The Hills Have Ears
Menwith Hill is a little piece of the USA in Britain, a listening post monitoring the telecommunications traffic of Europe. It is rapidly expanding, unaccountable (even to parliament) and no-one is able to get any answers. Ally Fogg reports, additional material by Gibby Zobel.
Squall 16, Summer 1998, pp. 20-21.
Take a short walk west from the A59 near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, across a designated site of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and you could be forgiven for thinking you had found a set from Space 1999.
Twenty seven vast white golfballs up to 60 metres in diameter, satellite dishes and a host of towering aerial masts line the horizon. If a little bird were to tell you what was going on inside, you might feel you had walked into the middle of George Orwell's nightmares. The fibre-optic cables running under your feet carry 32,000 telephone lines, and the space-age hardware before your eyes monitors transmissions from land and mobile telephones, radios, faxes, satellite communications and cyberspace. It is capable of intercepting two million telephone calls every hour. Its targets are military, political, commercial, industrial and domestic. This is not science fiction. It is Menwith Hill spy station.
Officially titled 'RAF Menwith Hill', the largest regional intelligence station on Earth is in fact run by, and for, the US National Security Agency (NSA). There are 1,200 American staff and 600 British staff on site. It operates in close tandem with GCHQ at Cheltenham, but GCHQ has no automatic access to the intelligence gathered at Menwith Hill. All domestic and international telephone calls in Britain pass through Menwith Hill, allowing US officers to spy on any British citizen without a warrant. Information collected on political activists, for example, can then be passed on to MI5, Special Branch or Scotland Yard.
Despite the end of the Cold War, the NSA continues to have a budget of $10 billion per year. It spends $1 million per minute spying on the communications of the UK, France and Germany. The US 'acquired' 562 acres of Yorkshire moorland in 1956 in a secret arrangement with the British government. The arrangement was never approved by the British Parliament. A 21-year tenure was agreed, and renewed in 1976 for a further 21 years, again in secret and without parliamentary approval. Despite the expiry of this tenure last year, the base continues to expand. Since the arrangements between the UK and US governments which allow Menwith Hill to operate are secret, nobody knows on what legal grounds Menwith Hill now functions. The rapid expansion of the base has required planning applications, in 1985 there were four radomes (golfballs), now there are 27. However Harrogate Council has no power to refuse permission or impose conditions.
The reasons for Menwith Hill's very existence give an important insight into the 'special relationship' between the UK and USA. In a court case last year, former Cabinet Minister Tony Benn MP testified that Britain is under contract to the US to buy nuclear weapons on the condition that bases like Menwith are allowed to operate from here and provided that the US has access to all British intelligence operations. The role of Menwith Hill in a military context is undeniable, it won an award from the NSA as "Station of the Year"in 1991 for its role in the Gulf War. The use of this technology for commercial espionage is no less controversial. American companies, notably arms dealers Loral Space Systems Incorporated and Lockheed Aerospace, sell much of the spy equipment to the NSA and they are both involved in arms sales to third-world countries. Menwith Hill gains information that would be highly useful to them. In the same testimony, Tony Benn told the court that it was "inconceivable"that the intelligence collected at Menwith Hill would not be used for commercial advantage. Even the NSA's own website admits that its work includes "monitoring the development of new technology"around the world.
Benn is one of a small band of MPs who have attempted to impose some form of parliamentary accountablity on Menwith Hill. In his last speech to the House before his untimely death in 1994, Bob Cryer gave a blistering attack on the station, and the fudging of Ministerial replies on the subject. He described how the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Nicholas Soames) had said there is parliamentary accountability for Menwith Hill, while the Minister for Public Transport (Stephen Norris) found the station so secret that while he was a minister at the Department of Defence he thought it was a railway station! Max Madden MP asked questions between 1986 and 1997. Norman Baker, Lib-Dem MP for Lewes, has asked dozens of parliamentary questions about Menwith Hill and related issues since entering the house last May. "I'm a believer in freedom of information," He told Squall. "I don't like the way Menwith Hill is shrouded in secrecy, and I'm not convinced that what happens there is for the good of this country. Most of us assume the cold war is over, so the question must be what are they using it for? One of the assumptions must be that it is being used for industrial espionage."
The standard ministerial reply to almost any question on the subject is: "The use of Menwith Hill by the United States Department of Defence is subject to confidential arrangements between the United Kingdom and the United States Government."
Recently the US and UK Governments have been embarassed by an EC report from the Science and Technology Office of Assessment which stated that "within Europe all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency transferring all target information from the European mainland via the strategic hub of London then by satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill". The report confirmed that this included diplomatic, economic, and political communications, monitored through a massive US global spy web, mainly at Menwith Hill. European business leaders are believed to be less than delighted at the confirmation that their commercial confidentiality is routinely breached by an arm of the US Government.
Not surprisingly, those who have worked the hardest to highlight the scandal of Menwith Hill have not been political representatives or disgruntled business leaders, but a dedicated collection of peace campaigners. There have been campaigns to stop Menwith Hill since it began in 1952. Groups now involved include the WoMenwith Hill Women's Peace Camp, Yorkshire CND and the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB). The peace camp has been sitting in a lay-by on the A59 since 1994. There have been literally hundreds of trespasses at the station over many years. Activists have been arrested, assaulted, imprisoned and injuncted, but refuse to give up. British MoD Police are used to protect the base, paid for with American money. In a typical example of the lengths to which the authorities have gone in attempting to quell these activists, the second military land byelaws were passed in the summer of 1997, forbidding trespass onto the base. The first set of byelaws had been declared invalid in 1993. The first two activists to be arrested under the byelaw, Helen John and Anne Lee, were acquitted by a judge at York Crown Court in October. He ruled that since 70 per cent of the land covered by the law was used for grazing sheep, it could not be considered primarily of 'military use'. Less than a week later, activists Lindis Percy and Anni Rainbow were arrested under the same byelaw which had just been ruled invalid. They had been removing byelaw notices.
"A recent STOAS [Science & Technology Office of Assessment] report confirmed what we’ve always said that within Europe all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the US National Security Agency. It’s a huge infringement of civil liberties listening in to private conversations. The safeguards are falling apart. Menwith Hill is a crucial place in terms of US domination. It’s about weapons of mass destruction and the essential role it plays in all that.”
- Lindis Percy
In February Lindis Percy, who has had an injuction since 1991 banning her from the area around Menwith Hill with the exception of two public footpaths, was arrested for removing one of these signs from the side of one of the footpaths. "They deliberately moved the bylaw notices three feet to 'protect' the signs from protestors! The intent was entrapment. They say the notices are off the footpath, I say they are still on it. So by reading the notices you have to get so close you are, in their eyes, committing a criminal offence. The MoD Police appeared out of nowhere and arrested me."
It has been alleged that she had nine injunctions banning her from the base, but claims she was entitled to use the footpath. Lindis has been a thorn in the side of the US military in the UK for many years. She has taken out civil and criminal actions against the US Government for assault and false imprisonment at a number of US bases. The Americans cited diplomatic immunity and the cases failed. The criminal action is now being considered at the European Court. Last year she served more than two months of a nine-month sentence in Holloway, and was released after intervention from the Official Solicitor when her health was compromised after she was subjected to involuntary stripsearches. "I firmly believe that out of bad things, good things will come," she told Squall, "and that people can make a difference, when we know what we are doing is right... My family know this is important work and accept that the arrests and court cases is what is going to be. Of course there have been problems and they used to get very angry, but I think it is sorted out now.
This crazy zany world of secrecy, collusion and deceit is bizarre - I still work as a health visitor in Bradford which keeps me sane. They want you to give up - but the more they try and silence me the stronger I get."
It has recently been confirmed that there are plans for the continued expansion of Menwith Hill until at least 2005. The physical expansion shall enable it to house the technology to transmit and receive communications and full-spectrum photographic images from military satellites, allowing the US military to see and hear what is going on, on literally any inch of the planet. It will also be able to control laser weapons which could be fired anywhere to an accuracy of six feet. The space probe Cassini, launched last autumn with 72 lb of plutonium on board, was directly connected to the need to fuel these weapons in space. There is every reason to believe that it will continue to grow well beyond 2005, and who knows what technology it will house by then. Big Brother is not just watching you, he's getting bigger all the time.