Who Shall Watch The Watchers?

Menwith-hill-radomesThere have often been rumours of this kind of espionage at international conferences, but it is highly unusual for hard evidence to confirm it and spell out the detail. – The Observer (London) commenting on the implications of the latest ‘whistleblowing’ spy scandal involving Edward Snowden, a US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor.

Well… not exactly… indeed, when I researched the NSA spy network seven years ago, there was already reams of evidence – including both formal Congressional and European Parliament inquiries. The key point being, as the London Observer article oh-so-tentatively suggests, that spying is not about protecting ‘us’ from terrible people, but rather about grubby political tricks and commercial advantage.

Here’s what I wrote about Menwith Hill then (in a book about US foreign policy called No Holiday: 80 Places You Don’t Want to Visit)…

“From a distance they seem like giant golf balls, carelessly struck, ending up in the heather, far from the green. Incongruous, yes, but not careless. For the golf balls are the latest hi-tech protection covers for hiding and protecting satellite dishes and radio masts. Well worth photographing, particularly in the summer when the heather is in bloom, albeit not from the road, as you may be arrested.

The site covers over 500 acres, and is surrounded by a barbed wire security fence equipped with watchtowers, US style, but patrolled by the UK’s Ministry of Defense doggies. By night, a glow from the ever-burning lights of its operation rooms and high-tech listening equipment gives the base a more sinister ambience

Menwith Hill is the biggest spy station in the world. Inside, over a thousand (mostly bearded) secret agents sort through endless millions of intercepted phone calls, faxes and, nowadays, emails. It searches tirelessly for business, government and occasionally (or so at least the papers tell us) terrorist secrets.

There is an operation center and residential area of houses and shops, including a chapel and a sports center. If you were allowed in, which you will not be, it might make quite a good holiday camp, in the highly marshaled spirit of Butlins, albeit with “red berets” on the military police instead of the famous “red coats.”

Notwithstanding that, by the end of the 1990s, the number of staff there had risen to nearly 1,500 American engineers, physicists, mathematicians, linguists and computer experts, alongside several hundred UK staff from the Ministry of Defense—mainly cleaners, groundskeepers and tea-makers and stuff like that. In fact, “RAF Menwith Hill” is home to more people than the whole of MI5, Britain’s secret intelligence agency.

That name “RAF Menwith Hill,” after the original World War II airbase, is misleading—it is not a British airbase. The government leases it directly to the US National Security Agency who call it “Field Station F83.” And being in the middle of England hasn’t dented local people’s sense that it is there like a friendly guard dog, patiently watching out for those Russian missiles…

Although apparently situated in the middle of nowhere, that is to say eight miles west of Harrogate, the bugging center is actually strategically situated neatly at the heart of the UK telecommunications network, not least because the UK government obligingly constructed this to US specifications in the 1950s and ’60s. Additionally, the UK itself has a special role in much of the rest of Europe’s transatlantic communications.

“Field Station F83” was officially opened in 1960, almost unnoticed, but lost some of its anonymity in the mid-1970s when the US Congress investigated its activities, and found that it was intercepting millions of transatlantic phone calls, flaunting the US citizens’ right to privacy. Congress, however, was reassured that the Constitution was being scrupulously followed and US citizens were never listened to. Except maybe by accident.

In 2001 the European Parliament, following a report from its own secretive organization based in Luxembourg, “STOA,” sent a delegation to Big Brother to find out whether the Americans had used intercepted information to derail European business. Boeing and McDonnell Douglas were suspected of having beaten France to a $6 billion contract to supply Airbus jets to Saudi Arabia, using intercepts of faxes and phone calls. The French also complained that a French electronics company, Thomson-CSF, had lost a billion dollar project to supply Brazil with a radar system after someone intercepted and passed details of the negotiations to an American firm, Raytheon. Alas, the delegation went home empty-handed. The NSA said that what it got up to in Yorkshire was simply too secret to be discussed with them. And, after all, conversations can be overheard!

Funnily enough, the British Government itself is one of the main targets of the US monitoring. The whisper is that during the Suez crisis the US successfully pre-empted the British and French plans using information thus overheard. Certainly the “Fink Report,” the one and only Congressional investigation into FSF83 in 1975, notes that the “NSA monitors the traffic of specific countries including Great Britain, our closest ally. There was a whole bank of machines [and] a whole team of men whose only job was to read and process intercepted British communications.”

Actually, the report was supposed to be secret too, but parts were released accidentally in 1978 as part of another inquiry…

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2 Comments on "Who Shall Watch The Watchers?"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Jun 27, 2013 at 6:37 pm |

    Uncle Homeland is a paranoid conspiracy nut

    “The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview.

    As Richard Hofstadter wrote in his seminal 1965 book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” conspiracy theories, especially those involving meddlesome foreigners, are a favorite pastime in this nation.


  2. I see this too in my much-thumbed copy of THE Guide….

    No Holiday: NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland, USA
    Trip 29: The brain behind the world’s largest intelligence gathering operation.

    How to Get There

    Fly to Baltimore-Washington International Airport which these buildings are
    very close to. albeit, hidden.

    What to see

    The National Security Agency is still one of the shadowiest of the US intelligence agencies. Until a few years ago it’s existence was a secret (until 1989 the buildings didn’t even have so much as a sign in front of them ) and its charter and any mention of its duties are still classified.

    But it is the world’s largest intelligence gathering operation. It’s 20 000 employees patiently sift ‘signals intelligence’ (or ‘Sigint’ as they like to put it) and information security (Infosec) for the US government. It’s biggest overseas supplier of data is Menwith Hill, Yorkshire

    During the Watergate affair, it was revealed that NSA, in collaboration with Britain’s secret listening post, GCHQ, had routinely intercepted the international communications of prominent anti-Vietnam war leaders such as Jane Fonda and Dr Benjamin Spock. Another target was former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. President Carter had to order the NSA to stop obtaining “back door” intelligence about US political figures through its UK bugging operations.

    So today things have opened up a bit. Now everyone, not just the enemy, knows about the NSA, and its base in Maryland. And there are a number of buildings there to traipse round, at least the outsides of, all in the brutalist office block style the US government specialises in. In fact, the style ranges from mock-Greek of the Admin building to a more modernist quasi- nuclear power plant chic for the computer centres. None of it is at all interesting, least of all the ‘National Cryptologic Museum’, located next to the headquarters building of the National Security Administration.

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