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


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.
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