3 February 2001
Tuned in to the world's whispers
Menwith Hill: America's Ear on the World
By Helen Hutchison,
Yorkshire Evening Post


IMAGINE an electronic surveillance system so sophisticated it can pick up any transmission, anywhere in the world.

A spy machine so advanced it can break the code on millions of transmissions and use it to catch terrorists, eavesdrop on Royalty and give away secrets of billion-dollar corporations.

It sounds a James Bond movie Fantasy, but it exists.

And the hub of this invisible spy web is at Menwith Hill.

Echelon is the code name for tine Global Surveillance Network run by America's National Security Agrncy (NSA) with the help of spy stations in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Its mission is to eavesdrop on its enemies: foreign countries, terrorist groups and the criminal underworld.

Echelon's computers scan virtually every electronic conversation around the world and its activities have worried Britain's European allies so much that the European Parliament has set up a committee to investigate Echelon and France has accused Washington and London of a flagrant attack on its national interest.

It has launched an investigation into Echelon's economic espionage and says huge contracts have been lost by the Thomson weapons firm and Airbus because of information gathered by the NSA at Menwith Hill.

Echelon works by using satellite-receiving dishes in the giant radomes on the base. Millions of communications are intercepted every hour.

The information is fed from Menwith Hill, the world's largest spy base, to the NSA's headquarters at Ford Meade In Maryland.

Computers scan millions of transmissions word by word, looking for key phrases, telephone numbers, and names.

Echelon has had some spectacular succcesses. The system was believed to be instrumental in the capture of the terrorist Carlos the Jackal, the two Libyans tried for the Lockerbie bombing and against Saddam Hussain in the Gulf War.

But it is the system's ability to be used for commercial espionage, and its potential abuse of an individual's privacy and civil liberties, which concerns campaigners.

It is claimed the NSA listened in on groups such as Amnesty International and Princess Diana, because of her support for the campaign against landmines.

Former intelligence agency personnel believe that Menwith Hill may have been responsible for intercepting the princess's personal conversations which found their way into the media.

The European Parliament also claimed that the NSA eavesdropped on all the faxes and phone calls between the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and Saudi Arabian Airlines, and that the information helped American firms Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, win a $6bn contract.

Yorkshire and the Humber MEP David Bowe is fighting for greater accountability. He said: "I would like a real debate about its role. It has to exist to protect people from terrorism, organised crime and regimes like Iraq and Iran. The question is - is it exceeding its brief? We have to establish some rules."

The NSA however denies any wrongdoing. In a letter to Congress its chief of staff in legislative affairs Kenneth Heath said: "We want to assure you that NSA's activities are conducted in accordance with the highest constitutional, legal, and ethical standards.

"We can tell you that NSA operates in strict accordance with US laws and regulations in protecting the privacy rights of US persons."

The Ministry of Defence also denies any involvement in industrial espionage.

Local welcome for a big spender

MENWITH Hill is the second biggest employer in the Harrogate district and is estimated to bring 62m into the local economy every year.

With 500 local people working on the base and a host of other jobs dependent on it, it is not surprising that people have mixed feelings about its role.

More than 1,000 Menwith Hill families live in rented accommodation locally.

The base also contributes to good causes in the area with Menwith Hill Women's Club donating 18,000 to community appeals last year.

Local people have been antagonistic towards campaigners opposed to the base and there was huge local opposition to the women's peace camp based on the A59.

Coun Les Ellington, whose ward covers Menwith Hill, said: "It's a major local employer and is obviously a big plus. But I would be seriously concerned if I thought anything illegal was going on at Menwith Hill.

"I accept there are things that have eot to be done to protect us."

LAW UNTO ITSELF: Planning rules don't apply at Menwith Hill

Harrogate Council has an annual meeting with the British commander at the base. Squadron leader Humphrey Vincent, to discuss planning issues. Local dignitaries are invited to social events such as the Independence Day ball.

But for John Eveleigh, of Otley Town Council, this tacet acceptance of the status quo is not good enough.

Coun Eveleigh is is chairman of the Menwith Hill Forum, set up to debate issues like its lack of accountability. He said: "There are many concerns about the base, including its effects on the environment as well as the fact that it is not open to democratic scrutiny. There never seems to be a satisfactory explanation for anything."

The base's distinctive white golf balls loom out of prime Yorkshire countryside, visible for miles around.

Since 1986 the number of radomes - some as big as 164ft - has grown from four to 29, hi-tech bunkers have been built and a 2.4m high security fence has gone up, and Harrogate planning authority has NO powers to stop it. Applications arc simply rubber stamped by Harrogate Planning Commitee.

Three years ago land around Menwith Hill was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The line excluding Menwith Hill was neatly drawn around it.

Cold war and peace

EVER since the Americans set up a base at Menwith Hill in the 1950s, there has been opposition to it.

Peace campaigners have long been concerned about its covert activities and many have committed their lives to raising awareness about its shadowy existence.

During the anti-nuclear protests of the 1980s and 90s there was a permanent camp in a layby on the A59 next to Menwith Hill.

Protesters routinely climbed over or cut the fence to gather as much information as they could about its activities. Some were jailed for their actions.

In 1996 new military by-laws made trespass illegal, although some still cut through security fencing and walk around the base in defiance of the law.

The peace camp has now gone - a victim of a High Court injunction by North Yorkshire County Council in 1998.

Today the voices ranged against Menwith Hill still include CND, the Menwith Hill Women's Peace Campaign and the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB) a group formed by Lindis Percy and Anni Rainbow and based in a small terrace house in Otley.

CAAB aims to raise public awareness about the work going on American bases in the UK and what it regards as a lack of accountability and legitimacy of its role.

As well as direct action and a campaign of civil disobedience, CAAB uses lawful methods to further its aims.

Working with councillors, MPs, and MEPs, CAAB monitors the base, and challenges some of its activities through the courts.

It has mounted a high court battle against Star Wars technology; opposed "illegal" by-laws at the bases; fights against false arrest; and campaigns to test the legal immunity claimed by Americans in the European Courts.

Mrs Percy said: "It was the nuclear factor that drove us to set CAAB up. The law is being abused and democracy is being abused. We are up against huge, huge structures - not just the UK and US governments but the military and the National Security Agency."

Dr David Webb, coordinator for Yorkshire CND, said: "This is something which affects everyone. It's a global issue."

Righteous zeal that fired campaigner

SHE has been accused of being a mad obsessive, locked up twice, arrested countless times and held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Lindis Percy is a health visitor, the middle-aged wife of a vicar, a grandmother, mother-of-three grown-up children - and tireless peace activist, battling to highlight the role of Menwith Hill in the "nuclear war machine".

She has confronted armed American soldiers, taken an MoD policeman to court for assault, and even spent five months in prison.

Outside an American base in Norfolk she and a colleague say they were followed by an American on a bicycle, pointing a gun at them.

When she challenged him, she was arrested. "I was thrown to the ground and handcuffed with my arms behind my back and my face was down in the dirt," said Mrs Percy.

She says she was forced into a car with an American serviceman's elbow at her throat and arrested for assault - and trying to steal the American's bicycle.

The charges were thrown out by a magistrate who noted: "The level of duress and duration of violence towards Miss Percy was shocking."

Despite all of the obstacles she remains optimistic and convinced of success.

Armed with a belief that truth is on her side, she said: "It's about persistent work and not giving up in little difficulties. We know we're right. They have done outrageous things to make us give up.

"In order to legitimise places like Menwith they have to abuse the system all the way along to do it."

MP urges a cool approach to US system

A YORKSHIRE Tory MP has cautioned against promising UK co-operation with the United States on a "Son of Star Wars" anti-missile defence system.

Skipton and Ripon MP David Curry, whose constituency includes Menwith Hill, said international implications and technological questions needed to be studied in detail.

William Hague has declared a Conservative Government would unhesitatingly support an American national missile defence system.

But Mr Curry said: "I don't quite see why we need to go over the top just yet on this. One of the things we can do is make sure the Americans have gone into the details before they do actually go for it."

Mr Curry questioned claims of threats from "rogue states," but he said claims that Yorkshire and the UK would be made a target were "pretty barmy."

Mr Curry also supported the present use of Menwith Hill. It provided information which protected British troops in action overseas, he said.

Harold Best, Leeds North West Labour MP, argued that the American system would break existing international treaty agreements on defence.

"I would be extremely anxious that this technology might be seen as a means by which you could deliver some pre-emptive strike. I think it is truly alarming, and I don't use that word lightly."

Spy pyramids of the moors

FYLINGDALES early warning station in the middle of the North York Moors is central to America's plans for a National Missile Defence system.

The Americans want to upgrade the long-range radar station to track and identify missiles fired by terrorist states.

Ever since the station was built in 1963, its mission has been to provide early warning of an imminent missile attack. Along with two other stations at Thule in Greenland and Clear in Alaska, it formed part of the US Ballistic Missile Early Warning System.

At the end of the Cold War, Fylingdales' landmark golf balls were replaced by a new 32-metre high pyramid structure contaming a mass of 2,560 aerials.

Information gathered by the radar installation is fed directly to the US Space Command centre in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.

It can provide the US with information on missile launches and monitor the flight path and targets of both satellites and incoming ballistic missiles.

If the NMD system goes ahead Fylingdales will be home to an advanced X-Band radar capable of tracking the flight path of a launched missile.


See also Secret Target in the previous issue of YEP.

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