The dusty village of Khashamir in eastern Yemen cuts a sharp contrast with BT's sleek London headquarters. But last Wednesday, I joined around 600 other shareholders at the company's annual general meeting to see what BT had to say to the village's residents about evidence it may be facilitating the drone strikes that killed their loved ones. The answers I got were revealing.
In 2012, BT reportedly earned $23 million from a US government contract to supply a fibre-optic communications cable linking the US military base at RAF Croughton with Camp Lemonnier, a US base in Djibouti. Lemonnier is widely reported to be the launch-pad for US drone strikes against Yemen and Somalia. These strikes, carried out in countries with which the US is not at war, are illegal under international law. We at legal charity Reprieve, which assists the civilian victims of drone strikes, have called on the government to investigate BT.
In Yemen alone, drone strikes have killed over a thousand people including hundreds of civilians, many of them children. One of Reprieve's clients, civil engineer Faisal bin Ali Jaber, lost his nephew, a policeman, and his brother-in-law, a respected local imam who had preached against Al-Qaida. After the strike that killed them, villagers in Khashamir had to spend hours collecting the scattered body parts. "Our family is not your enemy", Faisal said after the strike, in a desperate call to President Obama to stop the drones, "our town was no battlefield."
New evidence also suggests that BT has earned tens of millions of pounds by helping the British government to tap mass communications - a practice that the ex-head of the NSA, General Michael Hayden, has openly admitted is used to triangulate drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. It works like this: Information like the activity or location of a cell phone is used to make a simple guess at who may or may not be a militant. A targeted missile follows.
Back at the AGM, the tension was palpable as my colleague Aditi Gupta and I questioned BT about their failure to check that their contract with the US military did not breach international ethical business standards such as those set by the OECD. Chairman Sir Michael Rake was quick to deny responsibility for the actions of his clients: "We do not look to, nor do we know, nor can we possibly know how people choose to use their telecommunications equipment". When pressed, he plumbed still greater depths of callousness, saying that BT sells communications networks "to individuals, to governments, to companies - as long as they pay their bills".
After hearing himself out loud, Sir Michael hastily added a qualifier; if BT was made aware of any illegal activity, it would halt services - but "we can't deal with those things that we don't see". When we pointed out the numerous media reports based on the evidence, we were told these were "not factual".
While justice will still seem a long way away for the victims of drone strikes, Q and A sessions like this at least give a glimmer of hope. It is deeply unfortunate that we live in a society where one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world can simply ignore concerns of its involvement in serious human rights abuses. However, responsible shareholders can take BT to task, urging action and comparing it to its competitors, many of whom have recently released transparency reports in an attempt to shed some light on the murky world of government-sponsored surveillance and targeting.
The message is clear: if BT wants its shareholders and customers to believe its message of a 'Better Future', it cannot continue to bury its head in the sand over evidence that - knowingly or not - it may be providing crucial infrastructure for illegal drone strikes.
BT, what's your next move?
Co-authored by Aditi Gupta