2 February 2001
Secret Target
Son of Star Wars Puts Yorkshire in Front Line
By Helen Hutchison,
Yorkshire Evening Post

 

THIS is Menwith Hill-the biggest spy base on earth.

Its golf ball-shaped domes hide some of the most powerful spying devices on the planet, capable of listening in on millions of conversations across the world simultaneously - by phone, fax, e-mail .. even a baby monitor.

More worrying the base - 20 miles north of Leeds - could be a prime target in a new nuclear arms race.

The American-controlled spy station is home to futuristic technology which could be used as part of an early warning for a US-run Son of Star Wars defence system.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing mounting pressure to oppose or commit to the US National Missile Defence scheme which could involve Menwith Hill and Fylingdales on the North York Moors. New US president George W Bush is determined to press ahead with the controversial programme.

Yet despite the international significance of Menwith Hill, set in the heart of beautiful Yorkshire countryside, its activities and its purpose are shrouded in secrecy.

The Government refuses to talk in any detail about it. MPs are left in the dark, local councils have no control over it and its power appears to be unchecked.

Campaigners claim it is anti-democratic, unaccountable and dangerous.
 


It is the world's largest spy station and its activities could put Yorkshire at the heart of global nuclear conflict. But what do we know about what happens at Menwith Hill? HELEN HUTCHISON reports
The 51st state
Behind the wire, a piece of the USA in Yorkshire

MENWITH Hill is a little America.

From about 400 staff in 1980, the base is so large it has more than 1,800 personnel. These include 415 National Security Agency staff and American servicemen, 392 Ministry of Defence personnel, 989 US civilian workers from defence contractors like Lockheed, five UK military and an unspecifled number of GCHQ personnel.

The site has expanded so much it has its own internal roads, houses, shops, bank, post office, school, church, sports centre, bowling alley, hairdresser and beauty salon, garage and power supply.

It is bounded by a 2.4m high security fence with razor wire, and is under constant closed circuit TV surveillance.

There are no American guards unlike other US bases in this country but it is policed by the Ministry of Defence - paid for by the Americans and under their control.

The base is under the American command of Colonel Christine Marsh although Squadron Leader Humphrey Vincent is the nominal British commander, responsible for "general oversight" of the base according to the MoD.

Alongside quietly grazing sheep there are 27 radomes containing satellite receiving dishes - plus two which were built last year - some as high as l64ft, as well as a host of vertical radio masts which are all part of a global and space surveillance system, linked in to more than 50 satellites in space.

The main operational activity of Menwith Hill is the collection of signals intelligence from national and international communications systems tor the US.

All telecommunications traffic to and from Europe and passing through Britain is Intercepted at the base. Including private telephone calls and faxes.

The base was linked directly into the nearby Hunters Stone Post Office tower in 1975 and in the 1990s began tapping directly into the telephone network after BT installed fibre optic cables capable of carrying more than 100,000 simultaneous telephone calls.

No parliamentary authority or permission has ever been given for these activities and it was only revealed during a court case involving peace campaigners.

A former Director of the U.S National Security Agency (NSA), Vice Admiral William Studeman, described how in 1992 two million electronic messages were intercepted every hour by Menwith Hill. Around 13,000 were kept for further analysis, later narrowed down to 2,000.

That adds up to a massive 17.5 billion messages intercepted every year.

Each part of the base has a different function. The Silkworth system built in the 1970s intercepts long range communications between cities in Europe and Asia and is believed to be linked into the controversial Echelon spy network.

Moonpenny is the codename for radio dishes which intercept communications from foreign satellites belonging to states such as Russia or Israel.

The Runway downloads information from eavesdropping satellite systems.

But it is its new upgraded role as the European Ground Relay Station for America's National Missile Defence system which could see a huge expansion in Menwith Hill's role.

The Americans are putting the finishing touches to two new dishes which will have the ability to communicate with a network of Space Based Infra Red Satellites (SBIRS) and alert America to an impending attack.

Some experts and campaigners believe this could lead to the escalation of a new arms race and put Yorkshire In the firing line.

Security the watchword as base keeps growing

AT the height of the Cold War in 1955, the US Army Security Agency set up a military base on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales on land bought and owned by the British Government.

Its name - Menwith Hill Station. Its purpose - to set up an extensive listening post capable of spying on our then enemies behind the Iron Curtain.

In 1996 it officially became known as RAF Menwith Hill - a misnomer, since it is not a British airbase but is run by one of the most secretive American Government agencies, the National Security Agency - the world's biggest and most powerful signals intelligence organisation.

It was in 1966 that Menwith Hill Station on the A59 Skipton Road, six miles outside Harrogate was taken over by the NSA.

Legality

Since then the 562-acre moorland site, known as NSA Field Station 83, has expanded until it has become the world's biggest spy outpost.

The base, with its landmark golf balls or radomes, is actually owned by the Crown and was handed over under a lease agreement which came up for renewal in 1976 and was promptly extended for a further 21 years.

The agreement expired in 1997, yet any attempts to ask questions about the legality of the American occupation of the base have been rebuffed by the Ministry of Defence.

The base's satellite surveillance system was expanded in 1984 with the completion of the massive Steeplebush extension, which included a 50,000 sq ft operations building and generators to supply five megawatts of power - enough electricity for 1,500 homes.

This section of Menwith Hill alone is believed to have cost around $160m.

In the 1990s a second phase, Steeplebush II, a radiation protected bunker underground, was built.

The latest expansion is the development of the Son of Star Wars technology, the Space Based Infra Red System (SBIRS) which will provide the US with early warning of missile launches.

Secrecy keeps protest groups out of range

THE highly-secretive spy base which lies on our doorstep is capable of listening in to the most confidential and private conversations around the world.

RAF Menwith Hill is accused of invading privacy and industrial and commercial espionage.

It is also, along with Fylingdales high on the North York moors, likely to be called into service as part of an American "Son of Star Wars" defence system.

Campaigners say it breaches International law and works free from scrutiny or control. Debate about its legitimacy is stifled because of the secrecy surrounding it.

More than 40 MPs have signed an early day motion opposed to the American National Missile Defence System. Yet there has been no parliamentary debate and little discussion among MPs regarding the use of these bases for such purposes.

Prime Minister Tony Blair says that until the Americans make a formal request to use the base for its National Missile Defence programme the Government will not comment.

The issue is certain to be on the agenda for Mr Biair's first meeting with new president George W Bush in Washington on February 23 and 24. Tory leader William Hague has already pledged his support.

But Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Phil Willis said he was worried secrecy surrounding the base was masking an abuse of the democratic system.

"It is quite unaccountable. One wonders why there is a major expansion of the base and there are questions to be asked."

Mr Willis said there was no avenue open to MPs in Parliament to discuss the activities of the base which he said was run by a foreign power and only accountable to a foreign Government.

Veteran peace campaigner Lindis Percy said: "We need a public debate so that people can be informed and decide. It is so, so serious. Yorkshire is an absolute target."

The Ministry of Defence claims that Menwith Hill is held accountable because "senior UK personnel are integrated at every level of the station" and because it is subject to the scrutiny of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.
 


Taking aim in a space shooting gallery

YORKSHIRE could be a key target in the event of nuclear warfare because of the work at Menwith Hill.

The base, designated the European Ground Relay Station, and set in the Yorkshire countryside, is of strategic importance because of its planned role in providing America with early warning of missile attack.

No weapons are stored at the site but receiving aerials - radomes - link to a new generation of satellites in deep space.

The satellites' advanced infra red technology is so powerful it can detect the heat of a missile launched 25,000 miles away with a system known as Space Based Infra-Red System (SBIRS).

SBIRS identifies the launch of a missile, its intended target and tracks it through space - even so-called cold bodies. It Is expected to come on-line at Menwith Hill by 2003.

As part of the multi-billion dollar National Missile Defence (NMD) system the Americans would be warned of an imminent attack within seconds of launch anywhere in the world - crucial information as these missiles can travel around the earth within 25 minutes.

The scheme has been dubhed "Son of Star Wars" after the defence project first proposed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s which planned to intercept nuclear missiles launched from the Soviet Union 17,000 miles away.

With the demise of the Cold War, Star Wars was off the political agenda.

But Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University Peace Studies Department, said plans for its successor are a significant issue once again because of a perceived threat from "rogue states" such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

He warned: "The Russians and Chinese believe the Americans will develop an anti-ballistic system which will make them invulnerable America will become unassailable in 10 to 15 years time. This issue could set up a new arms race."

Campaigners are concerned that if SBIRS is used as part of a missile defence system the terms of the 1972 ABM Treaty signed by the Americans and Russians to limit the expansion of the arms race will be broken.

The Russians and Chinese have issued veiled threats to America and her allies that they will increase their nuclear arsenal if they press ahead with the plans.

Critics believe NMD won't work and argue that it could not deal with two of the most likely means of attack - chemical or biological weapons.

Professor Rogers said: "As soon as the decision is given to go ahead with NMD then it becomes part of a process which is breaking the treaty.

"If the Americans do not renegotiate the treaty then Menwith Hill is implicated from day one. One of the first targets to be hit will be Menwith Hill and Fylingdales." Dr George Lewis, a world renowned expert in missile defence in Boston, said: "These satellites do have other purposes like collecting information about missile launches anywhere in the world. But SBIRS is essential to the NMD system. NMD would be significantly downgraded without it."

Tests of the proposed system proved the technology is far from ready although there are another 16 "hit-to-kill"' tests scheduled.

The Ministry of Defence has claimed that SBIRS is needed irrespective of NMD and is "being handled as a separate project."

But a civil servant in the Security Policy Department of the Foreign Office admitted: "It is true this new system would be capable of providing early warning data for a future National Missile Defence system should the US decide to deploy one."


YEP COMMENT

In the dark and in the line of fire

THE secret American spy base which has, for more than 45 years, occupied countryside on the edge of the Dales has long fascinated and troubled Yorkshire people, who have never understood its purpose.

Menwith Hill's familiar giant golf balls have dominated the skyline near Harrogate for a generation. Here, behind closed gates and secure barriers, a large and self-sufficient American community is dedicated to listening covertly to conversations around the world and to gathering intelligence from the farthest reaches of the globe.

But there is little romance attached to high-tech secrecy operated from the heart of our county. Concerns and suspicions over activities there have never subsided and, since the base is to be key to any American missile defence system, it puts Yorkshire in the direct line of fire of aggressors hostile to the United States.

In truth, the base is the cuckoo in Britain's nest. Commanded and controlled by America with the permission of our government, it has no duty or responsibility to inform or reassure UK citizens or politicians. It has one purpose - to form a protective European early-warning shield for the US. In the event of attack on America, it would most certainly be a prime target.

It is too much to ask for chapter and verse on secret service activities, but it will seem reasonable to most that, if we are to be sitting targets for nuclear attack, we should be consulted and informed first.

See also Menwith Hill's role in catching the Lockerbie bomber in the next issue of YEP.
 


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