WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The woman who interrupted President Barack Obama’s speech on counterterrorism policy on Thursday is well-known around Washington as a perennial protester on national security issues.
Medea Benjamin, a founder of anti-war women’s group Code Pink, began demonstrating years ago on Capitol Hill, becoming an almost routine presence at hearings where high-ranking officials of the Bush administration appeared to talk about the Iraq war.
On Thursday, Benjamin got into an argument with Obama, interrupting his remarks at the National Defense University repeatedly to urge him to take faster action in releasing detainees from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“You are our commander in chief. Close Guantanamo Bay!” Benjamin shouted toward the end of Obama’s address.
“Why don’t you sit down and I will tell you exactly what I’m going to do?” Obama replied. “Let me finish my sentence.
He called on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers and went on to discuss other steps toward closing the prison. He said he was lifting a moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen.
“Release them today!” Benjamin shouted. “It’s been 11 years!”
“Let me finish,” Obama said. “This is part of free speech. You being able to speak, but also me listening, and me being able to speak.”
He was able to continue for a bit but then Benjamin demanded to know why a teenager had been killed by a U.S. drone.
“Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious are our lives? Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes?”
By this point, the Secret Service was leading her away, but Benjamin continued yelling as she left. “I love my country! I love the rule of law! The drones are making us less safe! And keeping people in indefinite detention in Guantanamo is making us less safe! Abide by the rule of law! You’re a constitutional lawyer!”
Obama then drew hoots of laughter when he announced he was about to go off script. “The words of that woman are worth paying attention to,” he said.
“Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues,” Obama said.
The National Defense University said Benjamin was on its list of media personnel who would be attending the address.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Susan Cornwell