Why is Menwith Hill, the NSA's largest overseas spying base, being expanded?
A planning application recently submitted to a local borough council in England by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) reveals that the highly controversial Menwith Hill spy base is due to be significantly expanded.
The proposed extension will see a ‘communications container compound’ installed “towards the north of the establishment, outside of the existing base operations area.”
“Development across the site is wide-ranging, comprising a mix of residential, commercial and operational structures set towards the southern edge of the Yorkshire Dales on the edge of the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty,” a ‘design and access statement’ submitted by the MoD declares.
Menwith Hill, located near the town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire, is a vital component of Washington’s global spying apparatus, which illegally collects signals intelligence (SIGINT) in industrial quantities from every corner of the globe. Investigative legend Duncan Campbell has dubbed the site, “the biggest tapping centre in the world.”
The base has ever-bloated since London purchased 100 hectares of land on the site specifically for US SIGINT use, back in 1954. Soon, it had more than doubled in size, and between the 1970s and today, its population of imposing radomes – structures resembling golf balls - has grown from just four to more than 30. Staff numbers have concurrently increased too – a testament to the exponential growth in satellite communications, and thus the significance of SIGINT, during this period.
While nominally a Royal Air Force base, it is controlled and operated by the US National Security Agency (NSA). According to official Whitehall figures, as of November 2017, there were 1,205 personnel at Menwith Hill – the majority of them US military and intelligence personnel, contractors and civilians, although potentially hundreds of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) staffers are also present, helping their foreign counterparts circumvent legislation stateside prohibiting them from spying on US citizens.
Underlining the split loyalties of those who work at Menwith Hill, the planning application was filed by a representative of the MoD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation, whose contact details include both UK government and US Air Force email addresses.
That the number of GCHQ staff deployed at Menwith Hill has never been publicly confirmed reflects the intense veil of secrecy shrouding the base. London refuses to confirm or deny what if any GCHQ operations are carried out at the site, and a leaked document indicates that NSA operatives posted there are instructed to maintain an “established cover story” – the existence of which is in itself categorized as top secret – that the base “provides rapid radio relay and conducts communications research.”
“It is important to know the established cover story…and to protect the fact that [Menwith Hill] is an intelligence collection facility [emphasis added]. Any reference to satellites being operated or any connection to intelligence-gathering is strictly prohibited,” the file states. “Upon entering the UK and passing through customs, you may tell the customs official that you are a US government civilian, US military member, or US contractor going to Menwith Hill to work.”
Whitehall’s omertà in all matters involving Menwith Hill was very much on display in February 2020, when Labour MP Alex Sobel asked the MoD whether the base had played any role in the illegal assassination of Iranian Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani via US drone in Iraq the month prior. A minister curtly responded that, “in accordance with long-standing policy, we do not comment on the details of the operations carried out at RAF Menwith Hill in providing intelligence support.”
Sobel’s suspicions were well founded. The Intercept has revealed the NSA uses the installation to aid “a significant number of capture-kill operations” across the Middle East, operating eavesdropping technology that can harvest data from more than 300 million emails and phone calls a day, and pinpointing targets with extraordinary precision. A Yorkshire CND report suggests Menwith Hill also assists military actions including “special forces operations and various clandestine snatch squads and assassination attacks.”
A recent expert study published by the Menwith Hill Accountability Campaign concluded it was “probable” the base had provided data that was subsequently used to target and murder Soleimani. Nine other people were killed in that unlawful strike – a common feature of US drone warfare. In 2014, rights group Reprieve calculated that in attempting to slay 41 specific, named individuals, Washington had consequently murdered 1,147 people – a rate of 28 deaths for every target. In one case, it reportedly took seven drone strikes for the US to finally get its man, and in the process, some 164 people died, including 11 children.
Despite the base’s operations potentially making London complicit in industrial-scale unlawful killing worldwide, Harrogate Borough Council approved the planning application for the new extension without argument. Protestations were lodged by just one individual - Anne Lee, a local activist who has long-campaigned against Menwith Hill. She argued that the proposal was “ambiguous and contains misinformation,” and “may also constitute a health hazard.”
Noting that blueprints provided by the MoD depicted “what appears to be a windowless shipping container,” the resident speculated that the seemingly uninhabitable structure would house new computer systems, not personnel – “although US forces are known to have accommodated prisoners inside such.”
No details of the compound’s purpose were provided in the documents, although tantalizingly, the MoD statement notes that the “operation of the facility will be carried out by the existing staff,” meaning no new jobs will be created after the works are complete. In other words, this new resource will merely extend Menwith Hill’s existing, already sizable bulk-data collection and targeting capabilities.
Furthermore, Lee notes that the installation will be sited in Menwith Hill’s ‘Mission Support area’, which suggests it’s an extension to that section, the remit of which is
“interception and collection of data from the telecommunications service providers' fibre-optic cables.”
“The container would appear to be intended for use as a data store, an extension to the Phoenix Tier 111 Data Repository. If Phoenix has reached capacity, then this could be a temporary solution, prior to the submission of plans for a further expansion of the ops buildings - the thin end of the wedge. The NSA must by now be desperate for space,” she wrote.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the installation will be a massive 45 meters tall and 10 meters wide, comprising a “container and fuel tank within a fenced compound,” replete with “security lighting and cameras, lighting protection and new tarmac access road.” Constructing it will necessitate the “stripping of vegetation [and] installation of [a] security fence,” a variety of electrical work, the extension of Menwith Hill’s overall transportation network, and the creation of new security camera towers.
Various local species of plant, as well as mammals and reptiles – including badgers, bats, barn owls, crayfish, great crested newts, and otters – are also forecast to be affected by the works.
That more UK citizens haven’t taken umbrage with Menwith Hill’s latest improvement is nonetheless understandable. After all, to date the application hasn’t once been mentioned, let alone critically questioned, in the mainstream media, and the country’s elected representatives have likewise failed to publicly utter a word about it.
Indeed, they themselves may well be entirely in the dark as to the upgrade’s purpose. As the resident’s complaint notes, there is “no point” contacting the Defence Infrastructure Organisation representative named in the planning documents for further clarity, “as he will have no clue why the NSA wants this container or for what it would be used.”
The very existence and operation of RAF Menwith Hill necessitates a strict conspiracy of silence being maintained at all times. After all, if a vast foreign military and intelligence base is to operate with total, unquestioned, indomitable impunity on British soil, it must do so without any transparency, accountability or debate whatsoever, because the slightest disclosure might mean greater domestic opposition to its maintenance – and we can't have that, can we?