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Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was grilled during his confirmation hearing when it came to Putin, but was not asked to reflect the same way on U.S. foreign policy or whether Bush or Obama are war criminals, says CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Congressional hearings for the appointment of Exxon Mobil CEO, Rex Tillerson, as Secretary of State, took place on Wednesday. The hearings covered a wide range of issues including Tillerson’s relationship with President Putin of Russia, his position on climate change, and on fighting the Islamic State. Everyone that was there saw many protesters, but the television cameras didn’t always focus on who they were. Some of the protesters were Greenpeace, Witness Against Torture, which was along in terms of protesting Guantanamo Bay, and others managed to interrupt the hearings as well. And joining us to take a closer look at the Tillerson hearing is one of our favorites here on The Real News, Medea Benjamin. Medea is co-founder of the peace group Code Pink, and author of “Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection” Thanks for joining us, Medea. MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me on, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: So, Medea, because of the protests in the Sessions hearings, that Code Pink carried out yesterday, you were actually barred from attending the Tillerson hearing, even before it began. What happened, and tell me why Code Pink is actually protesting. What are the key issues? MEDEA BENJAMIN: We were protesting the Tillerson hearing because it’s just unbelievable to us that the CEO of an oil company would be in charge of U.S. foreign policy. The entire planet is burning up because of the policies of companies like Exxon, Exxon being the largest private U.S. oil company. And then to think that this will probably be the person who develops what the U.S. policy is towards the rest of the world, is quite surreal to us. So, we were there to protest just the fact that an oil company executive should never be the head of a State Department. We were joining with these other groups, like Greenpeace, focusing on the burning of the planet, and how responsible Exxon has been for that, as well as the folks with Witness Against Torture, who were calling for the State Department, or him as the head of the State Department, to come out against torture and against Guantanamo, and certainly many other issues that we care about. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. One of the key concerns that both sides of the House questioning Tillerson has is, of course, his proximity to Russia. Given he will have to negotiate around a number of issues with Russia, for example, on Syria. The alleged hacking into the interference with the U.S. elections, perhaps even the Iran deal. Even Marco Rubio, the former presidential candidate and Senator from Florida, asked him this question related to Putin in particular. Let’s have a look. (video clip) MARCO RUBIO: Let me ask you this question. Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal? REX TILLERSON: I would not use that term. MARCO RUBIO: Well, let me describe the situation in Aleppo, and perhaps that will help you reach that conclusion. In Aleppo, Mr. Putin has directed his military to conduct a devastating campaign. He’s targeted schools, markets –- not just assisted the Syrians in doing it -– his military has targeted schools and markets and other civilian infrastructure. It’s resulted in the death of thousands of civilians. This is not the first time Mr. Putin is involved in campaigns of this kind. Back when he was just appointed Prime Minister, before he was elected, and I’m sure you’re aware of that period of time, there was a series of bombings, and they blamed it on the Chechnyans. And Mr. Putin personally said that he would punish them and so he ordered the air force to bomb the Chechnyan capital of Grozny. They used scud missiles to hit hospitals, the city’s main outdoor market packed with shoppers, 137 people died instantly. They used thermobaric and fuel air explosive bombs, these are the bombs that ignite, and they burn the air breathed in by people who are hiding in basements. They used cluster munitions. He used battlefield weapons against civilians. And when it was all said and done, an estimated 300,000 civilians were killed. And the city was completely destroyed. By the way, there’s a credible body of reporting, open source and other, that this was all… all those bombings were part of a Black Flag operation on the part of the FSB and, if you want to know the motivation, here’s what it is — Putin’s approval ratings before the attacks against the Chechnyans was at 31%. By mid-August of that year, it was at 78%, in just three months. So, based on all this information, and what’s publicly in the record about what’s happened in Aleppo and the Russian military, you are still not prepared to say that Vladimir Putin and his military have violated the rules of war, and have conducted war crimes in Aleppo? REX TLLLERSON: Now, those are very, very serious charges to make, and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion. I understand there is a body of record in the public domain. I’m sure there’s a body of record in the classified domain, and I think in order to deal with a serious question like this… MARCO RUBIO: Mr. Tillerson, there has happened in Aleppo… REX TLLLERSON: And I would want to be… MARCO RUBIO: …is in the public domain… REX TLLLERSON: …I would want to be… MARCO RUBIO: …videos and the pictures are there… REX TLLLERSON: …fully informed before advising the president… (end video clip) SHARMINI PERIES: All right. So, Medea, what did you think of that exchange, given Rubio actually left out the role of the United States in Syria, and the kind of criminal activity that they have been put on guard for, by organizations like Amnesty International? MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yeah, Sharmini, I can’t hear you too well all of a sudden… But it is quite remarkable that — oh, the entire hearings are always focused on what other countries are doing, and there are certainly terrible things that other countries like Russia are doing. But it is so hypocritical, because there’s no reflection on what the United States is doing, even under these eight years of Obama. We ended the year 2016 with Obama having dropped 26,701 bombs. Many of those bombs falling on marketplaces, on schools, on hospitals, and killing untold numbers of civilians. You would never hear Marco Rubio ask if he felt President Bush was a war criminal, President Obama was a war criminal, whether the U.S. had been engaging in war crimes in the seven different countries that it has been bombing in the last years. So, absolutely, no discussion of U.S. policy from the point of view of the illegal, inhumane, immoral acts that the U.S. commits. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Well, Marco Rubio seems to be overly concerned about the relationship between, say, Tillerson and Putin, and what kind of position that would put Tillerson in, in terms of managing U.S.-Russia relations over Syria. One issue is his proximity to Russia. How do you think the whole… what do you think of his responses in relation to that line of questioning, and is he equipped to handle these kinds of complicated discussions and negotiations, like war and peace in a place like Syria? MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, who knows? I mean, I don’t think he’s equipped because I think his role has been to accelerate climate change around the world, and I consider that a crime against the planet. But in terms of his position around Russia, I would like a Secretary of State who had the ability to deal in a friendly way with Russia, to solve a lot of the problems that are happening around the world, and particularly problems in the Middle East. I thought it was interesting how Tillerson was pushed to sound very aggressive on Russia, much more aggressive than Donald Trump has ever said. He called the invasion of the Ukraine an illegal act — said he would have furnished the Ukraine with defensive weapons to use against Moscow. I thought he came out… well, he did come out saying that Obama didn’t use strong enough retaliation for Russia against its acts. So, I think that he knows that he has to sound tough on Russia. but in reality everything is topsy-turvy now around Russia, with the liberals in Congress being the most cold war hawks, and the Republican hawks, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham not knowing where to go, because it’s their party, the Republican Party being represented by Trump, that is now friendly with Russia. So, everything with Russia is just upside down, topsy-turvy, crazy right now. SHARMINI PERIES: All right. And then the other issue that kept coming up is, of course, the Iran nuclear agreement. Tillerson says that he will back a full review of the Iran nuclear deal as President-elect Trump has repeatedly said. Now, how much leeway does the U.S. have when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, given that there is P5+1 involved in it, and this is a multilateral agreement, not just a U.S.-Iran agreement? MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, on one level, you would think that what Tillerson really believes, is that it would be great to open up Iran to U.S. oil companies. And he probably feels he has to say things, that he’s tough on Iran right now for these confirmation hearings. But as a businessman, and especially in the oil industry, he probably really does want further openings and liftings of sanctions on Iran. This is unlike a number of the other appointees that Trump has made, who have come out very openly, very hostile towards Iran, like his appointee for Secretary of Defense, like CIA appointee, Pompeo. I think it was very dangerous that Tillerson said in his hearings, that he considered the Iran nuclear deal to be a treaty, meaning that it should have to get approval through Congress. Given how anti-Iran most in Congress is, that would be a very dangerous thing to do. SHARMINI PERIES: All right. And then, of course, another issue that came up is the question of Israel, Palestine, and Tillerson essentially reiterated Trump’s position, which is that the U.S. needs to strengthen its relations and obligations to Israel. And, of course, the recent UN resolution condemning Israel settlements in the West Bank was a mistake. What did you think of his response to all of that? MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, I think his responses were terrible, and I think the questioning was even worse. I mean, he was pushed and pushed on this issue to say that the Israelis had given every possible opening for peace deals. And the Palestinians refused over and over again to do any kind of meaningful negotiations, and it’s all the Palestinians’ fault. And, of course, he responded in a way, given the political climate in this country, would make it possible for him to get confirmed. And I just think it’s unfortunate that we have such a skewed view of Israel-Palestine by our elected officials. And now by Trump, and Trump’s appointees, that they can’t even –- even if they thought any differently and wanted to have a more even-handed approach –- they would probably be very fearful of saying that. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Moving to another hearing also taking place, is the Jeff Sessions hearings, and Code Pink has come out strongly against that appointment, as well. Give us some of the highlights of reasons why. MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s so sad to think that somebody who represents the old-white-boy network of the past, becomes the top law enforcer of this country. It gives a signal to the black community, to the Islamic community, to the LGBTQ community, that Trump wants to take us backwards, instead of going forwards. I thought there was some very eloquent testimony, by people like Cory Booker, who talked about not only Sessions’ record, but really how we need somebody in this position who is a known and a trusted advocate for moving us towards a more just society. He said… quoted Martin Luther King, talking about the Arc of Justice bending towards freedom, but you need to really push that arc, and that Sessions is one who would not push it in the direction of justice and freedom. So, I think on any of those issues of the rights of minority groups, civil rights, Sessions just represents, through decades of his past, somebody that has been pushed, pulling and screaming, to a more just position, but certainly has not even braced things like Roe v. Wade. SHARMINI PERIES: Now, a number of the Democratic Party questions, including Feinstein, asked some of the more critical questions related to the issues you raise, but he simply answered to them — when it came to women’s rights, when it came to civil rights and so on — he just said he would follow the law that’s in the books. When every indication that most of us who follow these issues have, was the opposite when it came to Sessions. So, what are you planning to do about it, Medea? MEDEA BENJAMIN: We were very encouraged that there were so many groups that were working together against Sessions. I was not one of the people arrested yesterday, but I heard that the jail was full of some of the best representative groups in our country. There were people from the NAACP, from Howard University’s students; there were people who were part of organizations promoting the rights of the LGBTQ community. There were folks that were there to support the Latino community and immigrant rights, the Islamic community. So, I think it’s great that on the silver lining in all of this, there are great coalitions that have formed really deep, meaningful, organizing that’s going on, and whether or not Sessions or these others are all confirmed, we will be working within these coalitions to oppose the march backwards that these nominees represent. SHARMINI PERIES: And I know there are a lot of activities being planned for the inauguration, and the day after the inauguration. Give us some highlights of some of the actions that Code Pink is going to be involved in. MEDEA BENJAMIN: We’re going to start out the day of the inauguration at the prayer breakfast, in front of the Trump Hotel, that starts at 7:00 a.m. And the only foreign head of state that’s listed as an attendee is Benjamin Netanyahu. We will be bringing other members of the faith-based community to do our own kind of prayer outside of the Trump Hotel. Then we will be joining the… disrupt J-20(?) groups, that will be protesting in front of all of the entrances to the security gates at the inauguration. We’ll be joining the march that will start at Union Station at noon, to McPherson Square. We’ll also be joining the Answer Coalition, that has through a lot of hard work, received a permit at Freedom Plaza, which is right on Pennsylvania Avenue. And so we will be joining them and be well positioned there, to greet the parade of Trump and his group, as they go by Pennsylvania Avenue. And then we will be joining in the protest at the counter… the Inauguration Balls in the evening. We’ll be part of the Women’s March on the 21st, the teach-ins at All Souls Church, that will be happening after that. Evening gatherings, events, and all of this is listed on our website at It’s going to be days of hectic activity, but also days when we will see that there will be hundreds of thousands of people at the Women’s March, for example. And I think a real inspiration for the hard work that we have ahead, knowing that we have so many brothers and sisters that are with us that will be working back in their communities, to not only counter the Trump agenda, but to move forward a progressive agenda at the local level, which is probably the only place where we will make some real progress in the coming years. SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Medea, I thank you so much for joining us today, and I look forward to covering some of the actions you are speaking about. MEDEA BENJAMIN: Terrific. Thanks for having me on, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. ————————- END

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Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights organization Global Exchange. She has been organizing against U.S. military interventions, promoting the rights of Palestinians and calling for no war on Iran. Her latest work includes an effort to stop CIA drone attacks, and she is the author of a new book, "Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection"