BT faces further investigation over link to US drone network

The UK government has reopened a complaint against BT after a Computer Weekly investigation into links supporting US drone strikes

The UK government is set to reopen a complaint against BT after a Computer Weekly investigation found evidence suggesting the telecoms giant provided communication links that support controversial US drone strikes.

BT has consistently denied the allegations, originally made in a complaint by legal charity Reprieve in 2013, that it had breached international rules on corporate social responsibility by taking a contract to supply a fibre-optic connection between a US military communications centre in the UK and a base in North Africa that has been linked to controversial drone strikes.

Computer Weekly understands the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) has reopened the case after legal charity Reprieve resubmitted its complaint on 19 August.

BIS, which acts as official UK arbiter of international rules on corporate social responsibility administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), threw Reprieve's original complaint out in 2013 after concluding there was not enough evidence to say whether the BT line had been used in drone strikes or not.

It reopened the case after Reprieve resubmitted its complaint based on further evidence drawn from a Computer Weekly investigation earlier this year.

Reprieve said in a statement: "The technical analysis of documents relating to BT’s contract with the US government, carried out by Computer Weekly, demonstrates that crucial questions remain unanswered regarding the company’s role in the covert drone programme.

"We are therefore urging the UK government to reopen its investigation – if British companies are providing services which enable the US to carry out illegal drone strikes, the British public has a right to know.”

BT's communications line forms part of an international US military network called the Defense Information System Network (DISN), which is a vital component supporting US drone strikes.

DISN is part of a US system of "network-centric warfare", in which diverse sources of intelligence and military operations are combined in near real time over high-speed networks to direct drone aircraft against targets, such as terrorist suspects in far-flung countries.

The US Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) contracted BT to supply part of this network between its communications hub at RAF Croughton, Northamptonshire and Camp Lemonnier, a military base in Djibouti, where the US military has undertaken drone missions to combat terrorism around the Horn of Africa.

Unearthing the contract in its original complaint in 2013, Reprieve said BT should be made to answer for the deaths of civilians killed by mistake in US drone attacks operated over the DISN infrastructure.

Reprieve's latest complaint said strikes continued in Yemen after BT took up its contract in November 2012. The US intended its network-centric targeting systems to make drone strikes more accurate.

BIS has reopened the case as the official UK representative of an international agreement on corporate ethics called the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

A high-level legal review of its decision to throw out the last complaint said the guidelines required companies to conduct specific due diligence on foreseeable risks that a contract contributes to human rights abuses.

A spokeswoman for BIS, known under the OECD guidelines as the National Contact Point (NCP), refused to discuss either the complaint or the conclusions of the high-level review.

"The NCP does not comment on complaints before it makes an initial assessment," she said. "The NCP usually expects to make an initial assessment within three months of receiving a complaint.

"The UK NCP believes any additional guidance should be informed by wider work at OECD level, to ensure a consistent understanding between NCPs and enterprises across the OECD."

Reprieve also warned of a potential conflict of interest that may compromise BIS' impartiality on the BT case. Lord Livingston, minister of state for trade and investment at BIS, was BT chief executive when Reprieve made the first complaint, before being ennobled and taking up his current ministerial role.

But BIS said the NCP did not report to a minister and that Livingston took no part in the BT decision.

BT told Computer Weekly at the time of our investigation that it could not be held responsible for what anybody did with the communications infrastructure it supplied. Its subsequent statements have consistently denied any knowledge of links to US drone strikes.

“UK NCP assessed Reprieve’s complaint in February and rejected it. 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, including drone strikes," said a BT statement.

“We have no knowledge, beyond press reports, of US drone strikes. We take our human rights obligations very seriously and are fully supportive of the OECD guidelines.”

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