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US Drone Pilots May Be ‘Illegally’ Acquiring Targets From UK Bases

Are kill commands coming from British soil?

Ben Sullivan

Ben Sullivan

Image: Shutterstock

Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, is widely known to be the heart of the United States' overseas drone operations, from where more than 100 drone flights per day—mostly in the Middle East—are controlled. Notions of this base's overworked drone pilots, sitting in stuffy trailers monitoring and killing targets 8,000 miles away, have been popularized by movies such as Good Kill and Eye in the Sky.

But a British human rights campaign group says it has uncovered documents that show the US is also conducting its military drone operations from within Royal Air Force (RAF) bases in the UK, an act that would be deemed in breach of international laws, argues the group. The British government denies this however, stating, "the US does not operate RPAS [remotely piloted aircraft systems] from the UK."

Publicly available job listings and résumés, shown to Motherboard by human rights campaign group Reprieve, show that US military personnel based in the UK have been working on drone missions at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire near London. Another job ad is looking for a "targeting analyst" to work at Molesworth "for conducting thorough analysis on traditional and non-traditional targets for the purposes of creating electronic target folders for nation state and non-state actor systems." A further job ad from private military contractor Leidos is looking for a video intelligence analyst to be based at Molesworth.

While the Molesworth base belongs to the RAF, parts of it are currently leased to the US for its European Command's intelligence analysis operations, known as the Joint Analysis Center. US operations at Molesworth are in fact currently preparing to merge with operations at Croughton RAF base, where a $160 million US operations center will be established.

"The British Government has questions to answer"

"Simply to say that drones are not flown from the UK is missing the point, if it is personnel on British soil that are at the top of the so-called 'kill chain' and British agencies who are feeding targets into those lists," said Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at Reprieve. "The US drone programme, conducted in the shadows, has killed hundreds of civilians without any accountability. The British Government has questions to answer over its own involvement in this secret war and how much responsibility it bears for those deaths."

The documents were unearthed shortly after a report on the The Intercept highlighted the NSA's role in identifying targets by drone in Yemen from within Menwith Hill, a British base used by both US and UK intelligence. One document shows how both NSA and the UK's GCHQ are tracking Yemeni targets that visit internet cafes. While the document does not make any references to actual drone strikes, Reprieve says that simply given the number of US-led targeted strikes in Yemen, it does not seem unreasonable to assume the intelligence gathered at Menwith Hill is feeding into these operations.

Read more: Terror Groups Are Strapping Bombs to Cheap Consumer Drones

But a senior Ministry of Defence source debunked Reprieve's claims, telling British newspaper The Observer, "Despite the continuing conspiracy theories and associated hype in the media, the reality is that there are no US Remotely Piloted Air System support facilities operating anywhere in the UK."

Nevertheless, the job listings do potentially show evidence of US and British collusion in drone operations, and come at a time when the US has had to reassure the German government that drone strike "kill commands" are not being issued from the USAF's Ramstein base in the southwest of the country.

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