26 February 2012
Menwith Hill is the jewel in the crooked crown of a global electronic spy network run by the United States to support its military power projection.
Situated close to the town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire and occupying nearly a full square mile of high moorland, its official designation is RAF Menwith Hill.
In reality, it is run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), the most powerful and secretive intelligence organisation in the world, with its headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, near Washington DC.
As satellite communications expanded during the 1960s and '70s, the base's essential characteristics took shape.
Giant receiver dishes were constructed to intercept transmissions directly from commercial satellites, combined with those transferred from the fleet of US military satellites deployed in high, geo-synchronous orbit to capture microwave transmissions that leaked into space.
In order to mask their direction and angle of elevation, these dishes are hidden under the infamous golf ball radomes - some 33 in total now - that dominate the landscape.
During the cold war the focus was on the interception of military and diplomatic communications between the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies but shifted to the Persian Gulf after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Although the radomes provide an overarching physical presence, the operations capacity on site is more significant.
A range of NSA and US Department of Defence specialists in cryptanalysis - the decoding of messages - linguistics, etc is supported by technical specialists from major US arms corporations, including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, with expertise in satellite and computer-related hardware and software.
Vast quantities of intercepted data are processed through supercomputers to identify key words and phrases for further analysis.
Any intelligence "product" is transferred to Fort Meade alongside those from the other NSA bases strategically located around the world to provide a truly global coverage.
Four main areas of activity have been priortised at the base.
First is traditional signals intelligence work, which was used in the first Gulf war, for example, to identify Iraqi communications headquarters prior to military strikes.
Second, commercial spying such as the interception of tenders for international contracts by European and British-based companies, the details of which are passed on to US-based corporations for commercial advantage.
Third, Menwith Hill has responsibility for the Space-Based Infrared Satellites programme which is intended to provide early warning of missile launches and trajectories as part of a global anti-ballistic missile system initiated by George W Bush and enthusiastically endorsed by the Obama administraton,
Last, and most significantly, a multibillion-dollar investment programme codenamed Project Phoenix has taken place at Menwith Hill over the last 10 years to support new forms of US warfare.
Technological innovations in both electronic communications interceptions and satellite imagery provide real-time surveillance of targets for covert warfare and special operations, including the use of remote-control weaponry like "unmanned aerial vehicles," more commonly known as drones.
Capacity at the base has doubled and the numbers of specialised personnel increased so that the base can be fully operational as an integrated-intelligence hub by 2015.
One way the US and the Ministry of Defence attempt to legitimise the base's continued and expanding presence is to argue that it has brought significant economic benefit to the local community through the expenditure of US and British personnel working at the base and through local contracting.
But Menwith Hill is run as a US enclave and a dollar economy.
Supplies of food and other consumables, including fuel, are flown in or shipped in from the US and sold at heavily subsidised prices through facilities on site that are exclusively reserved for the use of US personnel.
Also all high-technology work in satellite and computer-related programmes, which is some of the most sophisticated being carried out anywhere in Britain at present, are reserved for personnel from US arms corporations with security clearance.
The US authorities' figures indicating that the base generated £163 million of expenditure in the local community in 2010 are grossly misleading.
Over 50 per cent of this figure relates to US personnel salaries and takes no account of the proportion of those salaries repatriated to the US, nor that spent on subsidised US goods and services purchased inside the base.
And most British contractor work was placed with companies outside the local area but was classified as local expenditure by the US authorities.
Nor does this reflect the true cost to Britain of servicing US bases.
Under the terms of what remains a confidential cost-sharing arrangement, but now partly revealed by answers to freedom of information requests, Britain pays for infrastructure support on any new building or major upgrading of buildings inside US bases.
In Menwith Hill's case, this has cost the MoD more than £7m over the last five years.
Menwith Hill is also run as a tax-free zone and the British government forgoes all direct and indirect taxes.
These include customs and excise duties and VAT on goods and services, business-rate council tax for the local public services used by the base and both income tax and council tax for all US personnel living in the local area, including those from the US arms corporations, some of whom will be on six-figure salaries.
Although difficult to quantify, these foregone taxes - not only for Menwith Hill but for all US bases located in Britain - will be substantial, running into tens of millions of pounds a year, at a time when the public services provided by the British taxpayer and from which US personnel benefit are facing deep cuts in funding.
The least that could be done is for the details of this cost-sharing arrangement to be made public through Parliament so that the full extent of these costs to Britain can be assessed.
Quite simply, the case put forward by the US authorities is propaganda masquerading as economics in order to promote a benign view of the base and its relationship to local communities.
But there is also a thinly disguised threat that closure would bring severe economic disruption, so discouraging any critical analysis of the base locally for fear of unemployment and loss of income.
Yet evidence from previous base closure and reuse exercises, such as the NSA base Bad Aibling in Germany which was closed in the early 2000s, demonstrates how new manufacturing and service industries can provide a broader range of skilled work on site to compensate for the loss of ancillary work presently carried out by British personnel at Menwith Hill.
The need for exposure of the secret state has never been more urgent.
The NSA with its 60,000 personnel and $15 billion annual budget sits at the apex of a military-industrial intelligence complex with the capacity to carry out surveillance of all forms of electronic communications.
This extraordinary accumulation of power and resources by the secret state and by giant US arms corporations, coupled with emergency domestic security legislation in the "war against terror," provides the framework for anti-democratic and authoritarian forms of political control.
Given the scale of the global investment that is taking place in these new forms of warfare, it is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that Barack Obama is a far more effective imperial president than Bush.
Whereas Bush embarked on illegal invasions through overwhelming military force and what became increasingly unpopular long-term occupations, Obama has adopted a low-profile form of preventive war without invasion, while publicly emphasising the commitment to troop withdrawals.
So while carrying out an increased range of military actions that involve drone attacks, special forces operations and various clandestine snatch squads and assassination attacks in a growing number of countries, and with the inevitable consequence of killing and injuring thousands of innocent civilians as a result, the Obama administration can claim to be reducing the US overseas presence and remaining out of "wars" as traditionally defined.
At the same time it continues to invest in major conventional arms programmes, the modernisation of nuclear weapons and now a comprehensive, if futile and destabilising, ballistic missile defence programme at the cost of trillions of dollars.
Menwith Hill is the NSA's leading regional hub for this intelligence-led warfare, but because of the shroud of secrecy that covers the base's operations, there is no accountability through the British Parliament and very little democratic debate as to the legality and strategic rationale for these forms of warfare being supported from British territory, whereby the US takes onto itself the roles of judge, jury and executioner.
By lifting the lid on this electronic "death star" and its illegal
activities, the peace movement can lead a sustained campaign to bring about
its early closure as part of a broader disarmament programme that sees the
removal of all US overseas bases around the world, while supporting conversion
of these sites for socially useful forms of work.