UK telecoms infrastructure used to support controversial US drone operations

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UK telecoms infrastructure used to support controversial US drone operations

Mark Ballard

The UK’s telecommunications infrastructure is being used as part of a global defence intelligence network that the US government uses for controversial drone operations and other military purposes.

Human rights experts say the UK's involvement is the digital equivalent of allowing secret US rendition flights to land at UK military sites, or permitting the US government to launch air strikes from its airforce bases in the UK – actions for which the UK has, in the past, been heavily criticised.

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A Computer Weekly investigation has revealed that the UK plays a crucial role in supporting the US military network by providing part of the core communications backbone used by drone operations.

The UK government and BT – which the US contracted to provide an international connection to its network – both deny any knowledge of the specific purposes for which the network is used.

Legal charity Reprieve alleged last year that the UK connection is used for drone strikes on suspected terrorists outside the usual parameters of war – attacks it said are illegal. A lack of evidence about the UK connection has blocked the charity's attempts to hold BT and the government to account, although Reprieve is expected to persist with further legal action related to the issue.

But extensive analysis of public records by Computer Weekly has established that the UK connection is part of a US military network that is used to target drone strikes.

Defence Information Systems Network

The UK connection is a high-security communications line that forms part of the Defence Information Systems Network (DISN), which provides vital support to drone operations.

The key information revealing the role of the UK connection went unnoticed among various technical acronyms in a contract specification unearthed by Reprieve last year. In the specification, the US Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) outlined instructions for a fibre-optic connection it had contracted BT to provide between a US military communications hub at RAF Croughton, Northamptonshire and Camp Lemonnier, the regional headquarters for US operations on the Horn of Africa.

According to reports by the BBC and the Washington Post, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is the base for US drone operations against suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia – operations that have accidentally killed civilians. The base has also conducted other military operations in support of states in the region, as well as extensive humanitarian, infrastructure and state-building missions.

Analysis of US Congressional defence budget justifications and strategic documents over the past 15 years show how DISN has enabled a transformation of the US war machine under the doctrine of network-centric warfare.

DISN has been at the heart of this strategy as the backbone of the Global Information Grid (GIG), a dedicated military internet that spans more than 3,500 US facilities in at least 88 countries. The US has an ongoing strategy to connect all its communications, forces, commanders, vehicles, weapons, surveillance sensors, satellites, radios, computer systems, intelligence agencies and allies into one seamless network.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) 2013-2036 Unmanned Systems Roadmap said last December that drones use DISN to disseminate mission data and for long-range command and control. Its 2005-2030 Roadmap named Reaper and Global Hawk as specific drones that use DISN. The DoD’s ongoing work seeks to make drones a more closely integrated part of GIG, which is the foundation of net-centric warfare.

Data fusion strategy

US publications have repeatedly stated that computer systems designed to automatically find, fix, track and attack targets rely on the dissemination of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data, in particular from drones. DISN is the basis of US military systems such as the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS), which stores ISR intelligence, and the basis of a strategy called data fusion, which is an effort to combine as much intelligence from as many sources as possible to better strike targets.

US disclosures of defence priorities over the past decade have made it clear that DISN is intended to be the dependable backbone for all its systems and services, and is the core carrier of communications for both manned and unmanned operations on air, sea and land, as well as cyber operations and the distribution of classified intelligence.

It is the basis of intelligence sharing between US military and intelligence agencies and US allies. And it is the basis of automated collaboration between the same entities, including the UK, for training weapons systems such as drones on their targets.

DISN conducts top-secret communications for the Secure Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET), the classified system where Wikileaks whistle-blower Bradley Manning got his intelligence leaks. It carries communications for the other major command and control, intelligence and communications systems used by US forces. It carries presidential telephone communications over the Red Switch Network, as well as the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications system (JWICS) and the DoD’s Non-classified Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNET).

Burden on communications

A Task Force on Intelligence Integration set up by the US Under Secretary of Defense in 2008 said the fusion of ISR data and imagery had proved 100 times more accurate at "geo-locating" targets like people and weapons of mass destruction. It cut "noise", or misleading intelligence, by half. But burgeoning demands for drones and full-motion video surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan had placed a huge burden on the communications infrastructure. Ongoing investment in GIG and DISN was intended to deal with the problem.

BT's 2012 contract to make the UK connection coincided with Camp Lemonnier being upgraded from an operations outpost for US Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) – what used to be known as the war on terror – to an officially designated military base.

DISA specified the BT line would be terminated with "DISN" connectors and a specific sort of encryption device called a KG-340. KG-340 encryptors would make the UK connection operate at the top-secret level of classified communications needed for these purposes. The KG-340 was built to specifications of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and uses NSA algorithms, according to details published by SafeNET, which originally manufactured the device.

SafeNet sold its government business to Raytheon in 2012, divesting the KG-340 and other encryption devices it developed with the NSA.

US Navy Congressional statements in 2012 said investment in a DISN connection would ease network congestion at Lemonnier, freeing up bandwidth for operational communications, and create a simultaneous view of high-security net-centric computer systems with its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. Computer Weekly understands the UK DISN connection runs from RAF Croughton to Stuttgart via the nearby Ramstein airforce base.

A DISA spokeswoman would not say what role the UK DISN connection played in the US net-centric war machine. She declined to say what support it had provided for controversial US drone operations in Yemen and other countries.

"There is a Defense Information Systems Network trunk between those two DISA transport nodes and it supports multiple customers," said the spokeswoman.

"DISA is unable to characterise any specific role for which our mission partners use that particular path," she said.

The US Department of Defense has yet to respond to questions posed by Computer Weekly. The White House National Security Council, which overseas the US strategy of lethal drone strikes, said: "While we will not be commenting on the details or locations of specific counter-terrorism operations, the President has committed to undertaking these activities with the greatest possible transparency, and we will continue to share as much information as possible with the American people, the Congress, and the international community, consistent with our national security needs and the proper functioning of the Executive Branch.”

A spokesman for the UK Ministry of Defence referred to the statement it has continually repeated to press and Parliament about the connection: "RAF Croughton is part of a worldwide US defence communications network, and the base supports a variety of communications activity. The Ministry of Defence does not hold information on what support to US operations is provided by RAF Croughton."

Secret drone war

Kat Craig, legal director of Reprieve, said: "The secret drone war in Yemen, a country with whom neither the US or UK are at war, is illegal. Yet missiles rain down on its population, killing hundreds of civilians and terrorising communities.

"Just like our involvement in the US's illegal rendition programme, any UK complicity with US drone attacks in Yemen is unlawful and amoral.

"If BT is facilitating these extra-judicial killings – without trial or any opportunity for the targets to refute the meagre and unreliable evidence against them – there could be serious legal repercussions."

A BT spokesman said: "The details of this contract [between BT and the US Defense Information Systems Agency] are nothing new. They have been publicly available on the internet since August 2012. It makes clear the locations, as well as the technology they required."

He added: "BT can categorically state that the communications system mentioned in Reprieve’s complaint is a general purpose fibre-optic system.  It has not been specifically designed or adapted by BT for military purposes. BT has no knowledge of the reported US drone strikes and has no involvement in any such activity.”

BT said it could not be held responsible for what anybody did with the communications infrastructure it supplied. It said it gave a detailed response to an informal enquiry into its DISA contract that the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) started and then dropped last year.

Reprieve had attempted to force BT to drop its contract under corporate conduct rules set out in an international agreement by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and overseen in the UK by BIS.

BIS threw the complaint out because it said it had no evidence the UK connection had anything to do with drone strikes in Yemen. It had to depend for evidence under OECD rules on due diligence done on the contract by BT. BT told BIS officials it did not know anything about the drone strikes.

But a legal panel later advised BIS that BT had done only general due diligence on the contract. It said the telco might have been expected to do specific due diligence on drone strikes if there was a foreseeable heightened risk that its customer might have committed human rights abuses.


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