MOD refuses to rule out BT drone link

The Ministry of Defence has refused to rule out the possibility that a controversial fibre-optic BT comms line between US military bases in the UK and Africa carries command and control signals that direct US drone missions blamed for civilian deaths in Yemen.

After legal charity Reprieve complained under OECD rules that BT had ignored its human rights obligations to question its contract to provide the comms link, the MOD firmly denied that the UK base it connected led drone missions out of Africa.  

But challenged to deny also that the link relayed control signals and operational command data for drone attacks from a command centre elsewhere, the MOD refused.

The revelation raises the chances that Reprieve’s challenge to BT may have substance, after the legal charity’s complaint failed to ascertain what the BT line actually did. Reprieve’s challenge rested on the circumstantial evidence that a high-grade BT comms line between RAF Croughton, the regional US military intelligence base in Oxfordshire, and Camp Lemonnier, the counter-terrorism operations base in Djibouti, from where the US launches drone attacks over Yemen, could be for no other purpose than to provide support for drone missile attacks on suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists that – though they have been conducted in collaboration with the Yemen government – have been alleged by critics to be illegal acts of war.

An MOD spokesman said: “The MOD can confirm that USAF Airmen stationed at RAF Croughton neither fly nor control any manned or remotely piloted aircraft anywhere in the world.”

Computer Weekly was led to understand that RAF Croughton had categorically never operated any US drone control operations and that there were no plans for them to do so. Moreover, nowhere in the UK provided any support for US drones operating anywhere in the world.

The denial went further than the government had been prepared to go until now – and it contradicted statements Andrew Robathan, minister for defence personnel, made in answer to Parliamentary questions on the matter in March.

Robathan insisted the UK did not know what RAF Croughton did in relation to drone attacks, after questions from Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs Fabian Hamilton and John Hemming.

Computer Weekly can now report that the UK now knows if RAF Croughton was used to support US drone attacks. But it always knew.

There were indeed categorically no circumstances in which the US could use any UK military asset operationally – including even those UK bases under its command – without the explicit agreement of Her Majesty’s Government.

Every US base in the UK has an RAF Commander stationed permanently on site to ensure the US respected UK law and acted in accordance with its obligations under the NATO Status of Forces Agreement and Visiting Forces Act.

No matter what Robathan told parliament, the UK did know what happened at RAF Croughton.

The MOD might therefore also be in a position to categorically rule out the possibility that the BT comms line out of RAF Croughton were used to relay command and control data from wherever the US drone operators did in fact sit.

The Reprieve allegation had concerned itself with RAF Croughton. The thinking went that since RAF Croughton was the US intelligence centre in Europe, it must be using the comms line with Djibouti to control drone attacks.

But, as the MOD has insisted in its denial of this allegation: “RAF Croughton is part of a worldwide US Defence communications network, and the base supports a variety of communications activity.”

It might be feasible that the line between RAF Croughton and Camp Lemonnier is used to relay command and control data from wherever it originates in the US. Such is the nature of networks. If you have 50 US bases in America and 40 US bases around the world, you would not lay thousands of miles of high-grade fibre-optics between each of the 50 US bases to every one of the 40 bases around the world. You would run pipes through national and then regional relay centres, like the European intelligence centre at Croughton.

The MOD refused to comment on the possibility that RAF Croughton – and therefore the BT comms line – was used to relay command and control data for drone attacks in Yemen.

The MOD spokesman said: “For operational security reasons and as a matter of policy, neither the MOD nor the DoD (US Department of Defense) publicly discuss specifics concerning military operations or classified communications regardless of unit, platform or asset.”

The MOD had broken this rule in denying RAF Croughton operated drone attacks. Why could it not break this rule to deny RAF Croughton – or the BT line running out of Croughton – relayed command and control data for drone attacks?

The spokesman insisted under questioning that his refusal to deny that the BT line was used to carry drone control data did not after his earlier denial imply that it did indeed carry the commands that controlled drone operations out of Yemen.

“We will not discuss specifics concerning operations or classified communications,” he insisted.

BT also refused again to discuss the allegations. It’s position was that it provided the comms under contract and it was not its business what the US did with them.

A BT spokesman said anything more it would say on the matter would be addressed to the UK government Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which CW revealed last week was investigating the Reprieve complaint under OECD rules. The OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises say they should assess the human rights implications of any contract and take mitigating action if they fall short. BT told Reprieve they should address their concerns to the US agencies that were using its comms line.