WASHINGTON — A protester from Code Pink managed to interrupt President Obama's major counterterrorism speech for a few minutes on Thursday, shouting about drone strikes and the killing of 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki — and eliciting an unexpectedly sympathetic response from the president.
Medea Benjamin, a frequent heckler at congressional hearings and other political and governmental events in Washington, was the protester. She began shouting near the end of the president's speech as he started talking about wanting to close Guantanamo. At first, security allowed her to stay, with one agent sitting down next to her. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough appeared to roll his eyes as the crowd clapped to try to drown her out. When she started shouting again, more security — as well as a pack of media — came over, and she was eventually carried out of the room. At that point, McDonough looked overtly displeased. Afterward, reporters were surprised that Benjamin hadn't been recognized before getting into the auditorium.
According to Priscilla Huff, a senior producer with Feature Story News who was behind Benjamin in line, Benjamin had a green press like the rest of the press corps. Huff said the press pass stated her name was Susan, and that no one seemed to recognize her. Instead of wearing an all-pink outfit, Benjamin had a dress on. The tells: a hot pink belt and flip-flops, which "none of us wear," Huff said.
Alli McCracken, a Code Pink national coordinator, told BuzzFeed that the organization didn't know Benjamin was planning to do this.
"We've been planning a protest outside the president's speech since about a week ago," McCracken said. Other Code Pink protestors are gathered outside National Defense University in southwest Washington, where the president gave his speech.
"Medea didn't show up to the protest," McCracken said. "So we were broadcasting the president's speech over loudspeakers and we were all kind of moaning and groaning, and then we heard Medea's voice."
McCracken said that the name on the badge — Susan — is Benjamin's real first name.
At first, Obama joked about the interruption.
"Obviously, she wasn't listening to me," he said to the audience.
But he then showed a glimmer of sympathy with Benjamin, and a flash of keeping faith with the anti-war left that helped give birth to his political career but which has long since given up with him.
"The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to," Obama said, veering from his scripted remarks. "Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said ... but these are tough issues."
The speech, which largely focused on drone strikes, contained a lot of material that aimed at reselling the policies that liberals find unpalatable. But as protests like Benjamin's make clear, it's too late for Obama to make up with the leftist base that propelled him through 2008.
Obama argued for a ramping up of the covert counterterrorism war that is the signature of this White House, while saying that the conventional war on terror is going to end.
"Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless "global war on terror" — but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America," Obama said.
He compared today's terrorist threats to what the United States faced before 9/11.
"We have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11," he said.
Obama made a lengthy case for the legality and effectiveness of drones, basically arguing that though they carry the risk of civilian deaths (something he called a "hard fact" that "haunts" him and his advisers), they're more precise and their use is "heavily constrained." He said that the use of drones is made with "respect for state sovereignty" and that Congress is briefed on every single drone strike.
He devoted a large portion of the speech to Guantanamo. The fact that it's still open, he said, is Congress' fault.
"As president, I have tried to close Guantanamo," Obama said. "I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries, or imprisoning them in the United States. These restrictions make no sense."
"I know the politics are hard," Obama said. "But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it."