‘Gambling with lives’: Private contractors pick US drone targets, says report


An “insatiable” demand for analysts of drone intelligence is driving the US military to hire private contractors, with 1 in 10 analysts now a civilian, says a new report. Civilian analysts describe their work as “gambling,” with innocent lives at stake.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), a UK-based nonprofit, conducted a six-month probe into the US military’s contracting of drone data analysts, using specially designed software to sift through some 8 million transaction records published by the Pentagon between 2009 to 2014. They also interviewed some of the contractors, who asked to remain anonymous.  

The BIJ investigation estimates that one in 10 analysts of drone data is currently a civilian contractor. However, they say that the data available to them covered only the US military. CIA contracts, which involve the controversial operations in Yemen and Pakistan, remain classified.

According to the investigation, US military drones and spy planes gather 1,100 hours of video data every day, which has to be analyzed, often in real time. Military officials say the need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – ISR, in military parlance – has spiked since the campaign against Islamic State was launched last summer.

“We’re seeing just an insatiable demand signal,” said Colonel Jim Cluff, commander of the drone squadrons at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. “You cannot get enough ISR capability to meet all the warfighters’ needs.”

Contractors interviewed by the BIJ, speaking on condition of anonymity, say they are usually former military. They say they have more knowledge and experience than the uniformed airmen, who are often fresh high-school graduates.

“You cannot identify something unless you’ve seen it before,” said one full-motion video (FMV) analyst.

The civilians review live footage from drones and spy planes surveilling the battlefields of the Middle East, and advise uniformed operators whether the people they spot are civilians or potential targets. While the contractors never pull the trigger themselves, their advice shapes the thinking of military operators and commanders.

“As a civilian I don’t have authority to arrest someone, but if I call the police and say ‘this person’s doing something,’ and say ‘I think that guy’s dangerous’ … the police are going to turn up primed to respond to the threat, they’ll turn up trusting my statement,” said one analyst, who asked to be called John. “It could be argued that I was responsible, but I’m not the one shooting.”

Every call he makes is a gamble, John explained, with the stakes being the lives of innocents. “That is a motivation to play as safely as I can, because I don’t want someone who wasn’t a bad guy to get killed,” he said.

“It is critical to understand everything that happens, happens in real life. When you mess up, people die,” said another analyst, adding that the main role of FMV analysts is to ensure such mistakes do not happen.


At least 6,000 civilians have been killed in US drone strikes across the world, according to a group of 45 US military veterans who appealed to drone operators to stand down and “save your soul” in an open letter circulated last month.

While the Pentagon declined to comment on the report, a spokeswoman for the US Air Force told BIJ that ISR operations were “vital to the national security of the United States and its allies,” and in “insatiable demand” from combatant commanders. She said the increase in demand was the reason for using contractors, describing it as a “normal process within military operations.”

The role of contractors in processing, disseminating and using ISR is governed by procedures of the Air Force’s Judge Advocate, she said, adding that “oversight is accomplished by Air Force active duty and civilian personnel in real time and on continual basis with personnel trained on the implementation of procedural checks and balances.”

One contract singled out by the BIJ report was with Zel Technologies of Hampton, Virginia, which the USAF asked to provide experts “in the areas of the Horn of Africa, Arabian peninsula, Somalia, Syria, Iran, North Africa, Trans Sahel region, Levant region, Gulf States and territorial waters.”

Other contractors named in the report were MacAulay-Brown of Dayton, Ohio; L-3 Communications of New York, NY; Intrepid Solutions & Services of Reston, Virginia; TransVoyant of Alexandria, Virginia; Worldwide Language Services of Fayetteville, North Carolina; Booz Allen Hamilton of Tysons Corner, Virginia; and the UK-based BAE Systems.


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