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Menwith Hill: Drop the base

The NSA’s base in North Yorkshire goes unnoticed, even in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations. Lindis Percy discusses the fight for accountability

November 16, 2013
4 min read

menwith

For the past 14 years, the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB) has held a demonstration every Tuesday evening, bar four, at the gates of the American base NSA Menwith Hill near Harrogate. An upside-down US flag with polite statements written on it has been used as a symbol of protest by CAAB for many years. To use the US flag in this way, we had to get permission from the high court, London, in 1998. One of the flags says ‘Whistleblowers urgently needed’. We want to know what goes on at this base and who it is accountable to.

One of the documents leaked by Edward Snowden was titled ‘Russian leadership communications in support of President Dmitry Medvedev at the G20 summit in London – intercept at Menwith Hill station’. The base was used to spy on the Russian president’s communications during his 2009 stay in London. Another internal document quotes the head of the NSA, lieutenant general Keith Alexander, on a visit to Menwith Hill in June 2008, asking, ‘Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time? Sounds like a good summer project for Menwith.’

It’s been 25 years since investigative journalist Duncan Campbell exposed Echelon, Menwith’s programme for intercepting, monitoring and recording all forms of electronic communications worldwide. Though jointly founded by the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it owes its day-to-day operations to the American NSA. In 1997 the European Parliament issued a report that examined the Echelon programme thoroughly, concluding Menwith Hill was its ‘hub’.

Evolving from local protests, CAAB was formed in 1992 to scrutinise and raise awareness of the base’s activities. We have tried to gather as many clues as possible, building a body of evidence as to how bases such as Menwith Hill – apparently beyond the control of both US and UK laws – actually operate. We work in many different ways, asking parliamentary questions, or taking legal action to bring leaders and unsafe practices to account. Through regular scrutiny of local planning applications, CAAB became the first organisation to reveal that Menwith Hill was to be an important component in the US missile defence system.

Secret documents disclosed in a high court case in 1993, brought against me by Tom King, former secretary of state for defence, showed how military bases in the UK were given over to the US visiting forces with no debate in parliament and very few meaningful legal protections. The treasury solicitor at the time was concerned. It was decided that US bases would be rebranded as RAF, with a RAF liaison officer/commander in post and a RAF flag flying alongside the prominent US one. Despite Menwith’s continued PR claims, the base remains occupied and controlled by US military and intelligence agencies, receiving help from a contingent of GCHQ staff.

Following the Snowden revelations, press coverage by the Guardian highlighted GCHQ but scarcely mentioned NSA Menwith Hill. We wondered why this was, given the local, national and international importance of the base. We encouraged journalists to do an in-depth study but have had no success. There is silence about NSA Menwith Hill.

As the news broke, MPs were on their summer holidays – and temporarily off the hook. When parliament resumes, CAAB will ensure the hard questions are asked, prompt the leaders of every political party for statements and push for a full investigation. We need to find out whether the UK government does or doesn’t have all the information about the US’s extensive spy operations at Menwith. Either answer is cause for serious concern.

Lindis Percy is CAAB coordinator. To find out more about the campaign, visit www.caab.org.uk

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