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Islam and the West ( 30 Jul 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Revealed: Private Firms at Heart of US Drone Warfare

By Abigail Fielding-Smith, Crofton Black, Alice Ross and James Ball

30 July 2015

An X-47B drone combat aircraft. Final targeting decisions are made by military personnel but mistakes by contractors could lead to the wrong people being killed. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

The overstretched US military has hired hundreds of private-sector contractors to the heart of its drone operations to analyse top-secret video feeds and help track suspected terrorist leaders, an investigation has found.

Contracts unearthed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveal a secretive industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars, placing a corporate workforce alongside uniformed personnel analysing intelligence from areas of interest.

While it has long been known that US defence firms supply billions of dollars’ worth of equipment for drone operations, the role of the private sector in supplying analysts for combing through intelligence material has remained almost entirely unknown until now.

Approximately one in 10 people involved in the effort to process data captured by drones and spy planes are non-military. And as the rise of Islamic State prompts what one commander termed “insatiable” demand for aerial surveillance, the Pentagon is considering further expanding its use of contractors, an air force official said.

Companies that stand to reap the benefits include BAE Systems and Edward Snowden’s former employer Booz Allen Hamilton.

The US dependence on armed contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan has attracted close scrutiny, partly because of the notorious 2007 incident in which employees of the company then known as Blackwater killed 14 civilians in Baghdad. But the use of private companies in drone operations has so far happened largely under the radar.

The contractors review live footage gathered by drones and spy planes flying over areas of interest, and help uniformed colleagues decide whether people they spot are potential enemies or civilians.

Though private contractors do not formally make life-and-death choices – only military personnel operate armed drones and take final targeting decisions – there is concern that they could creep in to this function without more robust oversight.

Even now, contractors are aware that any errors of analysis they make could lead to the wrong people getting killed. “A misidentification of an enemy combatant with a weapon and a female carrying a broom can have dire consequences,” one told the bureau.

Timeline of a Drone Operation

Follow this summary of events before and after a US air strike on a convoy of trucks in Uruzgan, Afghanistan in 2010. The strike targeted people believed to be militants but instead killed up to 23 civilians, and wounded a further 12.

This summary is based on information in a declassified US military investigation. The report pinpointed the “inaccurate and unprofessional reporting of the Predator crew” as the cause of the error. No fault was found with the screeners, including the private contractor.

Teams Involved

Predator Operations

A Predator drone pilot, sensor operator and mission coordinator at Creech Air Force base in Nevada.


Imagery analysts or screeners at Hurlburt Field Air Base in Florida. The lead screener was a contractor.

Air and ground operations

A helicopter crew and special operations ground patrol who communicates with the Predator crew but not with the screeners.

Predator pilot to redacted recipient

“We are eyes on the first vehicle; observing to try and PID [positive identification] on the pax [people] in the open.”

Predator pilot on internal intercom to the crew

“I bet; DGS [imagery analysts] is not calling anything for us, right?”

[Redacted speaker]

Asks if tubes or cylindrical objects are being carried by people getting off trucks. The Predator crew relay this message to the screeners, who don’t report seeing anything.

Imagery analyst or screener

Screeners report seeing at least one child in the convoy.

Predator sensor operator on internal intercom

“I really doubt that children call, man I really [expletive deleted] hate that.”

Imagery analysts or screener

“Calls out” [ie flags up] a weapon

Predator pilot calls [redacted] on the radio

Says that the screeners called out two weapons

Sensor operator on Predator crew

“Hey, that dude just put a weapon down right above the truck. See it?”

Predator pilot

“See it. See if DGS [imagery analysts] will call that.”

Sensor operator on Predator crew

“They're [the screeners] saying one MAM [military age male] passed rifle to another MAM.”

Predator pilot

“Be advised, our screener did see one MAM pass a rifle to another MAM. Other than that nothing else PID outside the vehicles yet.”

[Redacted speaker]

“Are you able to ascertain the demographic of all the occupants in the vehicle? Over.”

Predator pilot

“Check with the screener on that.”

Predator pilot

“Our screeners are currently calling 21 MAMs no females, and two possible children. How copy?”

[Redacted speaker]

“Roger. And when we say children, are we talking teenagers or toddlers?”

Sensor operator on Predator crew

“I would say about twelve. Not toddlers. Something more towards adolescents or teens... Screener agrees. Adolescents.”

Missiles fired

Around 0840 the target details were provided to two OH-58D helicopters. According to the report, “the Predator crew did not mention children or adolescents at the target site. Instead, the Predator crew only noted PID of military age males, weapons and tactical manoeuvring, as well as the location of the target.” The helicopters fired their Hellfire missiles at 0848.

Sensor operator on Predator crew

“Tell uh DGS [imagery analysts] that we need to get some uh…”

Predator pilot

“See if anybody's got uh anything … weapons.”

Predator pilot

“DGS [imagery analysts] not call anything yet, huh?”

Mission coordinator on Predator crew

“Not yet. No.”

[Redacted speaker]

“Exiting from that vehicle was probably about four personnel. Believe possibly two of those, maybe three, were female.”

Mission coordinator on Predator crew

“Screener said there wasn't any women earlier.”

Predator pilot

“Just be advised, uh, our DGS is calling out, uh, potential three females and, uh, two adolescents, uh, near the center vehicle.”

Predator pilot

“Looks like, uh, one of those in the, uh, bright garb may be carrying a child as well. Uh, be advised, uh, DGS is calling that this time. Uh, they did not call it prior to this.”

Predator pilot

“Since the engagement we have not been able to PID any weapons.”

The ability to transmit live footage from above the villages and towns through which its enemies move has become central to the US war machine, and the air force has struggled to keep up with demand. Each day, armed and unarmed drones and surveillance planes gather 1,100 hours of video data – all of which needs to be analysed.

Most of the time the analysts are conducting long-term surveillance – establishing what constitutes “normal” in a particular place. Some monitor images as they unfold in near-real time, while others scrutinise individual shots more closely to make sense of them.

In so-called “kinetic” situations – those that entail lethal force – the assessments passed on by the analysts can affect whether someone on the ground is seen as a threat.

Missions include long-term surveillance of suspected militants and their resources – known in military jargon as “high-value targets” – and gathering intelligence for special forces or standard military operations on the ground.

Almost exclusively ex-military, contractors say they are more experienced in what they are looking at than their uniformed counterparts, who are frequently moved between posts.

Some openly advertise their skills on sites such as LinkedIn: one even boasted of assisting with the “kill/capture of high-value targets”.

Another contractor suggested that at times their skills in effect placed them within the military chain of command.

“It will always be military bodies or civilian government bodies as the overall in charge of the missions … however, you will have experienced contractors act as a ‘righthand man’ many times because typically contractors are the ones with subject matter expertise, so the military/government leadership lean on those people to make better mission-related decisions,” the analyst said.

By analysing and cross-referencing a database of millions of federal spending records, military contracts, interviews with current and former contractors and online job ads, the bureau has identified 10 companies that have supplied the US government with image analysts in the past five years.

The contracts identified relate only to operations of conventional military and special forces. CIA contracts, which cover the agency’s controversial operations in Pakistan and Yemen, remain classified, so any role of the private sector in their controversial drone operations remains unknown.

The companies involved are a mixture of large defence contractors and smaller tech and intelligence-focused firms, and offer image analysis alongside other services ranging from logistics to translation.

Among the largest known users of image analysis contractors are branches of the Special Operations Command, which conducts drone operations and supports commando raids on the ground. A 16 May swoop on the Isis commander Abu Sayyaf, in which Sayyaf was killed and his wife captured, was supported by Predator surveillance, according to media reports.

Control room for a Predator drone Facebook Twitter Pinterest

 The Predator drones have a highly powerful camera with infrared capabilities, as well as a still camera and two missiles. Photograph: Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

Federal transaction records show that a company called Zel Technologies is supplying analysts to Air Force Special Operations Command (Afsoc) in a contract worth $12m in its first year. According to a copy of the contract obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Zel is providing more than 100 analysts. The contract also requires Zel to provide experts “in the areas of the Horn of Africa, Arabian peninsula, Somalia, Syria, Iran, north Africa, Trans-Sahel region, Levant region, Gulf states, and territorial waters”.

A further Afsoc contract details how an Ohio-based firm called MacAulay-Brown was tasked to “support targeting, information operations, deliberate and crisis action planning, and 24/7/365 operations”.

Meanwhile, New York-based L-3 Communications won a contract with Special Operations Command (Socom) in 2010 that was to bring in $155m over five years.

Booz Allen Hamilton, which has been given a contract for supporting special operations, posted a job ad calling for personnel “providing direct intelligence support to the global war on terror”. British defence company BAE Systems, too, has advertised for video analysts to be “part of a high ops tempo team”.

Laura Dickinson, a specialist in military contracting at George Washington University law school, called for the Pentagon to make more information available about the role and scope of private contractors in drone operations.

“We urgently need more transparency,” she said. “The issue is not that some contractors may be doing imagery analysis. The problem is the ratio of contractors to government personnel. If that ratio balloons, oversight could easily break down, and the current prohibition on contractors making targeting decisions could become meaningless.”

A spokeswoman for the air force said ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) was “vital to the national security of the United States and its allies”, and in “insatiable demand” from combatant commanders. She said this demand was the reason for increasing use of contractors, which she said was a “normal process within military operations”.

On the issue of whether private contractors’ assessments risk pre-empting the military’s official decisions, she said the service had thorough oversight and followed all appropriate rules.

Current AF [air force] judge advocate rulings define the approved roles for contractors in the AF IRS’s processing, exploitation and dissemination capability,” she said.

“Air force DCGS [distributed common ground system] works closely with the judge advocate’s office to ensure a full, complete and accurate understanding and implementation of those roles. Oversight is accomplished by air force active duty and civilian personnel in real time and on a continual basis with personnel trained on the implementation of procedural checks and balances.”

The Pentagon declined to comment.

• Further details, data and supporting documents on this story are available from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism