Private contractors, kill lists, drones and surveillance

Shocking revelations by the London based Bureau of Investigative Journalism raise questions about how much power has been given over to private military contractors who, according to an examination of over 8 million documents, collect, process and analyze much of the intelligence that leads to military drone strikes – muddying the distinction between the national chain of command and corporate contractor mercenaries, when life or death targeting choices are weighed.

Defense contractors including Edward Snowden's former employer Booz Allen Hamilton, BAE, L-3 Services and others were among the companies directly named.

According to the report and supporting documents, L-3 Services was awarded over $155 million for a five year contract that essentially embeds them within the U.S. Special Operations Command.

“Some individual analysts even publicly advertise their skills on sites such as LinkedIn, with one boasting of helping with the 'kill/capture of high-value targets'.”

U.S. drone strikes require direct approval from the National Command Authority, headed by the U.S. President. President Barrack Obama conducts a weekly morning ritual dubbed “Terror Tuesday” in which he is presented with cases and apply a set of rules called the “disposition matrix” to decide who is targeted, the so called “kill list” of the drone war. But how that information is being assembled and presented is falling more and more into corporate hands.

Even before the revelations raised questions about the erosion of the National Command Authority, Amnesty International condemned the decision making process for drone strikes, as well as the underlying philosophy of a global battlefield and the normalizing of targeted assassination.

In a 2012 report on drones, the organization states “While purporting to respond to questions about and criticism of U.S. policies and practices on the use of lethal force against terrorism suspects, not one of the discourses by various administration officials on such killings has even mentioned the words 'human rights'.”

Fears are growing that as the ratio between corporate contractors and government personal shifts, roles are becoming increasingly blurred. The shift also raises the issue of legal redress against corporation and thus their shareholders on behalf of drone strike victims, especially civilians killed in errant strikes.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed a case in U.S. federal court Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta charging that drone strike assassinations of Americans in Yemen where “undertaken without due process, in circumstances where lethal force was not a last resort to address a specific and imminent threat and where the government failed to take required measures to protect bystanders, violated the deceased Americans’ fundamental rights under the Constitution.”

The suit names as defendants former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon C. Panetta, former Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command William H. McRaven, former Commander of the Joint Special Operations Command Joseph Votel, and former CIA Director David Petraeus. But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report seems to implicate a host of private corporations in the charges.

The surveillance power controlled by the private companies named are titanic. The revelations, taken alongside the corporations' own in-house intelligence capabilities, makes the power granted these companies increasingly frightening and the lack of transparency in over-site increasingly layered.

There have always been defense contractors involved in warfare. In the industrial age these contractors where predominantly the manufacturers of the weapons of war. But as war has entered the digital age the role of defense contractors have become more integrated with combat, more information based and more ambiguous. The involvement of L-3 demonstrates some of the pitfalls of the integrated corporate government program.

In the skies L-3 holds extensive contracts on surveillance aircraft both at home and abroad. The company is the key contractor for maintaining the RC-135U/W signals intelligence aircraft (codenamed RIVET JOINT) for the U.S. Air Force. RIVET JOINT planes slowly patrol the skies, capturing cellphone, radio, satellite phone and other signals and geolocates them. Unlike most U.S. surveillance aircraft (which are assigned to the Strategic Air Command), RIVET JOINT assets are directly assigned to the air combat command and are a key component in targeting airstrikes by both drones and piloted aircraft.

However, U.S. forces are not the only operators of RIVET JOINT aircraft and in May of 2014 L-3 acquired a contract to upgrade the Royal Saudi Air Force's fleet of RIVET JOINT planes to the latest standards – apparently putting them in control of both domestic and foreign military assets simultaneously.

Their experience in field garnered them a further contract in June 2015 to upgrade it's fleet of smaller MC-12 Liberty aircraft which are used in the same role. The MC-12 is also operated by both the United States Air Force and the United States Army as part of Task Force Odin, which uses them to coordinate the targeting of the upgraded Predator drones (the MQ-1C Grey Eagle) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabian integrates it's MC-12s with drones purchased from South Africa (the Seeker 400) and China (the Pterodactyl) raising deeper national security questions.

L-3 has been punished before for using U.S. defense assets for its own purposes. In 2010, L-3's Special Support Programs Division had been suspended from doing any contract work for the U.S. federal government. In that case L-3 "used a highly sensitive government computer network to collect competitive business information for its own use." The temporary suspension was ended several months later.

The incident highlights the dangers of a corporate/government revolving door inside an overall military operations flow that now appears to be far outside conventional bounds. Private companies gather information from the internet, from body and security cameras, and from surveillance aircraft. Then the information is passed back to intelligence and military agencies which then pass the information back for analysis assistance and then receives back finalized targeting data used to carry out drone strikes.

This targeting loop is increasingly outside the bounds of a military system subject to elected officials and international norms. The transnational nature of the corporate players involved opens the door to a profit driven system precariously integrated with the national security needs and goals corporate clients who are foreign governments often acting outside the realm of U.S. strategic policy.

Date Originally Published: 
Monday, August 10, 2015
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