The private firms tracking terror targets at the heart of US drone wars

The private firms tracking terror targets at the heart of US drone wars

Organisation: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (United Kingdom)

Publication Date: 04/10/2016

Size of team/newsroom:small


We exposed the role of for-profit companies operating in some of the most sensitive aspects of the US military’s drone operations. We uncovered the relevant contracts and interviewed people who had done this work, revealing that civilian contractors sitting outside of military jurisdiction play a critical role in targeting decisions. As one of them told us: "When you mess up, people die." Our goal was to make this issue part of the national conversation, so that if more contractors were brought in – as seemed likely - their role would be subject to a proper degree of scrutiny in order to prevent mission creep. Before our investigation, it was known in specialist circles that some aspects of drone operations had been outsourced to contractors, but because the whole drone programme is shrouded in so much secrecy it was not clear who the companies were and what exact role their employees were playing. We published some of the contracts - which we obtained through FOI - as well as the names of the companies and detailed descriptions what the contractors’ jobs involved, putting a significant amount of information about this murky national security programme in to the public domain for the first time. The story was published in partnership with the Guardian, who led their US home page with it. It was picked up by a range of US news outlets. The Bureau was interviewed about the story on WBEZ Chicago public radio. It was cited in an expert submission to a UN working group on mercenaries. Shortly after the story was published, the US military began to communicate with unusual frankness about manpower shortages in its drone programme, admitting that they were going to have to bring in more contractors. At the end of the year, Senator Claire McCaskill raised concerns about the expanding use of civilian contractors in the drone programme with then Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

Often, big scoops in national security reporting rely on whistleblowers and leaks. We managed to offer significant revelations about a secretive military programme by tracing its trail in the realm of publicly available records. Specifically, we harnessed the data made available through the US Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS) to trace the services and companies we were interested in. In order to achieve this, we had to re-engineer the FPDS. As the government provides it, the FPDS does not offer the sort of advanced search functionality we needed. We built a new database of 8.3 million DoD transactions, and then started mining this resource for data relating to drone operations. Through interrogating our rebuilt version of the government's database we were able to gain insights which we could never have gained using the data portal offered by the government, even though the raw data was the same. Another innovative aspect of our investigation was the way it married data journalism with traditional reporting techniques. The data itself could only provide us with clues, not stories. We interviewed military experts to get a steer on what would be the most interesting aspects of corporate involvement to focus on. We decided the story lay in the provision of civilian analysts to process the data derived from drone cameras and sensors. In an iterative process, we identified technical terms and language used to describe these functions, searched our database for transactions relating to these terms, identified companies and contracts carrying out such work, investigated other functions carried out by the same companies and from this derived new terms to search for. We made FOI requests for contracts we had identified, and contacted people who had worked in this area. We were able to get them to talk to us in part because of our command of the jargon and details of their work.

Technologies used for this project:

We used an Amazon web server to house our 8.3 million rows of data securely, and MySQL Workbench as our entry point into mining it. We wrote SQL scripts to select lists of transactions relating to specific companies, contracts and services. We then analysed these transaction lists using Open Refine and MS Excel.
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