While politicians argue over NHS funding, the UK government continues to quietly spend billions on technologies for spying and assassination.
The current Tory government led by Prime Minister Theresa May — “the UK’s spy queen” according to Ars Technica — has pledged that the National Health Service will receive no additional funding; yet, that same government proudly pours billions of pounds into the military industrial complex?
Whether it is the hotly debated renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent, the equally controversial adherence to NATO military-spending targets, or Mrs May’s ‘Snoopers’ charter’, the UK government spends big on defence. However, these have all been discussed ad nauseam in the press.
What hasn’t been covered to a similar degree is that the same government also spends billions on shadowy surveillance programmes and combat drones, with the expressed purpose of spying and killing, often outside of the confines of the law — and theatre of war.
While assassination and indiscriminate mass surveillance are illegal, to varying degrees, in both the Britain and America, both have become common practice following 9/11, and their popularity belies political affiliation, as seen with the continued use of drone strikes across the Bush and Obama Administrations.
What do you know about Drones?
Small civilian drones are increasingly present in our skies, a trend that may be bolstered with services like Amazon Prime Air. With their move toward the mainstream and legislation governing civilian drones lagging, they pose a small but significant challenge for lawmakers. However, the origins of these fairly innocuous gadgets are firmly based in the military industrial complex.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) — better known as ‘Drones’, for their bee-like buzzing noise during flight — are the weapon of choice for governments looking to spy on or assassinate individuals at range with zero pilot risk. With names like Switchblade, Reaper, and Predator, they evoke a sense of fear and impending violence.
Developed during the 1980s by the Aeronautical Systems subsidiary of nuclear energy firm General Atomics and Israeli-born drone engineer Abraham Karem, the Predator quickly became the poster child for the US military’s drone program. Borne from Karem’s Gnat 750 drone, used by the CIA and Air Force in Bosnia and the Balkans, the MQ-1 Predator and it’s sibling, the upgraded MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B), have become the US government’s favoured weapon in the so called ‘war on terror’.
While the use of drones by the US military and organisations such as Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) (a black ops organisation directly answerable to the president) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been thoroughly exposed through the tireless work of journalists such as Jeremy Scahill (Blackwater, Dirty Wars) and activists like Medea Benjamin (Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control), the role of the UK government in anti-terror strikes and its involvement in the purchase and development of drones, has gone sparsely covered and widely uncontested by the British public.
In a country crushed by austerity and mired by Brexit, does our government really have a mandate to spend billions on extrajudicial killings?
In addition to its development partnerships with Israel and France, Britain has bought drones from the Americans. The problem herein, does not lie with the press, as even the establishment has been fairly consistent at publishing the particulars, but with Britain as a whole for its uneven resistance. Here are just a couple examples of the UK’s appetite for drones:
The Watchkeeper WK450, based on the Elbit Systems (Israel) Hermes 450 and developed by a consortium of firms led by Thales (France), has seen a total of just 146 hours action in Afghanistan, between three vehicles. Worse still, many of the 33 drones that had been delivered by late 2015 are used exclusively for training or worse are simply gathering dust in storage. The controversial programme, which has been described as “just the latest of a stream of examples of overdue and overcost defence equipment projects”, managed to rack up a £1.2 billion price tag.
The Royal Air Force’s Reaper drones, which they bought from our friends in America, have seen far greater success. Flying equipped with a pair of 500lb bombs and four 100lb Lockheed Martin Hellfire anti-tank missiles, each costing $68,000, they have become the favoured drone of the British military. However, things would get tricky if the government had to justify paying £500 million for 10 of the aircraft.
In addition to its extensive partnership with the US on ‘The War on Terror’, British armed forces, enabled by their vast expenditure, have carried out a series of their own drone strikes against British-born terror suspects overseas.
In 2015, PM David Cameron credited an RAF-operated Reaper with the death of British-born Reyaad Khan, a fighter for the so-called Islamic State. This must have impressed Ministry of Defence, who disclosed in May that they have plans to double the Royal Air Force’s fleet of the deadly drones. However, as with the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the ‘radical cleric’ assassinated by a Hellfire in Yemen, Khan’s Daesh affiliation counted for more than his right to trial as a British citizen.
Khan and Al-Awlaki’s suspected affiliations with terrorist groups marked them for death, despite their respective citizenship and the rights those entailed. This has set a dangerous precedent for how our governments choose military targets, especially when you consider that at the time of Awlaki’s death, Yemen was outside the publicly recognised theatres of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whether it is the exorbitant cost or the reckless and legally questionable taking of life, there are many aspects of Britain’s use of drones that should make us stop and take note. However, pilotless aircraft are not the government’s only shady vice.
‘Bulk Collection’ and other snooping
Aswith many euphemisms, the truth behind the words is often distasteful, with the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (torture) of the past becoming the ‘bulk collection’ (mass surveillance through data collection) and targeted-killing’ (assassination) of today.
With Mrs May taking the reins in Westminster, it is hard to believe Government intends to slow the pace of its ‘snooping’. Described by Edward Snowdon as the UK’s “Darth Vader”, May is a champion of greater powers for the government to collect and store vast quantities of personal information. She has spent years carefully pushing for power which has culminated in the Investigatory Powers Bill, granting British law enforcement and security agency freedom to track individuals’ internet usage unhindered by the need for a warrant.
As with the drones, the lack of accountability is stark.
Take for example the ever mysterious US National Security Agency’s (NSA) base at RAF Menwith Hill. For years the government stonewalled journalists and activists when questioned about its activities. However, recently The Intercept managed to obtain documents which exposed the base’s role in questionable surveillance carried out in aid of “capture-kill operations” in the Middle East.
These revelations came on the tails of a report last year by the Intelligence and Security Committee of parliament on the practices of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which held that the intelligence organisation had been illegally spying on the British public. In its report the committee cited the leaks by Edward Snowdon and called for significant legislative changes.
Above are only a few examples of a much greater trend towards secrecy and expensive mass surveillance, which when coupled with the government’s increase reliance on drones, shows a budgetary prioritisation starkly at odds with the needs of the British people. At every turn it seems that our government seeks to go against the spirit of our laws in its fight against terrorism, all the while millions of Brits suffer under austerity. This trend in counter-terrorism priorities may not have originated with the Tory party of Cameron and May, but has definitely been exacerbated under their governments.
While money is one aspect to worry about, the combination of a government eager to spy on its people and a trend, in the US at least, of law enforcement agencies seeking and obtaining sophisticated surveillance drones, provides us a serious cause for anxiety.
It’s time for the people of Britain to say no to the drone, to say no to being spied on, and demand that the government address the needs of the people, not pour money into the ever expanding sinkhole that is it’s objectively flawed policy for the War on Terror.
Originally published on my Medium blog: https://medium.com/@alasdairfraser8/despite-austerity-govt-spends-billions-on-spying-and-assassination-ff9a0aa6c229#.cwzxzbsja