Interview With Graduate Student of Political Science: Derek Denman

by and January 28, 2013

The Human Rights Working Group at the Johns Hopkins University is comprised of professors, graduate students and undergraduates bound by a shared interest in discussing and preventing human rights abuses at all levels of society. We interviewed Derek Denman, a Political Science graduate student involved in the Human Rights Working Group’s current campaign against drone research at the Applied Physics Laboratory, a JHU campus in Laurel Maryland.

What is the topic of your research and how did you become interested in it? Are there others doing similar research at other Universities?

I’m a graduate student in the political science department and the way that I got into this research was through the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG). I’m writing my dissertation on a separate project, but it looks at how small-scale political changes have larger- scale political effects. When I became interested in the kind of work that the Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) is doing with drone research I saw how this research laboratory within the university was doing research that is having profound effects on the way war is conducted at the state and the international level. So drone research fit within the intellectual framework of my dissertation but it was a different problem. I was interested in seeing how local political effects here at Hopkins resonated at higher levels.

What can you tell us about the level of drone research and development at Johns Hopkins? Is there more research being done here than at other research Universities?

Although Predator and Reaper Drones, which are the most well- known and infamous weapons of drone warfare, are produced at General Atomics, APL does all sorts of research into software, sensors, and guidance systems used on those drones. In 1998 they built a system that would allow Special Forces to control drones from submarines. In 2002, APL was undergoing some reorganization and they took note of the release of The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Roadmap for 2002 to 2027. This document allowed APL to design its programs to fit into a particular market niche. And right around that time APL was awarded a contract that made them a coordinator in the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems Program that, at the time, defined where this sort of research was headed in the future. That program was eventually scrapped but APL’s research was reworked into a new focus on swarming technology that allows drones to function more autonomously.

I can’t say for sure about the level of drone research at other research universities because my focus has been on APL and also because much of this research is classified – I only have access to what APL reports in the APL Technical Digest – their quarterly publication. It’s not possible for the wider University community to know the full extent of the research going on at APL. APL also has a unique historical relation to the military industrial complex. It was one of the prototypes for research laboratories. In World War II, APL was spun off from the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and researchers there designed the first proximity fuse. It was reorganized and attached to Hopkins as APL. But much of the research is classified and my focus has been on APL so I can’t really quantify it in relation to other universities.

What kind of public oversight, if any, is there for drone research? To what extent is the Johns Hopkins IRB board involved?

Drone warfare is occurring largely outside of public view and outside of democratic contestation or transparency. The research that occurs here at Hopkins, while bits and pieces are in the public domain, occurs mostly outside the view of the university or the public at large. APL is subject to different research guidelines than the rest of the University. APL is designated a “non-academic campus” allowing it to conduct classified research that cannot take place on the Homewood campus (because Homewood is an academic campus). In terms of drone warfare in general, it’s subject to very little transparency. The fact that the CIA is conducting a drone war is not publicly acknowledged and only referenced obliquely in official speeches. Human rights and peace or ganizations have put substantial pressure on the federal government to acknowledge the existence of the CIA drone program and provide details about its operations but there is still no public acknowledgment of the program, access to how it works, what signature strikes look like, or how they profile an individual based on their behavior and authorize an attack without knowing who that person is.

Are we not better off having drone research in academic institutions?

There are two parts to answer that. The first involves exploring what APL is and how it differs from some of the ideals an open University based on the free exchange of ideas and critical reflection on the ethics of university research. Because the research is classified, because we only find out about it after the fact, those discussions can’t always occur. They might occur to a very limited degree, but not in the same sort of formalized, institutionalized setting that make the University a rich site of ethical and political discourse.

The second part is that we shouldn’t be resigned to thinking that war has to be waged with these types of weapons. And as I said before, this is only one level at which we can contest this type of warfare. The university provides a valuable forum for examining the relationship between war and society in which dissenting voices opposed to certain types of weapons research can be heard. So it is important that activism at the University level be connected to pressure on the federal government to discontinue drone warfare and international movements in support of arms control—but I think that if a central aim of the University is a more just and humane world, then we shouldn’t simply accept the inevitability of drone warfare.

What are the broader implications of government funded research in American Universities? Who decides what programs get funded and which ones are cut? What is the proper role of government funding in academia?

In particular the focus of the Human Rights Working Group has been on military funded research. The university needs to be aware of this not only because of the influence that funding can have on research but also because of the ways in which that research can contribute to new forms of warfare which pose ethical, political, and legal questions. In the case of drone weapons research, my concern is that spaces of civilian life are being militarized to facilitate a new form of perpetual and boundless warfare. Furthermore, university research occurring outside of the classification system is an important part of what universities, especially research universities, ought to embody. Rather than having parts of the university shut off from the rest, universities should facilitate the open exchange of ideas, public discussions, and critical reflections on the type of state and society that they are involved in producing.

Is it fair to say that the availability of this funding changes the way in which researchers approach questions?

As a broader trend that is definitely the case. The effects of military funding have been discussed extensively in the context of the Human Terrain System where the military recruited anthropologists (and it’s not just Anthropologists; there are also Political Scientists involved) to “map human terrain”, to study culture and then to relay that information to soldiers in order to target particular individuals and populations. The American Anthropological Association came out in opposition to the program and stated explicitly that it was a violation of their ethical principles. I think that Hugh Gusterson, a military funded social sciencist put it perfectly when he said, “When research that could be funded by neutral civilian agencies is instead funded by the military, knowledge is subtly militarized and bent in the way a tree is bent by a prevailing wind.”

At APL in 2008 roughly 70% of their contracts were with the Department of Defense — so the APL has a majority of their funding coming from the military. There is clearly an influence on the nature and direction of academic research, although I think that the classification system obscures those dynamics in a way that doesn’t allow us to see exactly how they work.

The JHU Human Rights Working Group has recently begun protesting Hopkins’ involvement in drone research. Can you briefly describe their argument and what is your take on their efforts?

The JHU Human Rights Working Group is an interdisciplinary group on campus that started out as a way to discuss human rights issues both in the Baltimore area and abroad; the nature of the projects vary. The first one looked at issues in Baltimore that often aren’t framed as human rights issues but as civil rights or social justice issues. We’ve been involved in labor campaigns on campus and in Baltimore. At some point the drone issue came up because of a talk by an APL researcher who came to speak on campus about work on drones. I went to the talk with a few other members of the HRWG to ask some questions about the extent to which researchers at APL reflected on the ethics of their research, on its political and military significance, and whether they had thought about this research being used to support violations of international law. The idea was to go to a discussion that was largely scientific and technical and pose some ethical and political questions.

The beginning of last spring is when we got the idea that this should be an issue that people should be aware of on campus – that members of the University community should know more about Hopkin’s involvement in drone research and drone warfare. We hosted an event in April and where I spoke alongside former Army colonel, Ann Wright. She resigned from the military in protest of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been involved with groups like Code Pink and other peace organizations since then.

Classified research doesn’t take place on the Homewood campus yet?

Classified research does not take place on the Homewood campus, but unclassified drone research will take place in Malone Hall. In a Hopkins press statement the University has advertised a materials research program for aircraft, including drones that will be housed in the new addition to the Homewood campus. While no classified research currently occurs on the Homewood campus, the influx of military contracts and joint APL-Homewood programs make it an important time to reaffirm the commitment to the open exchange of ideas and information on this campus.

So then drone research and classified research is taking place 50 miles away, operating under Hopkins brand. What have been effects, perhaps morally, for students in 2012? How does this impact us on a day-to-day basis? Are we complicit? Is there anything you think students could or should be doing about this research?

In terms of being actively engaged citizens, I think there are very serious concerns about drone warfare. These include the numerous civilian casualties that it inflicts, the way that it’s changing the shape and threshold of the how, when, and where war can be waged, and the fact that the practice of contracting with research universities redraws the line between military and civilian life. Actively engaged citizens have an obligation to contest that at multiple levels, one of them being the local—and for all of us, the university level. Another level is to make claims on the US government to change militaristic foreign policies, and also to look to the international community for things like arms control. So I don’t think this is a political issue that needs to occur in a vacuum. Instead, there are a variety of levels and entry points to which one can get involved. For people who care how warfare is waged and how we can make a more just society locally and internationally, it should be an issue of substantial concern. Members of the Hopkins community can have an impact because of their proximity to this research both institutionally and geographically.

The Human Right’s Working Group’s most recent event was well attended. What did you take away from it?

This was the second event in an ongoing campaign that we’ve had. The idea was to bring these speakers, James Cavallaro and Omar Shakir, here to talk about their report “Living Under Drones,” that came out and made national news about the effects of drone warfare in Pakistan—the way that is has undermined civil society, the way that it has created a mental health crisis, and the extent to which official statements have failed to report many civilians killed by drones. Lauren Wilcox talked about her research on drones in which she conceptualizes them less as (semi-) autonomous machines than as a technology that is very much a human- made and plugged into all-too-human political aspirations of global imperial mastery. She also spoke about APL and the Hopkins connection to drone research there. The goal is always to be raising awareness to the role that Hopkins plays and how this type of warfare is expanding.

The petition that was circulated calls for a moratorium on drone research until there is a fuller discussion about the type of research that is going on and the political and military ethics of drone warfare. Moving forward the goal is still to raise awareness that this is going on within our university system. I don’t think there is a general sense that this type of research happens here, and even when there is, I don’t think there is much of a sense of how it happens or what its implications are.

Do you think that Hopkins is the kind of place where this kind of movement can get traction?

I do think so because of the immediate connection to drone research and the extent to which drone warfare has been contested more broadly. We’ve also seen the momentum here. At first it was pretty much a handful of grad students and a faculty advisor concerned with this issue, and it’s grown massively from there. People have heard about it and then they get involved, so I do think it’s the subject of growing concern on this campus, particularly because of our proximity to the issue.

Political Science and the Anthropology departments were both co- sponsors of the most recent event, and Joel Andreas from the Sociology department, the HRWG faculty sponsor, has been incredibly helpful and supportive in making the campus events a reality. The members of the HRWG, who are unfortunately too numerous to list here, dedicate substantial amounts of time and energy to this cause and continue to encounter supportive students, campus organizations, and faculty members. I think that the Hopkins community has a real interest in examining its relation to weapons technologies and forms of warfare that have brought about substantial concern locally.