It was announced at the end of June that the last of America’s nuclear missiles had finally been removed from the UK, the end of a 54-year-old arsenal. But the US military retains a major presence here, and intelligence-gathering at the numerous US bases around the UK has been stepped up – as too too have restraints on the scrutiny Britain has over these operations.
The national debate over civil rights has been focused on 42-day detention and ID cards. Yet the ability of the US military to obtain personal information on private individuals and to obscure public scrutiny of its operations has become a growing concern for communities confronted with its presence.
Activists such as the long-time peace campaigner Lindis Percy, working through the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB), are attempting to raise awareness of the way the US military is permitted to operate outside British law. A recent court action Percy brought against US airman Frank McDonald of the base at Croughton, Northamptonshire, illustrates the point. Percy initiated a private prosecution against McDonald and two Ministry of Defence police officers in connection with a 2006 incident in which she was allegedly roughed up by McDonald while being detained. The case was taken over and promptly dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service earlier this year after the US authorities entered a certificate saying that, under the Visiting Forces Act 1952, the English court had no jurisdiction to hear the case. Officially the case was dropped on the grounds of insufficient evidence, despite the clear medical evidence of assault.
Whatever the facts about this particular case might be, there is clearly a wider issue of British sovereignty at stake here, says Percy: ‘Officially, if we [the UK] want them to go we can send them away. But the Visiting Forces Act and the Status of Forces Agreement aren’t tight enough. American bases are really beyond the control of the British government; they do what they like.’
In such circumstances the public can be forced off a site unlawfully and assaulted without any comeback. ‘There are no meaningful legal protections, and furthermore many of the bylaws protecting US bases are invalid and so they don’t bring them to court,’ says Percy. ‘They haven’t arrested under them for years. It’s a con.’
While the nuclear arsenal may have gone, the US military presence is as entrenched as ever, and the central nervous system of US missile operations remains without check or balance. Indeed, the US has been installing new surveillance equipment at Menwith Hill, the world’s largest electronic monitoring station outside the US itself, located eight miles from Harrogate, and has introduced an enhanced radar system at RAF Fylingdales in north Yorkshire.
The current aggressive US strategy, which includes proposed new missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, is being made operational from the heart of the UK countryside – a process that was expected to go unnoticed and unquestioned. Formal permission was only granted to the US military to use the Menwith Hill base in the summer of 2007, after years of informal use, in an announcement made two days before the parliamentary recess tucked away among a collection of 45 other written statements. An all-party foreign affairs select committee report condemned the way this had been announced without discussion in parliament.
The government has probably been encouraged in this approach by an apparent dwindling of activism on such issues since the end of the cold war. ‘Protest culture has changed,’ acknowledges Lindis. ‘It’s now harder than it was. At Greenham Common there were so many imaginative and creative forms of protest, but it’s become more difficult as the authorities have brought in more controls.’
On a sunny 4 July, CAAB held its annual ‘Independence From America Day’ protest at the Menwith Hill base, this year incorporating an ‘I Spy A Spy’ theme, complete with protesters in ‘evening spy dress’. Lindis Percy, now 66 and with more than 150 previous arrests to her name for peaceful protests at US bases, was arrested yet again for breach of bail conditions.
She refuses to give in, though. ‘Our rights and security need not be set against each other like this, nor are they forever irreconcilable,’ she says. ‘Our quiet submission is not an option.’
For more information about the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases, visit www.caab.org.uk