Four small, white passenger planes sit outside a hangar here under a blazing sun, with no exterior markings save for U.S. registration numbers painted on the tails. A few burly men wearing aviator sunglasses and short haircuts poke silently around the wing flaps and landing gear.
The aircraft are Pilatus PC-12s, turboprops favored by the U.S. Special Operations forces for stealth missions precisely because of their nondescript appearance. There is no hint that they are carrying high-tech sensors and cameras that can film man-size targets from 10 miles away.
To further disguise the mission, the U.S. military has taken another unusual step: It has largely outsourced the spying operation to private contractors. The contractors supply the aircraft as well as the pilots, mechanics and other personnel to help process electronic intelligence collected from the airspace over Uganda, Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
In October, President Obama sent about 100 elite U.S. troops to central Africa to scour the terrain for Joseph Kony, the messianic and brutal leader of a Ugandan rebel group. But American contractors have been secretly searching for Kony from the skies long before that, at least since 2009, under a project code-named Tusker Sand, according to documents and people familiar with the operation.
The previously unreported practice of hiring private companies to spy on huge expanses of African territory — in this region and in North Africa, where a similar surveillance program is aimed at an al-Qaeda affiliate — has been a cornerstone of the U.S. military’s secret activities on the continent. Unlike uniformed troops, plainclothes contractors are less likely to draw attention.
But because the arms-length arrangement exists outside traditional channels, there is virtually no public scrutiny or oversight. And if something goes wrong, the U.S. government and its partners acknowledge that the contractors are largely on their own.
U.S. Africa Command, which oversees military operations on the continent, declined to discuss specific missions or its reasons for outsourcing the gathering of intelligence.
In response to written questions from The Washington Post, the command stated that contractors would not get special treatment in case of a mishap. Instead, they “would be provided the same assistance that any U.S. citizen would be provided by the U.S. Government should they be in danger.”
Perils of the job
There is precedent for the use of contractors in spying operations. The military hired private firms to conduct airborne surveillance in Latin America in the 1990s and early 2000s, with sometimes-disastrous results.
In 2003, for instance, one American was killed and three others were taken hostage by Colombian insurgents after their plane crashed in the jungle. The contractors, who were working for Northrop Grumman on a Defense Department counter-narcotics program, endured five years of captivity before they were freed in a raid by Colombian police.
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