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An unaccountable relationship

As the relationship between government and military service providers becomes more systemic and more profitable, questions must arise about accountability and public insight. A new report, New Ways of War: is remote control warfare effective? is published today.

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13 October 2014
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Flickr/US Air Force. Some rights reserved.A couple of weeks ago, Bloomberg wrote that “the biggest US defense companies are trading at record prices” owing to escalating military conflicts around the world. Several companies were cited in particular: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Raytheon and General Dynamics. Between them, they scooped up about $105 billion in federal contract orders in 2013.

It can be hard to comprehend money with so many noughts in it. So let’s just say that, according to a visualisation by the Guardian, that’s over half as much again as the entire 2013 UK defence budget (£40 billion).

Ever since President Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech, the notion of the military-industrial complex has been common currency. But beyond these headline-grabbing multi-billion dollar numbers, it can be hard to assess quite how intertwined government and the business of war has become.

A report published today by Remote Control, an initiative from the Network for Social Change, includes my study on corporate outsourcing by the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

Naturally, many of the activities carried out by SOCOM are highly classified. But the public can gain important insights into these activities through federal contracting data – records of transactions carried out by the US government.

My research indicated that over 3000 companies had working relationships with the Special Operations Command. And while much of the work involved IT support and logistics – unsurprising sectors for the military to outsource – it also became clear that corporations were helping SOCOM with some of its most sensitive counter-terrorism related tasks: assisting in target acquisition and interrogating prisoners, to name just two.

Other corporate functions were less clear. Why did SOCOM want to procure goats from a farm in Virginia? Surely not to stare at them?

All of the companies mentioned by Bloomberg had contracts awarded by SOCOM. Their reach is global. Activities included drone operations in Afghanistan as well as in the Philippines, where special operations forces have been engaged in a longstanding “exercise”. The term is important: the constitution of the Philippines insists that foreign militaries can’t be deployed in any other capacity.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, SOCOM had brought in linguists to assist in “interrogation and debriefing of sources who are captured and/or detained and/or persons of interest being questioned”. And in North Africa they had hired a contractor to build a website which would disseminate news items with particular relevance to the Global War on Terror.

Compared to the US, British military outsourcing is poorly recorded. But evidently UK companies are also profiting from the field. Research by the human rights NGO Reprieve has recently shown how BT established a controversial fibre-optic link between a military base in the UK and the drone base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, East Africa.

And British security colossus G4S recently took on a multi-million pound contract to service the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, where around 150 (mostly uncharged) prisoners continue to languish despite President’s Obama’s 2009 pledge to close the facility.

The business of warfare has always been about information as well as hardware. Corporate outsourcing data shows just how much this is the case. ISR – “intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance” – has become “persistent”; in other words, it doesn’t stop. The huge amount of data generated in this way requires huge computing power to process. It also requires high-speed, high-bandwidth communications to move it about. The military is partnering with corporations to increase their abilities in all these areas.

A Washington Post investigation into surveillance flights by US contractors in Africa concluded that the “arms-length arrangement” by which they were employed meant that “there is virtually no public scrutiny or oversight” of their activities. As the relationship between government and military service providers becomes more systemic and more profitable, questions about accountability and public insight into this relationship will become more pressing.

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