Written by Jason Whited: JWHITED@LVCITYLIFE.COM
An upcoming trial for activists who illegally entered Creech Air Force Base to protest the government’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles has caught the attention of United Nations officials and could have serious implications for the future of remote-controlled warfare.
In April 2009, 14 activists who had gathered here from across the country illegally entered the base’s gates and refused to leave in protest of Creech’s role as the little-known headquarters for U.S. military operations involving unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, over Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
Held at gunpoint by Air Force security police until officers from Metro and the Nevada Highway Patrol handcuffed them and took them to the Clark County Detention Center, the activists now face a September trial on misdemeanor trespassing charges.
The activists, whose ranks include members of the local anti-war group the Nevada Desert Experience, had been holding a 10-day peace vigil outside Creech to protest both the use of drones by military and CIA officials and the deaths of hundreds of innocent Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani civilians they say have been murdered by the unmanned craft.
Activists said they were gladly willing to risk arrest and prosecution — and will continue to do so — in order to alert taxpayers to the U.S. government’s taste for this particularly insidious form of warfare now being waged from just outside Sin City.
“It’s just something that has clearly made killing so much easier,” said Iowa-based activist Brian Terrell, one of the so-called Creech 14 now facing charges. “Removing a combatant from the battlefield has a certain coldness, a weirdness about it. The idea that someone is sitting at a console at Creech and shooting missiles at people half a world away is very spooky.”
Spooky, and very possibly illegal, particularly in the cases of hundreds of innocent civilians who’ve been killed by drones, according to a growing number of international observers.
“These issues raise questions about the law of war and whether you can target nonmilitary personnel who are not engaged in actual combat,” said Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international affairs and politics at Princeton University and the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine.
Falk said he hopes to testify at the Creech 14 trial in September on potential legal problems with the use of drones. He said his work, which has also focused heavily on similar, so-called targeted killings of Palestinian militants by Israeli officials, has convinced him that drone strikes also raise serious questions of potential war crimes by U.S. military personnel.
“There are two fundamental concerns. One is embarking on this sort of automated warfare in ways that further dehumanize the process of armed conflict in ways that I think have disturbing implications for the future,” Falk said. “Related to that are the concerns I’ve had recently with my preoccupation with the occupation of Gaza of a one-sided warfare where the high-tech side decides how to inflict pain and suffering on the other side that is, essentially, helpless.”
While few, including activists, would accuse al-Qaida militants of being helpless, critics have charged those who suffer most from American drone strikes are the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani peasants unlucky enough to live across an entire region now considered a war zone by leaders in Washington, D.C.
Since the United States first used drone strikes in November 2002 to kill an al-Qaida leader allegedly responsible for the 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing, both the military and the CIA have spent billions acquiring squadrons of the craft to target alleged terrorists and insurgents overseas.
Press reports and independent human rights groups estimate American drones have killed hundreds of Afghan and Pakistani nationals since then, souring relations with those two nations. A July 2009 report from the Brookings Institution found that for every supposed terrorist killed by a drone strike, more than 10 Afghan or Pakistani civilians have been killed, a figure that topped 600 at last count.
Activists agreed with Falk that drones dehumanize killing and said that sense of removal will only ensure future abuses by the U.S. military. That’s why they came to Creech to protest, activists said.
“They’re not only flying drones in Iraq and Afghanistan from Creech, but they’re also training people there to fly them. When you stand outside the gates you can see drones taking off all the time there. No one except the military is really sure where all this is leading,” Terrell said.
For years, Creech has been ground zero for the government’s rapidly expanding use of the unmanned vehicles.
There, amid the high, craggy desert plateaus, pilots with the Air Force’s 432nd Wing continuously fly a fleet of more than 100 drones over large swaths of Southwest Asia and beyond — all from a fleet of nondescript, air-conditioned trailers on this quiet military outpost. Exact details are classified, but base insiders say, at any given time, Creech pilots fly at least 36 unmanned Predators and their beefed-up cousins, Reapers. Cutting-edge satellite technology enables Creech pilots to drop the thousands of pounds of bombs many of their drones carry with barely a two-second delay — all with the twist of a joystick and the push of a button.
Perhaps if military officials were more careful to avoid killing civilians with drones, activists wouldn’t be so quick to sound the alarm, many of them said.
But activists also reserved some of their complaints for Clark County District Attorney David Roger. They said Roger’s decision to prosecute them, while not dissuading hardcore protesters from demonstrating in the future, could have a chilling effect on average citizens who decide to demonstrate against this new type of warfare being waged in their name, with their tax dollars.
It’s a charge Roger strongly denies.
“We don’t have any particular animus toward these protesters, but these citations were submitted to our office, and we felt we could prove [the case] beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.
Activists, however, contend Roger’s decision to prosecute the Creech 14 represents a larger pattern at work. Across the country, they said, prosecutors and judges are doing all they can to throw activists in jail in an effort to tamp down a growing domestic anger at the warlike policies of both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Court documents from across the country, and press reports from organizations such as Democracy Now and the Tucson, Ariz.-based Nuclear Resister, do show an increase in the number of protesters now facing charges for anti-war activities. While official figures from the FBI for 2010 aren’t yet available, court documents from Fort Benning, Ga., to Lancaster, Penn., show rising numbers of anti-war demonstrators either face charges or are already behind bars for trespassing onto U.S. bases or staging sit-ins at military recruiting stations.
Another problem with the way Roger’s office handled the case, activists said, is they almost didn’t find out about their upcoming trial at all. They never received a letter or a phone call from anyone at the DA’s office alerting them that they were, in fact, being charged.
This problem of gaps in defendant notification has long been reported by defense attorneys across Southern Nevada. It’s a problem Roger said has now been corrected.
“We have suffered cutbacks; right now, we have lost about 60 positions, and some of those positions were in our case assessment unit (the office that notifies defendants of pending charges) … we mail them to defendants at their last known address, but if they’ve moved, our only alternative is to seek a bench warrant,” he said.
Trial or no trial, demonstrators said, neither prosecutors nor drones will dissuade them from staging future protests at Creech.
“People who perform arrest actions or risk prosecution are counseled or coached to be ready for the worst-case scenario,” said Jim Haber, coordinator for the Nevada Desert Experience. “But prosecutions like this do reduce the number of people willing to risk it.”
And that’s a shame, according to scholars like Falk and others. He said protesters like the Creech 14 can have an impact on U.S. foreign policies, particularly in legally and morally nebulous situations like the American drone fleet and the rising number of innocent civilian deaths that result from its use.
“I’ve analogized [the use of drones] to torture, where the victims have no retaliatory capability. It’s why people view torture with a certain moral abhorrence. And while [potential war crimes by the U.S. military] isn’t new, as one moves further and further into this domain of one-sided warfare, it’s really better understood by the terminology of massacre.”