BT has asked UK government officials to reject a human rights review of its alleged role in a US military communications network used to direct drone strikes in the Middle East.
Officials at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) are due to decide this month whether an assessment can go ahead, under an international agreement on business ethics, by stating whether evidence gathered in a Computer Weekly investigation lends weight to allegations that BT supplied infrastructure crucial to a US drone programme that has been accused of illegal killings.
BT appealed to UK officials on the basis that questions about its role in the US programme are unsubstantiated. BT's solicitor Miles Jobling wrote to BIS on 8 October 2014, asking it to reject a complaint from legal charity Reprieve that quoted evidence unveiled by a Computer Weekly investigation.
If upheld, the complaint would put pressure on BT to answer the allegations, under rules on corporate social responsibility adopted by the UK government as a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
BT told officials it fully supported the rules – the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises – which require companies to be vigilant for human rights abuses their customers commit with the help of their services. The company said it took its human rights obligations very seriously.
BT has signed up to the United Nations Global Compact, by which companies pledge to "make sure they are not complicit in human rights abuses", according to its annual report on corporate social responsibility on 23 May 2014.
But BT has not formally examined the possibility that a fibre-optic communications link it supplied to the US military was used in alleged human rights abuses, or even whether it formed part of the infrastructure used to launch the drone strikes.
Read more about the investigation into the US military drone network
Defence of ignorance
BT's formal response to the complaint, sent with Jobling's letter and seen by Computer Weekly, pleaded ignorance of evidence suggesting its communication link was used in the strikes. BT said it was not in a position to know whether the allegations were true, because it had merely provided the US military with a general purpose communications system. It said it could not be held responsible for what its customer did with that link, and could not presume to take a moral position on the US government's conduct.
BT's denials had previously caused the UK National Contact Point (NCP) for OECD rules – where BIS officials handle complaints about corporate behaviour – to throw out Reprieve's original complaint in 2012. NCP could not handle the complaint, it said in February 2013, because it had no evidence. Computer Weekly's investigation subsequently found several documents in the public domain that detailed the uses of the US military network of which the BT link forms a part. As a result, Reprieve resubmitted its complaint.
"The new complaint does not present any new evidence,” said the BT letter to NCP officials. “Rather, it relies on a recycling of the allegations… by Computer Weekly which, in turn, itself relies on the Reprieve allegations.
"The purported 'new evidence' in question in fact consists of a number of magazine articles published by Computer Weekly. There is nothing new and material in the Computer Weekly articles. Much of the information contained in these articles appears to be sourced from Reprieve. The articles appear therefore to be almost contrived for the purposes of creating a basis for reopening the original complaint," said BT's official response.
Reprieve’s complaint is being looked at by UK National Contact Point and, under their rules, it would be inappropriate for us to comment on the matter at this stage
The Computer Weekly investigation was conducted entirely independently of Reprieve. It found documents in the public domain, none of which were provided by or sourced from the legal charity.
All that was known of BT's work for the US military when Reprieve submitted its original complaint was that it ran a high-grade fibre-optic trunk line between a US communications base at RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire and US combat base Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, North Africa. The US had been accused of illegal drone strikes in the region, against suspected insurgents and terrorists, during which innocent bystanders were also killed, it was alleged.
Documents discovered by Computer Weekly showed the BT line formed part of a global US military network called the Defense Information Systems Network (DISN), which formed the backbone for a global military and intelligence communications system used to track terrorists and direct weapons such as drones.
BT insisted this did not suggest a reason to assess its work under human rights guidelines. "The complaint is wholly artificial, lacking in any foundation," it said.
BT has consistently said it could not be held responsible for what anybody did with the communications infrastructure it supplied. It has denied having any knowledge of links to US drone strikes.
In response to questions about the latest Reprieve complaint, a BT spokesman said: “Reprieve’s complaint is being looked at by UK National Contact Point and, under their rules, it would be inappropriate for us to comment on the matter, at this stage.”
A BIS spokeswoman said: “The NCP does not comment on complaints outside of its published assessments and statements.”
The issue will be settled in the next two weeks when UK officials are expected to decide on whether the OECD rules on corporate social responsibility oblige BT to look into the allegations in light of the fresh evidence.