UK officials reject second complaint over BT link to US drone network

UK officials have rejected a second complaint about BT’s part in a US military network allegedly used to direct controversial drone strikes

UK officials have rejected a second complaint about BT’s part in a global US military network allegedly used to direct controversial drone strikes in Yemen and other countries.

Legal charity Reprieve, which made the complaint, said the UK rebuttal undermined international rules designed to make companies answerable for human rights violations in their supply chains.

Officials responsible for monitoring the behaviour of UK companies said they would not ask BT to answer for a communications line it supplies between a US military hub in Northamptonshire and the Camp Lemonnier combat base in Djibouti, from where the US launched controversial anti-terrorism drone strikes over Yemen that allegedly killed innocent civilians.

Companies are usually required to scrutinise contracts when there is a risk of human rights violations, corruption or other crimes being committed by organisations in their supply chains, or by their customers, according to international rules governed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and backed by the United Nations.

But in a formal decision notice, the UK arbiter said it saw no reason why BT should do this "due diligence" to ask whether its communications line was used to conduct the controversial drone strikes. The UK did not expect BT to investigate the risk that its line was used in drone strikes until there was evidence that it was most likely used in the strikes, said the UK National Contact Point (NCP), the office responsible for upholding OECD rules on corporate ethics.

NCP did concede that BT's connection probably formed part of a global US military network capable of running drone operations. And it acknowledged that the US had conducted drone strikes from the Djibouti base. But NCP said that still did not prove the network to that base supported drone operations, according to the decision notice published last month.

NCP, which is part of the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, dismissed a Computer Weekly investigation last year that showed the BT comms line formed part of the Defense Information Systems Network, the backbone of US military drone operations.

"The IT publication articles summarise from a variety of publicly available source documents," the NCP said. "The UK NCP cannot be confident that the articles accurately summarise or correctly interpret the (lengthy and technical) source material.

"None of the information offered suggests that the cable was necessary to drone operations. None of the information suggests it was designed specifically for drone operations.”

Read more about Reprieve's allegations against BT

The decision notice also said there was no reason to single out BT when other companies might also supply parts of the drone network. It said drone strikes had not been outlawed, so BT should not have to answer for them. 

It also accused Reprieve of not taking the case seriously because the charity itself had not found the evidence unearthed by Computer Weekly's investigation. It criticised the charity for making its case from public documents, and also criticised Computer Weekly for basing its investigation on just two public documents.

However, Computer Weekly's investigation used more than 30,000 pages of evidence gathered over weeks of research motivated, in part, to disprove Reprieve's allegations. The investigation used an open source indexing system called Xapian and a related research tool called Recoll to help piece together the complex history of how the US developed a means of modern warfare based on networked intelligence systems. 

Our articles drew from budget statements that the US Department of Defense made to Congress since 2002, also from public accounts of software and communications systems by US defence and intelligence agencies, Nato, the US public auditor, software companies in the defence supply chain and the defence research departments of universities, as well as telephone conversations with White House and US Department of Defense representatives and academic experts, speeches and statements by public officials, presentations, academic papers and specialist defence and general media.

The research showed how the US had built a distributed, global system from which it drew the intelligence to direct the drones it flew in operations in targeted countries such as Yemen.

Kevin Lo, a lawyer on Reprieve's abuses in counter-terrorism programme, said the UK decision had undermined the OECD guidelines. He said it allowed BT to claim it had been cleared of wrongdoing when it had merely refused to look into the matter.

"It looks like it did BT a lot of good," said Lo. "If the NCP says 'We see no cause to investigate', then it kind of makes it OK. In that way, the NCP becomes a way of clearing corporations from doing harm. It becomes another body that OKs what corporations do."

Caroline Rees, president of corporate ethics advocate The Shift Project, whose chair drafted the UN Principles for Business and Human Rights that subsequently put human rights into the OECD Guidelines, said the onus might have changed for BT now that more evidence had come to light.

"A large company that's got thousands or tens of thousands of contracts has to prioritise where it sees the general risk being greater – it can't do full due diligence on them all," said Rees, speaking from her office in New York. "It’s difficult to say in this context that the US should have been prioritised.

"But you're still stuck with the question that, well now they know. So what does it mean for BT? Because now they knows, supposedly, that their services are being used for practices that lead to civilian deaths, what conclusions have they drawn from that for their actions in relations to that client going forward?"

Dwight Justice, an expert on the OECD guidelines at the International Trade Union Confederation, said the UK decision could not to be credited as the work of a judicial body; it was merely a state-based complaints mechanism.

"It's somewhat political," he said. "Governments adhere to the [OECD] guidelines and don't do a very good job on the follow-up mechanism. In the absence of a binding legal obligation, it's got to be down to the company."

BT had already told the NCP all it was prepared to say, said a spokesman. The NCP decision recorded only that BT "denies the allegations". BT has consistently denied the allegations, originally made in a complaint by Reprieve in 2013.

“BT can categorically state that the communications system mentioned in Reprieve’s complaint is a general-purpose fibre-optic system," said BT in a statement at the time of Computer Weekly’s investigation. "It has not been specifically designed or adapted by BT for military purposes, including drone strikes. 

"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."

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications