U.S. companies selling drones to undisclosed foreign governments

Posted on: May 1st, 2012 by Teddy Wilson No Comments

A Texas-based defense contractor is selling drones overseas to foreign governments for use in combating narcotics trafficking and terrorism. Which countries are buying them and exactly how they are being used, however, is largely unknown. This uncertainty has led to calls from human rights activists for greater transparency and accountability for drone proliferation.

As sales of drones increase worldwide, human rights activists are concerned about the potential for such technology to be used by oppressive governments against citizen uprisings. This past weekend, human rights organizations and those affected by drone warfare met for the first international drone summit.

Vanguard Defense Industries, is among the companies at the forefront of the emerging drone market. As The Texas Independent reported, Vanguard projects its domestic sales for next year at between $35 million and $40 million, which would represent a 25 percent increase. However, despite the increase in the domestic market, the majority of Vanguard’s sales will be overseas.

While the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones, is expanding from the military to domestic law enforcement, the global market for drones is also expanding. The United States government sells drones to other countries through Foreign Military Sales. U.S. corporations also sell defense equipment and technologies, including drones, directly to foreign governments.

In addition to Vanguard, other companies have also been approved by the State Department to sell drones and other equipment overseas. LEPTRON, based out of Ogden, Utah, has been approved by the State Department to sell drone helicopters.

Other companies approved for sales of drone-related equipment include defense giant L-3 Communications Corporation, which has approval to sell unmanned classroom training systems, DreamHammer has approval for commercial control segment software for unmanned systems, and Broadcast Microwave Services has approval for spread spectrum microwave datalink systems for unmanned systems.

The ShadowHawk, a sleek helicopter drone, is Vanguard’s signature UAV. There are four different models of the ShadowHawk, including weaponized military versions. Equipped with either a grenade launcher or 12 gauge shotgun with laser designator, the ShadowHawk MK-III and MK-IV are designed for military use. Currently the MK-II, designed primarily for surveillance, is authorized for overseas sales.

In an interview with The Texas Independent, Vanguard CEO Michael Buscher discussed the process that companies must go through to be approved by the State Department to sell defense items overseas. Companies selling defense equipment and technologies overseas are regulated by the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

“I thought it was going to be a brutal process,” said Buscher of gaining State Department approval. “It was well orchestrated and extremely thorough. But when you follow their guidelines and provide copious details, the process is not as burdensome as I would have thought.” Vanguard was originally approved by the State Department in March 2011, and Buscher said the renewal process was “much quicker.”

However, Buscher believes that “there is room for more stringent protocols” to govern commercial defense sales. “There are folks out there that are trying to go outside of the export requirements,” said Buscher. “We go through the process, take time and effort to due diligence. There are some smaller companies that try to operate below the radar.” Buscher declined to name specific companies, but said some companies try to sell defense equipment under the pretense of selling items that do not fall under export regulations.

Companies that sell defense equipment and technologies have a close working relationship with the State Department. According to Buscher, most of the time Vanguard meets with representatives of countries looking to buy equipment through the State Department. Buscher estimated that twice a month he travels overseas with State Department officials.

Buscher would not disclose to what countries Vanguard is selling drones, citing State Department regulations. While those regulations do prevent the State Department from disclosing information to protect companies from “competitive harm,” they do not prevent companies themselves from disclosing that information to the public.

Buscher did confirm that Vanguard has customers in South America and the Middle East, and that the drones are being used for “anti-narcotics and anti-terrorist operations.” The ShadowHawk is also being used along the Panama Canal for security purposes.

In August of 2011, hackers who were part of the group LulzSec gained access to the private email account of Richard Garcia, senior vice president of Vanguard Defense Industries. The emails were released to the public and revealed that Vanguard drones are deployed domestically, to the Horn of Africa, Panama, Colombia, and U.S.-Mexico border patrol operations.

The Vanguard website lists multiple job openings on its career page. Among these job openings are positions as unmanned air system (UAS) flight crew, UAS flight inspectors, and UAS operators. Two positions for UAS operators are listed as located in Mexico and Colombia.

Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of one of the drone summit organizers CodePink, told The Texas Independent that the proliferation of drones is “horrifying” and that the U.S. is setting a “terrible example” for the rest of the world.

“It is just the beginning of it,” said Benjamin who is the author of the forthcoming Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. “There is so much power these companies have with government agencies, and this places extremely powerful pressure on the executive and on the Congress. We are at a very dangerous stage because the American people know so little about the use of drones by our government, much less about these sales overseas.”

The lack of transparency surrounding the selling of arms overseas worries human rights observers. In an interview with The Texas Independent, Sanjeev Bery, advocacy director for Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, said that with foreign governments possibly using U.S. made defense equipment and weapons, transparency about where these items are going is critically important.

“As popular uprisings occur across the Middle East and North Africa, governments have used weapons to target those who have been exercising their core human rights,” Bery said.

Bery called it “concerning” that the only time information about arms sales is made public is when it is required by Congress. ”If there is a veil of secrecy surrounding U.S. weapons sales, it becomes much more difficult for the American public to push back against the government to ensure that America is standing up for human rights,” he said.

Tom Barry, senior policy analyst at the Center for International Policy and director of the TransBorder Project, told The Texas Independent that many countries in Latin America, led by Brazil, are using drones and it is “not a surprise” that they’re purchasing these drones from American companies.

“The U.S. could exercise some leadership in how they [drones] are used,” Barry said. “Instead of doing that, they are setting a bad example by using them for extrajudicial killing and not regulating how they are used for surveillance in our own country.”

The Obama administration has received criticism for the use of drones in targeting killings of suspected terrorists, including the killing of American born radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Attorney General Eric Holder recently defended the Obama administration’s extrajudicial killing, saying that “due process” and “judicial process” are not the same, and that the “Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.”

From New York to North Dakota, drones are being used by local law enforcement. This has drawn criticisms from civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU recently released a report claiming that privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that drones will be used responsibly and consistently while protecting civil liberties.

In Mexico, Barry said that it is likely that drones are used in ways that create an invasion of privacy and violations of civil liberties. “The Mexican military is responsible for many human rights abuses in the drug war,” he said. “They are conducting counterdrug operations that are directed by the military, and they are using military means and strategy.”

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, during the drug war, Mexico’s armed forces have “committed serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, killings, torture, rapes, and arbitrary detentions.”

“Colombia is more complicated because there is an armed insurgency that is linked to narcotics,” Barry said.

“The main concern is drone proliferation in general,” he said. “Not only are drones in the hands of governments in the Middle East that could use them against their citizens, but they could easily get into the hands of terrorists. The military industry is already planning for that eventuality by creating anti-drone technology.”

According to Barry, neither the White House nor Congress is taking the consequences of drone proliferation seriously. “There’s no sign that Congress or the current administration is taking this issue under advisement or considering the worst consequences in the proliferation of these drones.”

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