The Billionaire Brothers Behind America's Predator Drones -- And Their Very Strange Past
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To hear the Blue brothers tell it now, they all but invented the Predator drone. Neal told Fortune magazine in 2008 he got the idea to build drones decades ago, while fighting Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Back then Blue was a Denver oilman and real estate investor who happened to spend a lot of time thinking about how to defeat communists. He was particularly interested in seeing the overthrow of the Soviet-backed Sandinistas, who had recently seized control of Nicaragua. He had known the Somozas, the ousted ruling family, from his cocoa and banana days, and, well, he hated Reds. Crippling the regime, Blue figured, was simple: just send GPS-equipped unmanned planes on kamikaze missions to blow up the country's gasoline storage tanks. "You could launch them from behind the line of sight,” he recalls matter-of-factly, "so you would have total deniability.” Blue pauses, leans back in his white-leather swivel chair, and quickly adds that he had nothing to do with any of the Reagan-era operations there - nor, of course, did he launch his own attack.
It's a nice story, except for all the bullshit.
The Predator drone was actually created by Israeli named Abroham Karem, who had helped design Israel's first drones for use in the Yom Kippur war. In the 1980s, Karem moved to Orange County and set up a small shop with DARPA funding to replicate and improve the technology here.
His company was called Leading Systems, and had already developed a working Predator drone prototype that was cheaper and more reliable than what good ol' boy defense companies like Lockheed Martin could crank out. Karem made an elegant and efficient product it, but it wasn't getting much love in the DoD.
It needed a power-salesman and a lot of money to grease the procurement process. And that's what the Blue brothers, and their man Cassidy, brought to the table.
"Behind its success in winning government contracts has been a formidable and at times controversial lobbying effort,” wrote the Financial Times.
H'mmm… "formidable and at times controversial” is one way of putting General Atomics' lobbying efforts. Another way would be to say the company flooded Congress with money.
A 2006 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that General Atomics was among the biggest sponsors of congressional trips, outspending other defense contractors by 50 times or more--and that's not counting the roughly $2.5 million a year it spends on lobbying.
San Diego-based General Atomics largely targeted congressional staff members, spending roughly $660,000 on 86 trips for legislators, aides and their spouses from 2000 to mid–2005, according to an analysis of travel disclosure records by the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service.
While on trips to Turkey in 2004 and Australia in 2005 -- some valued at more than $25,000 -- staffers attended meetings with officials of foreign governments being solicited to buy the company's unmanned spy plane, the Predator.
Among those aides was J. Scott Bensing, chief of staff to Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee's Airland subcommittee. Two of his trips cost more than a combined $46,000.
Bensing said that he and his wife, Lia, went to Italy and Turkey in 2004 and Australia in March 2005 on the company's tab. His disclosure forms list more than $37,000 in transportation expenses and nearly $4,400 worth of meals for the two weeklong trips.
Bensing indicated on his forms that the Australia trip's purpose was to discuss "the international war on terror,” while the Turkey trip included discussions on "NATO interoperability and other international military issues.” However, other aides who went on the trips indicated that staffers also sat in on meetings with officials of foreign governments interested in buying the Predator and other robotic planes developed by General Atomics.