A report by the New York Times and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting shows that General Atomics helped fund the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a major think tank in Washington DC, when it recommended that the Obama administration loosen export rules to allow the company sell more drones.
General Atomics manufactures the Predator and Reaper drones, the two main aircraft used by the U.S. military for surveillance and targeted killing in wars around the world from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq and Syria. But with spending on such wars dropping from a high of $187 billion in 2008 to a projected $58.7 billion for 2015, the company realized that it faced a sharp drop off in sales.
"We'll have to cut back staff ... if we can't make sell to the Marines or (make) some more overseas sales or something like that. It's significant," Frank Pace, president of General Atomics' aircraft systems group, told Reuters in November 2013.
The very same month, the company dispatched two staff - John "J.R." Reid and Tom Rice - to attend a private working group on drones convened by Samuel Brannen, deputy director of the CSIS International Security Program. Brannen, who began his career as an intern at CSIS in 2002, had just returned to the organization after a four year stint as a policy planner at the U.S. Department of Defense.
Reid and Rice were among some 40 'experts' invited to the group that included staff from other drone contractors like Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman. About a third of the invitees worked for the U.S military like Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Hatfield, the division chief of U.S. Army's Unmanned Ground Systems program, and a number of others worked for the U.S. Congress like Brooke Eisele from the House Intelligence Committee; Kevin Gates from the House Armed Services Committee and Erik Brine from Senator Tim Kaine's office.
Memos obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the New York Times and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting showed that the group met four times in November and December of that year to help Brannen shape a set of recommendations. One session was titled: "Political obstacles to export." Brannen's final 28 page report "Sustaining the U.S. Lead in Unmanned Systems" was published online the following February. The report's introduction acknowledged that General Atomics had provided financial support.
"I came out strongly in support of export," Brannen wrote in an email to Kenneth Handelman, the deputy assistant secretary of state for defense trade controls, soon after the report appeared. "And I'm broadly concerned by DoD's (Department of Defense) lack of vision on umanned. So what's knew?" he joked.
After the report was published Brannen and CSIS continued to push the export agenda, hosting briefings at their offices on the subject that featured members of the working group. One year after the CSIS report was published, the U.S. announced that it would allow drone sales to the United Arab Emirates.
"Think tanks are seen as independent, but their scholars often push donors’ agendas, amplifying a culture of corporate influence in Washington," wrote Eric Lipton and Brooke Williams in the New York Times in article about Brannen's work.
CSIS is now back tracking from the thank you note that Brannen published in the report. "The funding from General Atomics in 2013 was not project-based support," John Hamre, the chief executive, said in his statement to the New York Times. "General Atomics’ membership contribution was a very small amount of money—probably 5 percent of our average project size - and was handled via an exchange of letters rather than a formal (memorandum of understanding) because it registered as membership support."
However Hamre admitted that the think tank was happy to meet with industry and government to solve their 'problems.' "We strongly believe in our model of seeking solutions to some of our country’s most difficult problems," Hamre added. "We gather stakeholders, vet ideas, find areas of agreement and highlight areas of disagreement."
The company also provided a response to the New York Times. "General Atomic Aeronautical Systems supports independent research that enhances understanding of the role that unmanned aircraft systems play across the defense and national security community," the company wrote. "CSIS did not preview or share its findings with our company at any point prior to publication, as is indicated in the report itself."
The donations by General Atomics pale in comparison to the checks written by Boeing and Lockheed Martin who have together donated over $77 million to over 20 think tanks in the last five years or so, including CSIS. Both companies have major contracts to support the U.S. military drones.
* This article was amended to reflect the fact that the New England Center for Investigative Reporting conducted part of the research into General Atomics.