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Peace Activists Arrested After Protesting US Drones in Nevada

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US drone bombings have reportedly killed 687 Pakistani civilians since 2006. During that time, US Predator drones carried out sixty strikes inside Pakistan, but hit just ten of their actual targets. Last week, a group of peace activists last week staged the first major act of civil disobedience against the drone attacks in the United States. Fourteen people were arrested outside the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where Air Force personnel pilot the unmanned drones used in Pakistan. We speak with longtime California peace activist Father Louis Vitale, who was among those arrested, and with Jeff Paterson of Courage to Resist. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to a new focus of some in the antiwar movement here in the US. According to the Pakistani newspaper The News, US drone bombings have killed 687 Pakistani civilians since 2006. During that time, US Predator drones carried out sixty strikes inside Pakistan but hit just ten of their actual targets. The most recent attack came last Wednesday, just hours after Pakistani officials rejected a US proposal to conduct joint operations in tribal regions near the Pakistani border with Afghanistan. According to the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Pakistani officials have also asked the US to hand over control of the drone missions in response to growing public outrage. Their request came as Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced he would seek a more than 100 percent increase in funding for the drones.

Well, last week a group of peace activists staged the first major act of civil disobedience against the drone attacks in the United States. On Thursday, fourteen people were arrested outside the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where the Air Force tests the unmanned drones used in Pakistan. The activists were arrested after holding a ten-day vigil dubbed “Ground the Drones.”

I’m joined now by a longtime California peace activist who was among those detained. Father Louis Vitale has been active in social justice movements for over four decades. During that time, he has racked up hundreds of arrests and over a year in jail time for his involvement in a number of local and international causes. Last year, he ended a five-month prison term for staging an anti-torture protest at a military intelligence training center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. For twelve years, he was pastor at the St. Boniface Catholic Church in San Francisco, co-founder of Pace e Bene, a group committed to nonviolent action for social justice. Father Louis joins me here in San Francisco.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: Thank you, Amy. [inaudible] to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this last action in Nevada.

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: Well, I was very excited to do it, Amy. As you can kind of sense, I kind of sense out — ever since I got out of the military and kind of turned things around, the ’60s and all that, I’ve always kind of sensed out where the frontiers were, from being with Cesar Chavez and King and all of the different movements that have gone on, and we have been out there in that very desert stopping nuclear testing for over thirty years now.

And right down the road is the testing range where, actually, it’s all connected, Nellis Air Force Base, where the planes going to Afghanistan and the Middle East, and before that, Vietnam, etc., train and discharge. In fact, I was in a prison camp there for protesting at Fort Benning, when they all left right from that place to go to Iran six years ago.

And all of a sudden, we noticed down the street, which was just a little base supplying the target range there, all of a sudden all these drones start flying. And so, we’re just thinking, well, they’re practicing drones and flying drones. And then we find out that they’re bombing and bombing and bombing in Afghanistan. And I started talking to the chaplain, was talking to people out there and talking about the effect it’s having on even the — not only in Afghanistan, but on those who are flying the drones.

Meanwhile, Kathy Kelly, who you know very well, from Voices for Creative Nonviolence, they have very much been tracking what’s going on on the other side, knowing very well the situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc., etc. So we came together, and we started figuring out — we had started going and already just doing some vigiling there, holding up signs how — something like “The drones drown out the groans that come from the people; they don’t hear the cries, and neither do we,” and getting reactions from some of the crews, the pilot and the sensor operator, the two that are in these little booths, just like arcades, and are actually operating them.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, I want to talk more about this.


AMY GOODMAN: I actually — I said “testing” the drones in Nevada, but it’s actually running the drones.

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: Oh, absolutely. They fly them from there.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain what you mean.


AMY GOODMAN: So, someone goes to work in the morning. They drive up from their family.

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: I’ll tell you exactly what the colonel, the commander, or the vice commander from Nellis Air Force Base, exactly as he described it to me. He says, “Well, you know, it works out rather nicely. They live with their families in Las Vegas. They drive out and drop the kids off at school, drive out in the morning, fly their missions, drop their bombs. They can go home and have dinner with their family in the evening.”

In the meanwhile, what he doesn’t quite cover is that, meanwhile, they blew up a school, remember, in Afghanistan. And from what you see from YouTube — in fact, you had P.W. Singer on your show, and he talked about somebody sent him a clip of one of those drones dropping a missile that later — and he saw, you know, the collateral damage right in his face, because the drone hangs around. And they are in that booth for twelve hours. And so, they’re all day long monitoring what they’re doing and seeing it. Then you go home.

They have interviews with them and the commanders that have been particularly in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, in which they talk about — they’ve got about forty minutes or so on the way home to kind of shift. You don’t get rid of PTSD, instant PTSD, in twenty, forty minutes. In one way, they say it’s kind of intriguing, because it’s just like an arcade. They learn real fast. The pilots are old-stock pilots, you know, and they’re used to flying, you know, F-14s, F-16s. But the sensor operator is — was originally there for the cameras. They were basically doing surveillance, intelligence work. But they also carry four Hellfires on the early Predators and much more on the Reaper, not only more missiles, but also bombs, hundred-pound bombs. And so, they guide them in with the lasers right in there, and they see what they do. And then they’ve got to live with that. And that’s a terrible thing to live with.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe exactly what the action was last week in Nevada?

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: Sure. We had been there for ten days, and every day — actually, we had a wonderful reaction from the guys, even though we had signs that were challenging them. I also mostly held up one that says, “Support the troops. End the war.” And they waved. Sometimes they’d stop and talk. You know, we got — only one in the whole week did we get a negative sign. But really, they were very approachable.

And there’s 270 people working to man the drones that are there, the drone crews. So what it is is like — as you were saying, it’s like a trailer, an arcade. You have the pilots station, and you have the sensor station, and then you might have an intelligence person there. But they’re right there in Nevada, forty miles from Las Vegas. And it’s just like — and it bounces off a satellite. Actually, the plane has to be taken off and landed in Afghanistan by pilots that are right close there, direct line of sight, because there’s two-second lag bouncing off a satellite, and they would crash if they tried to make an instant correction.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the local reaction to the protest that you held last week?

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: The reaction in Las Vegas? Of course, you’re pretty far from Las Vegas. The local is really this little Indian Springs.

AMY GOODMAN: Or even the military.

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: Well, they were, as I say, I mean, all these people are driving in, and I would be there by 6:30 in the morning, and they all wave. I mean, we’d wave and give signs, and they’d wave, smile.

We had one tiny little protest group led by a seventeen-year-old boy whose father is a retired Air Force veteran, who is in Afghanistan, though, servicing the planes, and he’s gung ho to support his country and all that. Of course, his mother was there parked across the street, and she kept kind of encouraging him, and his sister came out with her cheerleader friends: “Yea for the USA!” But we said, “Well, we support the USA, too, but, you know, we don’t support the” — so we got talking to him about his desire to immediately enter the military.

We had a motel room for — at Indian Springs for our kind of — our coming togethers. And the rest of the motel was completely filled with Marine — Marine, Air Force types, and we got to be pretty friendly with them, too. So we got in some very good conversations with them.

AMY GOODMAN: You were arrested?

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: But we were arrested. The local military were not too friendly. They were really nervous, and I think they just came back from Iraq, a couple of them. They had their M-16s out, and they were very nervous and very — it’s the kind of scene that unfortunately we have seen go down rather quickly. And I was quite nervous. We had very eager people. One elderly woman who’s been arrested a hundred times more in Washington, D.C., and she’s running up to them. I said, “Don’t do that. When they say stop, stop.” And so, it got tense for a while.

But then, when the troopers came in — the state troopers know us very well from our many years in Nevada, and they were actually very friendly, very considerate. “Is your cuffs too tight?” Old man like me with broken shoulders. “Can I move them around, help you?” And they were very positive. So I think the reaction was very good.

I think there’s a shift going on in America, as you’ve been — I saw Mr. Chomsky talked about just yesterday on your show, there is a movement going on, and I think a lot of people are sensitive to that. But we’ve got to help, try to help these young people that are getting kind of pulled in by something that seems so familiar to them. Right out of boot camp, where they were doing arcade games, here they are on the — it’s real.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to Father Louis, we’re joined here in San Francisco by Jeff Paterson from Courage to Resist to address the growing resistance among troops to fighting the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Jeff, talk about what you’re doing.

JEFF PATERSON: Well, our group is — came together about three-and-a-half years ago to support the people inside the military who are risking imprisonment and bad discharges in order to voice what they’ve actually seen in Iraq, and now a growing number of those people are voicing their opposition to what’s going on in Afghanistan. And they’re risking jail. Some of them are going to Canada in order to avoid returning to these occupations over and over again. And we’re seeing a marked increase, actually since President Obama took office, to people straight up refusing to be called up to deploy to Afghanistan after they’ve been deployed to Iraq a number of times already. I think people are expecting a little bit more from President Obama, as far as drawing down the troops in Iraq quickly, but that’s not happening.

So, in order to funnel — to feed the surge that he’s implementing in Afghanistan, we are seeing a marked increase in the number of inactive Ready Reserve call-ups. And these are people that have served their four years inside the military and often have done a number of deployments already to Iraq, and they’ve survived that. Some of them have PTSD, and some of them have some minor medical issues, and — but they’ve gone off, they’ve gotten a job, which is not easy today. They’re usually married and have a kid. And they’re just simply receiving letters in the mail saying, you know, “You’re ordered to report” in x number of days and for — to ready for yourself for deployment. And these people are, in large numbers, simply refusing that call up. And we are working with them to help them refuse that call up and give them all the options available to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell your own story, Jeff Paterson?

JEFF PATERSON: Well, I was in the Marine Corps for four years leading up to the first Gulf War. And basically, I chose to resist that war based on my experiences, what I saw that was going on at that time in the Philippines, in Okinawa and in South Korea. And I realized that our intervention in Iraq would not bring any good to the Iraqi people, and in my artillery unit, I was pretty certain we were not going to be able to distinguish between hostiles and friendlies in Iraq. And that’s almost twenty years ago now. And I feel pretty vindicated that we have not brought anything good to the people in Iraq to that time. But, you know, that history allows me, I think, to better serve the war resisters to the Iraq and Afghan occupation today, of being able to provide — I could tell them, while this, you know, it’s actually — it’s not so bad going to military prison compared to fighting in a war that you don’t believe in, you know.

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: In fact, one of his clients is a drone pilot. You want to tell them about that, Jeff?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s interesting, because the drone pilots are people who don’t go to Iraq or Afghanistan.

JEFF PATERSON: No, he’s stationed right here, near Sacramento, California. And based on — I believe he was a sensor operator, and based on watching his missiles zoom into the target and realizing at the very last second that he made a mistake but not having enough time to do anything about it, he has seen many, many civilians killed. Now, from a few hundred feet, they look like a military target, and they were pretty certain of that, but at the last second they realize they’re wrong. So this is a young man that’s refused to do that anymore. He’s attempting to be discharged as a conscientious objector based on just the trauma that he’s inflicted and the post-traumatic stress disorder that, you know, he’s probably going to live with for the rest of his life in some way.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a difference in approach by the Obama administration to resisting soldiers than from the Bush administration?

JEFF PATERSON: I think there’s — a lot of people in the military, I think, have a relatively naive kind of outlook. They see George Bush as one thing and Obama as a completely different thing. But I don’t think we’ve seen any difference at all as far as how the military is dealing with war resisters. The US is still moving to prosecute those members that are being kicked out of Canada. And we’re looking at general court-martials. We’re still looking at years in imprisonment.

I think it really is up to us to create a movement to change that. I think there is a movement that attempted to do that with George Bush that fell on deaf ears. I think that if a people’s movement can be created, I think there’s a possibility of a victory down the road, but it’s not going to happen without us sort of forming our collective people power to force that change.

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of soldiers have resisted going to war, to Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you know the number overall?

JEFF PATERSON: Well, the military stopped counting at around 25,000 or 30,000. That was —-

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-five or thirty thousand?

JEFF PATERSON: And that was about three years ago. Now, many of those people went AWOL for extended amounts of time, up to a year or so. I would say the majority of those people have returned to the military, and some of them have been court-martialed. Many of them have been administratively discharged. So, but they stopped counting. All I can say is, you know, our organization Courage to Resist is -— you know, people in the military call us. A couple people a day call us, and we’re a pretty self-selecting group of people.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do they call?

JEFF PATERSON: Well, they call our office here in Oakland. You know, they look at our website. They hear word-of-mouth. Oftentimes when we have a person who refuses on a particular base, his story becomes the talk of the town or the talk of the base.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s your website?

JEFF PATERSON: Well, couragetoresist.org.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Paterson with Courage to Resist in Oakland and Father Louis Vitale, a longtime peace activist, has been arrested — oh, how many times?

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: I don’t know. Two, three hundred, I forget — stopped counting.

AMY GOODMAN: What did Martin Sheen say when he shows up in court to bear witness? He says, “You’re increasingly looking like Gandhi.” Father Louis Vitale and Jeff Paterson —-

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: We invite anybody to come and join us, because with Kathy Kelly now, we’re really trying to get a movement going, especially to go at something -— this is a new threshold we’ve crossed again, and we don’t want to keep doing this, depersonalizing war. We did it with high-altitude bombing, as Dr. Lifton pointed out many years ago; now we’re doing it all away. When you’re continents away, it seems like kind of fun. And Colonel Warren Langley told me this on the phone the other day, that he’s just afraid that it’s going to seem too much like a game to people and not real enough. And it will destroy other lives there, and their lives, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Louis’s last arrest was just last week in Nevada, protesting the attacks by drones.

FATHER LOUIS VITALE: Join us. Join us.

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