage. I’ve written extensively about it but thousands of civilians have been killed in the poorest country in the Middle East by US backed, Saudi lead bombing campaign that has just destroyed large parts of the country, that it’s intentionally targeting food production and agriculture. I mean, these horrific policies have already continued but they’re likely continue to get worst under Trump. I think, although the Trump administration is very likely going to be extreme and very dangerous and destructive, the silver lining is that because he is so extreme and also because of partisanism and because he’s a Republican, we’re very likely to see much more opposition than we saw under Obama.
I think we’re likely to see more opposition than we saw under Bush. There was significantly, there was definitely a significant movement behind the anti-war movement and the peace movement and other social justice movements under Bush and most likely to continue under Trump. I mean, the real question we should be asking is where have all these people been when Obama trade out many of the policies that Bush did and that’s of course a product of partisanism. But I mean, as we’ve seen in the past five days, there have been massive demonstrations since Trump’s presidency was announced. Every single day, this past weekend here in New York, more than 100,000 people were marching dozens blocks downtown. There are protests not just throughout the country but throughout the world.
I mean, to answer your question, those protests have to continue throughout US history, the only thing that has ever kept the government accountable to the citizenry has always been mass movements, social movements, demonstrations, activism, direct action, civil disobedience. These are the very important things that we need to do. Of course, it’s important to work within the government as well and pressure these institutions from the inside. But the Democratic party has become so unresponsive to the needs of its base as this past election has shown. It’s become so out of touch and [inaudible 15:04] corporate interest and Wall Street and other big moneyed interests that it lost essentially control of all major parts of the government including the senate, the house and the presidency.
It’s going to take a lot to rebuild not just the mass movement but to rebuild an actual left wing movement inside the government. It currently looks like the next DNC chair could be Keith Ellison who’s one of the most progressive members of the house of representatives. Then that’s certainly a positive sign. But this is going to take years of struggle and years of resistance and peace groups that have been doing this work like Code Pink, human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been diligent and persistent for many years and have largely … their work has largely fallen on deaf ears among many liberals.
Now, it’s a matter of sink or swim. Many of the people who did not come out into the streets in the past eight years are going to have to come out to the streets again and again and again to hold the Trump administration accountable or we’re going to see some even worse, more horrific chaos than we’ve already seen in the past eight years.
Joshua Scheer: Thank you for bringing that up. We had Code Pink on the show many times, Jodie Evans and everybody else. These are voices that need to be heard. I posted this about my own son, about the same thing, about the Obama deportation problem. I mean, that’s a whole another issue. But we didn’t march like this when Obama was president and hopefully we need to now with Trump because he is an incredibly loose cannon but we need to do this, yeah, whoever is in power and certain Keith Ellison is a good choice for the DNC and going forward we need to get out there and work and we’ll keep covering the issues on this show. I know Ben will keep covering issues in Salon.
My guest has been Ben Norton, journalist and staff writer for Salon. You can find him there or @BenjaminNorton at Twitter. I want to thank you. Again, we’d love to have you on again talking about all the issues that are very important to the listeners of this show and to the people of the world and the United States.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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