Menwith Hill

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Place.png Menwith Hill  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Menwith Hill.jpg
TypeRoyal Air Force station
Part of USAF Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency (AFISR)

Menwith Hill is the world's largest monitoring communications station and is situated just outside Harrogate, North Yorkshire, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.

Officially called RAF Menwith Hill, but actually run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), it is part of the signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection and analysis network ECHELON operated on behalf of the five signatory states to the UK–USA Security Agreement (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, known as AUSCANZUKUS).[1]

Selected information is exchanged with the British listening post at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and a number of GCHQ staff work at the station.[2]


On 4 July 2016, Press TV reported that British activists had stormed an American military base in Yorkshire, continuing decades-long calls for its closure:

"Just like the past three decades, peace activists from all over Britain gathered outside the Menwith Hill intelligence-gathering station on the outskirts of Harrogate over the weekend, the British daily Morning Star reported Monday.
“US military bases in Britain are jeopardising the safety and security of the British public as they are threatening Russia and helping to cause carnage in the Middle East,” said Marcus Papadopoulos, an activist with the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB), which organised the event.
"With its many satellite dishes, the more than 1,000-staff base collects intelligence and transmits it to the US. Every year, protesters stage a demonstration at the base on the Saturday closest to July 4 - the day Americans celebrate their independence from England in 1776. Ironically, this year’s rally was called 'Independence from America Day', and was attended by former Labour member of the European Parliament Michael McGowan.
"McGowan gave a speech in defence of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn whose leadership had been under attack following the UK’s recent decision to leave the European Union (EU). About 52 percent of British voters partaking in the June 23 referendum opted to leave the EU.
"Labour MPs have criticised Corbyn for his inadequate contribution to the 'Remain' campaign and said they doubted he could lead the party to victory in 2020 General Election.
"The party further plunged into crisis after eleven MPs rounded on Corbyn’s leadership, joining the 12 shadow cabinet ministers who resigned earlier this month. The wave of resignations came after Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn was sacked after he told the Labour leader that he had lost confidence in his leadership.
"McGowan, however, told rally-goers that Corbyn’s election last year provided 'an historic opportunity for world peace, which should be a matter of universal celebration and an opportunity not be wasted but to be taken forward in the interest of all who share our planet.'[3]

Parliamentary debate

On 25 March 1994, Menwith Hill was debated in Parliament by Labour MP Bob Cryer and by Armed Forces Minister Jeremy Hanley.

Bob Cryer

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on this subject. In a curious way, it stems from two Ministers: the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who claimed that there was parliamentary accountability for Menwith Hill station; and the Minister for Public Transport, who found Menwith Hill station so secret that he was not even aware of it when he was a Minister at the Ministry of Defence and thought that it was a railway station. In a recent debate, he astonishingly said that his civil servants had prepared him to reply to this Adjournment debate and he then discovered that it was connected with the Ministry of Defence.

The story of Menwith Hill begins in the public area, not with a ministerial statement, debate or planted parliamentary question in the mother of Parliaments. It began on 18 July 1980 when the New Statesman published an article by Duncan Campbell and Linda Melvern entitled "The Billion Dollar Phone Tap—America's Big Ear in the Heart of Yorkshire". To suggest, as the Minister has, that there is parliamentary accountability for that spy station in the Yorkshire hills is to torture the truth. Its establishment has been accompanied by lies, evasion, deceit and a persistent refusal by Ministers to provide proper information to elected representatives in this so-called mother of Parliaments. Indeed, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has refused to allow Labour Members around the base. That is a curious change because in 1981 the former Secretary of State for Defence, Francis Pym, gave me permission to visit the base. The only qualification to that permission was a refusal to allow Duncan Campbell to accompany me because he knew something about the spying and procedures going on inside the base.

Parliamentary accountability is virtually non-existent. There is little point in asking questions when answers are refused. On 27 April 1988, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will list the agreements authorising the use of Menwith Hill communications base, Harrogate, by the United States National Security Agency. Mr Ian Stewart replied: The use of Menwith Hill by the United States Department of Defence is subject to confidential arrangements between the United Kingdom and United States Government."—[Official Report, 27 April 1988; Vol. 132, c. 203.] I asked the same question on Thursday 19 July 1990. The then Minister of State said: I have nothing to add to the answer which my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Stewart) gave to the hon. Member on 27 April 1988."—[Official Report, 19 July 1990; Vol. 176, c. 654.] I persisted again on Tuesday 16 June 1992 and asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will list the agreements governing the use of Menwith Hill by the National Security Agency of the United States of America. The Minister replied: The use of Menwith Hill by the United States Department of Defence is subject to confidential arrangements between the United Kingdom and the United States Government."—[Official Report, 16 June 1992; Vol. 209, c. 501.] In other words, elected Members of Parliament are denied information on the appropriation of more than 200 acres of 610 land by the United States Government, who now run a spy station in the heart of our country which is linked up to a global network. That is inexcusable. If there is parliamentary accountability, the moon is made of green cheese.

The Menwith Hill story starts with the purchase in 1955 of a 246-acre farm on rural moors west of Harrogate. On 15 September 1960, after the expenditure of $6.8 million, the United States army security field station opened. On 1 August 1966, control of the station was transferred to the ostensibly civilian National Security Agency of America. Francis Raven, who was the chief of G group of United States army intelligence until 1975, claimed that the takeover occurred because the army resisted eavesdropping on diplomatic and economic targets. That claim can be found on page 209 of James Bamford's excellent work "Puzzle Palace". At least the Ministry of Defence is helpful in some respects. The copy of that book has disappeared from the House of Commons Library, so it secured one from the MOD library—it was the only piece of useful information that the MOD has provided on the matter.

Menwith Hill is a spy station—a sophisticated version of the man in the dirty raincoat looking through a bedroom window or the pervert spying through a lavatory keyhole. Those who defend the station's invasion of our land, which has never been approved by Parliament, are no better. There is no glory or wonderful purpose involved in Menwith Hill. That is all the more true now that the cold war is over. Ministers justified the Menwith Hill base by saying it was part of the Cold War, but we understand that that has finished. What is their justification for the spy station now?

Yorkshire land has been taken from us to provide an eavesdropping centre that is virtually free from urban, electro-magnetic interference. That is why the station is sited at its current location. The station is part of a chain of such stations that span the globe. Their aim is to assert and retain United States supremacy. For example, exactly opposite to Menwith Hill, on the other side of the globe in a prohibited region in Australia stands the twin of Menwith Hill, Pine Gap station. When Menwith Hill opened, the United States air force security service listening post at Kirknewton near Edinburgh ceased operations and a former employee is quoted on page 210 of "Puzzle Palace" as saying: I had to keep a special watch for commercial traffic, details of commodities, what big companies were selling, like iron and steel and gas. Changes were frequent. One week I was asked to scan all traffic between Berlin and London and another week between Rome and Belgrade. Some weeks the list of words to watch for contained dozens of names of big companies. Some weeks I just had to look for commodities. All traffic — interception material — was sent back to Fort Meade in Washington. Menwith Hill took over those functions and continued to pursue military eavesdropping.

Its spying grows. The Cold War has ended, but the radomes number 21 after recent expansion. About 1,200 staff, who are mainly American, are employed there — the number has grown from 400 in 1980. United States staff are ordered never to mention the National Security Agency of America and to report all outside contacts with foreign nationals — the British people who live in the region — to ensure that supervision of such contacts is maintained. The base has a few carefully controlled public relations 611 contacts to camouflage its isolation and secrecy, but many British people continue to oppose the base, for which there is no longer any justification, if there ever was.

Throughout the time of the base's existence, Otley peace action group has held demonstrations and campaigned against it. A group of women, including Lindis Percy and Anne Lee, has focused particular attention on this foreign intrusion and has repeatedly entered the base and obtained valuable information—more power to their elbow. If Parliament will not provide accountability, people outside always will. While Parliament remains inert, it is people outside this place who have pushed Parliament along the road to democracy.

Some of the information was given in a recent Channel 4 "Dispatches" programme. The fact that domestic intrusion exists at Menwith Hill station is surely shown by the fact that British Telecom has a 32,000-telephone line capacity connection from Hunter's Stone Post Office tower along the B6451 to Otley. There cannot be 32,000 telephones on the base in simultaneous use; that defies credibility. The Hunter's Stone Post Office tower happens to be a pivotal point of more than 1 million route miles of microwave radio connections installed in Britain. The cable from Hunter's Stone Post Office tower runs directly to Menwith Hill. There has never been any parliamentary authority to allow this serious and unwarranted intrusion into our telephone network.

There are two large United States firms within the military-industrial complex: Loral Space Systems Incorporated, formerly a part of Ford, and Lockheed Aerospace. They sell much of the spy equipment and they are both involved in arms sales to third-world countries. Menwith Hill gains information that would be useful to them. Lockheed and Boeing, for example, oppose the success of Airbus Industrie, which has sold many aeroplanes round the world. Can the Minister guarantee that information about commercial matters relating to Airbus Industrie and the sales of the Airbus 300, for example, has never been picked up by Menwith Hill and has never been passed on to part of the US military-industrial complex? Both Boeing and Lockheed depend for their continued existence on military contracts from the United States Government. Our Government continue to betray our people by allowing spy stations such as Menwith Hill to be dominated and operated by the United States, without any control that is visible to the people at large.

A recent "Dispatches" programme on Channel 4 examined the matter in some detail. I shall put a few quotations on the record for Parliament. Margaret Newsham is one of the few people who have worked at Menwith Hill and spoken out. She worked there from 1977 to 1981. She says: From the very beginning of my employment, it became very much aware to me that massive security violations were taking place. All the programmes that I did work on were subject to these abuses. She is referring to interference in commercial traffic.

The programme's commentary on Margaret Newsham continues: And that wasn't all. Inside Building 36D at Menwith, she was invited to listen in on an American Senator's intercepted phone call. After leaving, she informed the US Congress about what she'd seen. Good on her. Can the Minister assure us that Menwith Hill 612 never listens in to any telephone calls of United Kingdom Members of Parliament, not directly in the United Kingdom, but bounced back over the various satellite systems?

According to the programme, only one person in the world has ever got the National Security Agency to admit intercepting his messages. He was a United States lawyer called Abdeen Jabaro who said: It took me 18 years to get my records finally destroyed. It is like Big Brother. It's like 1984, of—surveilling people all over the globe. And if you're British, if you're French, if you're Dutch, you're any—any people, anywhere you have no rights to complain about this. You have zero rights. What does it say for parliamentary democracy when people have no rights against these arrogant organisations which are given authority by a clique of people called the Government who have not come to Parliament to get any authority? It is a scandal and a disgrace, and I look forward to the Minister trying to explain that away, as he tried to at Question Time in a superficial and cliché-ridden manner.

A National Security Agency employee was quoted on the programme, but the words of an actor were used as a disguise. The Government know all about using actors' words to disguise someone. That employee was quoted as saying: Menwith Hill was responsible for intercepting 'ILC' and `NDC' traffic from 1966 to 1976. Then came the satellite intercepts, like MOONPENNY. ILC is International Leased Carrier—basically, ordinary commercial traffic. Your and my phone calls. And `NDC' is 'Non-US Diplomatic Communications'. But that job was later moved out of Menwith Hill during the 1970s, to Chicksands, where a special unit called DODJOCC was run by the NSA, direct from Menwith Hill. 'DODJOCC' stands for Department of Defense Joint Operations Centre Chicksands. Because of the high sensitivity of its work no Britons were ever allowed in. Was that high sensitivity because they were intercepting British communications? Howard Teicher, National Security Council member from 1980 to 1986, said on the programme: As a rule I believe that the United States government would never spy on the British government, and would never direct the National Security Agency to try to collect information on British government entities or individuals. However, having said that that would be the rule, I would never say never in this business because, at the end of the day, national interests are national interests. And, as close as the US and the UK are, sometimes our interests diverge. So never say never. Especially in this business. The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Admiral Stansfield Turner, explained how he met an American called Joe—of course—who said that there was information and that he was a CIA operator working secretly and spying in a country, the name of which is not given. Joe told the admiral that there were three contracts competing with United States firms. Admiral Stansfield Turner said: " What did you do about it Joe?" And he said 'Well, we don't have any policy on this, so I did nothing.' When Admiral Turner took over at the CIA a new organisation was set up inside the Department of Commerce. Its special function was to receive valuable information from US intelligence that the Department could use to America's economic benefit. It is the Office of Intelligence Liaison.

The programme makers were not allowed inside, so they used the American Freedom of Information Act which the United Kingdom, the home of the mother of Parliaments, does not have and they asked for the standing orders of the department. They claim that they show that 613 the office receives some of the unique type of intelligence collected at NSA stations such as the one at Menwith Hill. It is called sensitive compartmented information. Of course, the documents that were shown on the programme demonstrated what I have already said, that Lockheed and Laurel are integrated in the National Security Agency's operations. They are still involved in running the computers.

I shall quote again the words of Howard Teicher, the former head of the CIA. He said: The United States was always concerned about the purchase of non-American advanced armaments by the government of Saudi Arabia. We were certainly aware that by preventing a foreign government from selling something that we hoped would lead to an American entity to be able to sell, it would certainly contribute to our commercial interest, but that was not the first priority. The first priority that he spoke about was the cold war, and that has ended.

What is the first priority at Menwith Hill? Will the Minister publish the agreement that allows Menwith Hill to be operated at the base near Harrogate? Why should not the people of the United Kingdom know about these matters? In a democracy, why should they be kept from them? It is an outrage that they ever have been.

What laws govern the operation of Menwith Hill? Do the United States employees there come under United Kingdom law or does the Visiting Forces Act 1952 apply to civilians? What rights do individuals or companies have if they believe that they are being spied on by Menwith Hill? For example, can the Minister give a categorical assurance that Menwith Hill is not intercepting commercial traffic?

Finally, if the Minister is so confident about democracy, will he allow me and other Labour Members to visit the base, especially since Harrogate councillors have certainly done so?

Jeremy Hanley

I very much welcome the opportunity afforded by the debate and I should like to use the occasion to deal with some of the fundamental issues concerning Menwith Hill station, which would perhaps benefit from clarification, as well as reply to some of the individual points that have been raised. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr Cryer) said, the reason for the debate is not totally unconnected with my invitation for him to do so. We are in no way trying to quell accountability for our activities in the United Kingdom —quite the reverse.

As the House knows, I visited the station on 27 January. On that occasion, I received briefings on its current role from the senior UK and American personnel working there, including the head of station. I should make it quite clear that Menwith Hill is owned by the Ministry of Defence, but it may help if I explain the basis on which the United States forces and their civilian component are present before going on to underline the importance to the United Kingdom of the operations carried out at the station and the wider significance of the continued US presence in the United Kingdom and Europe. Finally, I shall address the issue of control and accountability for operations conducted at Menwith Hill.

Her Majesty's Government have made the site on which Menwith Hill station is situated available to the US Department of Defence. As such, the station is an integral 614 part of the worldwide network which supports United States, United Kingdom and NATO interests. The arrangement has been made in accordance with the agreement regarding the status of forces of parties to the North Atlantic treaty of 1951 and other arrangements appropriate to the relationship that exists between the United Kingdom and the United States for the purposes of our common defence.

To that end, the United States Government have been granted permission to use the site, and the administration of the facility is the responsibility of the station authorities. However, the land comprising the site is Crown freehold land. I stress that Her Majesty's Government retain ownership of that land, and it follows that we have control over the use made of the site and its facilities. The United States is aware of, and entirely accepts, that position. At no time have the arrangements between the two Governments for the use of the site conferred any rights of ownership of the land on the United States Government.

The function of Menwith Hill station is regarded by Her Majesty's Government as being of the highest importance to the country's defence strategy and is subject to confidential arrangements between the UK and US Governments. The work carried out there is highly sensitive and rightly classified as secret. I believe very firmly that it would not be in the national interest, and would indeed defeat the very purpose of that work, if I were to comment in any detail on the activities that I have seen conducted there.

United States forces have been stationed in the United Kingdom as a visible sign of the US commitment to NATO throughout the Cold War. With changing circumstances in Europe, the US Government, in consultation with all their NATO partners, are realigning their forces to take account of the evolving security situation. Although the end of the cold war has brought about changes in the focus of US and UK defence concerns, the need for Menwith Hill station to continue its role as part of a worldwide defence network remains. Moreover, as recent events have shown, we continue to live in a very uncertain world and the recent NATO summit has confirmed that the forces of our US allies remain committed to a strong presence in Europe and, therefore, in the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, I welcome the continued presence of United States personnel at Menwith Hill as a tangible sign of the close defence and security ties between the two countries. I also would not wish to underestimate the beneficial impact on the local economy of their presence. I remind the hon. Member for Bradford, South of the number of jobs directly created by the existence of the base, which was referred to at Question Time about three weeks ago. There are currently some 600 UK employees, serving at every level throughout the base, and 1,200 US personnel.

Indeed, those working at the station play a full part in the life of the local community centred on the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr Curry), who is regularly in touch with those at the base. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr Banks) recently spoke in the House of the excellent relationship between the United States personnel and the local community. I need hardly stress again the economic importance of such a base to that part of North Yorkshire. Its presence is widely welcomed and it is estimated that it contributes approximately £40 million to the local and national economies.

The station's recent construction programme was planned and started several years ago and will therefore carry through to completion. As this has been the subject of much ill-informed speculation, I take the opportunity to state categorically that there are no underground bunkers, either existing or planned, at the station. The recently completed operations centre was built into the side of a hill to take advantage of the natural topography of the ground in that location.

As I stated earlier, there are currently 1,800 personnel employed at Menwith Hill, of whom 1,200 are US Department of Defence personnel and 600 are UK nationals. I also said that I have visited the base. Nowhere was closed to me. I saw US personnel representing all four armed services—US army, navy, air force and marine corps—and Department of Defence civilians and US contractor personnel. I also saw UK personnel, as I have stated, at every level.

As in the case of other US bases in the United Kingdom where US forces are based, locally employed UK staff or Ministry of Defence civilians work in support of activities there. A detachment of Ministry of Defence police is assigned to the base. The MDP officers are responsible for security, the costs incurred being reimbursed by the United States. However, it is worth mentioning that if overtime is occasioned by the activities of protestors, including those mentioned by the hon. Member for Bradford, South, that is a direct cost to the United Kingdom. That amounted to nearly £500,000 in the last financial year. Those people are not clever. They are merely destructive and wasteful.

In addition to the support staff, senior UK personnel are present at the station. For that reason, Her Majesty's Government are in a position to be entirely confident that British staff are aware of all facets of operations at the station. They are integrated at every level. Consequently, no activity considered inimical to British interests is, or would be, permitted there. On the issue of accountability and control, I stress that Menwith Hill operates with the full knowledge and consent of the United Kingdom Government.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South mentioned visits to Menwith Hill by Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament. Previous requests for such visits and briefings have not been approved, on the grounds of disruption to the operational commitments of the base or for security reasons. I have stated that that would be the same for Conservative Members as for Labour Members.

It is not the practice of the Ministry of Defence to organise tours of the working facilities at Menwith Hill. In my reply to the House on 8 March, I said that the strictures appled equally to all. The local constituency Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon, has visited the station, but not for the purpose of receiving an operational briefing or a tour. His visit was organised as part of a programme to enable US personnel to understand better the workings of the British parliamentary system. He went there to brief, not to be briefed.

At the end of his speech, the hon. Member for Bradford, South said that local councillors had visited the station. That is true. Some 70 local councillors and 20 council officials have visited it. They were there either for social purposes or for planning purposes. They were not there to study operational purposes.

In closing, I should like to state that the personnel at Menwith Hill are carrying out an important and responsible job in difficult circumstances. They are accountable to both Her Majesty's Government and the US Government.

Mr Cryer: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hanley: No, I will not give way because I have more to say.

I remind the hon. Member for Bradford, South that we have introduced further legislation to ensure that the work of our intelligence services is more transparent than it has ever been before. However, the irresponsible actions of activists who try to disrupt legitimate activities taking place at Menwith Hill cannot be interpreted by any stretch of the imagination as being in our national interest. I am afraid that I can only despise the actions of hon. Members who seem only too happy to jump on that particular bandwagon and to indulge in damaging innuendo and downright untruths about what goes on there.

The Interception of Communications Act 1985 applies to that base as it does to any other. I hope that the hon. Member for Bradford, South realises that early-day motion 925, to which he referred, shows ignorance, prejudice, a ready desire to exploit the nation's security interest and, I might add, a total lack of any sense of humour.

I recognise that the hon. Member for Bradford, South is at a disadvantage in not having visited the site. However, most of what he peddles is ill-informed, second-hand fantasy based on prejudice against our allies which in itself is not in the national interest. His colourful language may well make good sound bites, but it is pathetic in its paranoia.[4]


Job here

Margaret NewshamProgram designer19771984Whistleblower who exposed how the communications of US politicians were being intercepted via the ECHELON surveillance system.


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