Drone Protests In Syracuse


By Beckie Strum

"You ready?" Ed Kinane asked, standing near a trunk full of stained and wrinkled political signs that read, "In Pakistan US drones = terrorism," "End war in Afghanistan," and "CIA drones kill Pakistan civilians." He made his way to his 92-year-old companion, Jerry Berrigan, and helped him out of the passenger seat. Together, the two tottered to a lawn chair on the shoulder of East Molloy Road, a busy suburban thoroughfare across from Syracuse’s Hancock Air Field.

Home to the 174th Fighter Wing, the base houses a repair and operation site for the controversial and lethal MQ-9 Reaper drone. Drones are unmanned surveillance planes—sometimes equipped with Hellfire missiles—remotely piloted by U.S. Air Force officers thousands of miles from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other locations.

The pristine August skies and ripening apple trees set an idyllic and somewhat paradoxical frame around the sterile, brick military compound. "Looks like they’re not too worried about us today," said Ann Tiffany, Kinane’s longtime life partner and the last one of the three. On most demonstration days, a few base personnel position themselves along the outer fence, she explained with an air of maternal wisdom about her. The guards’ absence made the compound no less intimidating. Dozens of military personnel drove toward them—some with disdain in their eyes, others feigning apathy, others staring off to the side as if the protestors didn’t exist.

The faces in the passing civilian traffic offered another snapshot of public opinion. A balding man in a rusty Ford yelled, "Get a life!" A school bus driver with wispy grey hair, who’d apparently finished bringing students home, reached an arm out of his window and pointed a thumb down. A young woman in a red sedan gave a honk and a wave. A pair of young men in a pickup truck yelled "Whoohoo!" as they sped by. A young man in a suit honked twice and flashed a handsome smile and thumbs up, eliciting a series of supportive honks from surrounding cars. But the majority of drivers glanced blankly, confused by or indifferent to the three Syracusans.

Two massive explosions sent David Rohde hurling to the ground, as dirt flew through a shredded plastic windowpane. "In the distance, I heard men shouting as they collected their dead. If many people had been killed, particularly women and children, we were sure to die," Rohde wrote in his first-hand account published in The New York Times on Oct. 20, 2009. At the time of the onslaught, the Taliban were holding him captive in northwestern Pakistan. The attack destroyed two cars of militants, and despite the local shock and anger, no civilians were killed—not this time, anyway. He wrote that the drones became a terrifying presence, explaining that they inspire resentment from the locals and fodder for Taliban recruiters.

United Nations reports often determine that air strikes cause a significant percentage of civilian deaths. But the number of civilian casualties varies drastically from one source to another, dragging the drone debate in circles. Some sources say for every terrorist, 20 civilians are killed; others say for every terrorist annihilated, less than one civilian dies.

In the United States, controversy over the drones does not divide neatly between Democrats and Republicans. President Barack Obama ordered more drone strikes in his first two years of office than George W. Bush did through his entire presidency. Rohde reported Taliban members berating Obama for the increased drone activity.

On one side of the debate, proponents argue that remotely piloted aircrafts keep thousands of U.S. soldiers at home and away from the front lines. The drones are also responsible for the kind of live surveillance that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

On the other side, international laws of war question the weapons’ legality. William Banks, a Syracuse University law professor, said legal experts, as well as most elected lawmakers, see little issue with deploying drones to official combat zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan. However, controversies arise when drones are employed in places like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or somewhere outside agreed upon battle space. And protesters like Kinane echo the argument that drones inflame anti-U.S. sentiment.

Nonetheless, in a March 2011 speech, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the Air Force was training more pilots for the drones than any other weapons system.

Protests against the drones remained non-existent in Central New York until the 174 Fighter Wing at Hancock Air Field began a major transition from operating and repairing the manned F-14 fighter to the MQ-9 Reaper drone in October 2008.

An onslaught of news articles and letters to the editor in The Post Standard followed, which piqued the interest of Kinane, an already seasoned anti-war activist.

"That was part of my wake-up call," he said, his eyes gazing over his backyard in contemplation. "Then of course—the key thing—The Post Standard started running these full page, front page articles about the drones coming to Hancock Air Field. You got the feeling from these articles that this is something triumphant. ‘It’s high-tech.’ ‘It’s bringing some jobs to Central New York.’"

That’s true, wrote Maj. Jeffrey Brown of the 174 Fighter Wing in an email. The program initially created 28 full-time positions and then 44 more. The full-time base employs about 399 full-time military members. The airbase will also begin a new maintenance-training program for the MQ-9 Reaper involving the base’s two on-site drones, bringing over 200 visiting trainees to Syracuse per year, wrote Brown. He also pointed out that they’ll spend one to three months each at local hotels and eating in local restaurants.

Crews at the 174th began flying drones in November 2009 and have logged more than 7,000 hours of flight time since. "We fly over and watch U.S. soldiers and marines on patrol, search for (improvised explosive devices), and insurgent activity," Brown wrote, adding that about half of one percent of flying time involves firing on targets.

A crackling, black-and-white landscape filled the computer screen in Qatar. The image was nearly indiscernible to the untrained eye. A convoy of cars cut diagonally across the frame like a train of rectangular ants. Tiny black dots walked in and out of sight, unaware that someone was watching thousands of miles away.

An enlisted officer searching the screen suspected he’d found the target somewhere in the frame of fuzzy infrared imaging and alerted his commanding officer. News of a possible discovery rose through the chain of command. "Then the commanding officers say, ‘Yeah, that’s the target. We have the information.’ If it’s definitely there, they fire," said 28-year-old Richard Dinardo, who used to work as a video journalist for the U.S. Military. Part of Dinardo’s duties required documenting the day-to-day operations of drone operators and their commanding officers. He witnessed both surveillance missions and lethal attacks at command centers in Nevada and Qatar, which utilize technology similar to that found in Hancock Air Field. After an attack, he said, a small mushroom cloud silently rises and the dust clears to reveal debris scattered across the screen.

"Military operations are very emotionless by necessity. Nobody ever expressed any inner struggle or turmoil over what they were doing—they’re just doing their job. Especially when it comes to drones, it’s very easy to remove yourself because you are so far away from the action," Dinardo said. "You’re just looking at a computer screen that’s black and white… You’re not looking at a war where three feet away someone is blowing up."

The setup may feel like a simulated race car game, he said, but it has very serious benefits. Drones offer an incredible surveillance advantage, he explained. They can remain airborne for up to 24 hours without refueling, see up to 10 miles away, and hover for hours above potential targets, collecting information. Attacking targets in remote areas is one of the most dangerous jobs in regions like Afghanistan and Pakistan, Dinardo said. The drones eliminate the risk of wounding or killing U.S. troops.

Dinardo travels to various parts of the world, including Beirut this past summer, to participate in civilian training and development courses. He occasionally encounters peers who decry drone use as unethical. "It’s as if you’re playing on a sports team. If someone says you suck, you don’t want to take it to heart, but you have to think, ‘OK, do I suck or am I really doing the right thing?’" Dinardo said. "I try not to defend myself…No matter what they say or what I say, the level of decision-making is thousands of times higher than us."

What began as humble protests in Syracuse several years ago spread, as hundreds like Kinane took up the call to action and began demonstrating in their own areas—Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, Albany. This past April, more than 300 protestors—women with their children, senior citizens, college-age men—gathered in front of Hancock Air Field to call for an end to drone strikes.

Inside the gate, a line of armed military men—"mean, powerful-looking men that seem to be trained to look intimidating," Kinane said—stood in perfect formation.

Outside the gate, Kinane and others held up an indictment on a large piece of paper; a local lawyer had drawn up a legal condemnation of the lethal drone flights, charging that they violated international laws of war. The goal: to hand their giant legal indictment to personnel at the 174 Fighter Wing.

But they were stopped. "The police just confiscated it, and we died right there on the spot," Kinane said. Dozens of protesters fell to the ground to symbolize the dead and wounded in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and everywhere else the U.S. flies its drones. Town police picked through the fallen protestors and arrested nearly 40. Among them were Kinane, Tiffany, and 92-year-old Berrigan.

Bland, thick-walled compounds lined the streets of Kabul, Kinane recalled. In August, he traveled with a group called Voices for Creative Non-Violence to the capital of Afghanistan. The delegation met with various Afghan and international non-governmental organizations to assess development progress and local opinion on the American occupation. But another reason lured Kinane to dust-colored Kabul: he planned on finding survivors of drone attacks and bring harrowing tales back to the U.S. "I wanted to raise my consciousness about the consequences of the U.S. invasion," Kinane said. "In turn I wanted to come home and raise the consciousness of others."

But the small fortresses emphasized privacy, adding to the overwhelming feeling of secrecy. American troops kept Westerners confined to the city limits, explaining to the delegation they could not ensure foreigners’ safety in the surrounding regions. Among the congested traffic and the dozens of pro-Western leaders and local business owners Kinane met, he never found the embittered survivors he set out to find.

About five to twelve people normally attend the protests. But that August evening, after Kinane returned from Kabul, it was just him, Tiffany, and Berrigan. They held their signs for 45 minutes before Kinane signaled for them to start packing up.

Then from inside the air base gate, a minivan emerged. As it took a left turn onto East Molloy Road, it slowed to a stop. A hand reached out the window and gave an earnest wave and the middle-aged driver nodded his head in respect.

The police dropped the charges from April against Berrigan. And on Sept. 12, before the trial over Kinane and Tiffany’s misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges, an employee of the Washington, D.C. Superior Court told them the prosecution hadn’t prepared to pursue the case. All charges were dismissed.

"People do have consciences that are awakened," Kinane said, acknowledging that his protests may never result in major policy reform. "Maybe some people that work out there, who knows, maybe one day they'll become whistle blowers and share what they know. At the very least, I'm hoping that our presence gets the workers thinking and asking questions."