3 June 2014
Update 3 June: This article was updated to include comment from GCHQ and a link to evidence Campbell used to verify his source material.
It's been alleged that GCHQ's Middle East base, where it extracts communications information from regional undersea cables, is located in Seeb, a coastal village northeast of Muscat, Oman. This information has been concealed since August 2013, when details of the strategic operation were originally released by the Independent. The news surfaced around about the same time the UK government was piling the pressure on the
Guardian over its Snowden leaks, pressure that culminated in the destruction of the paper's hard drives storing that information. When Wired.co.uk asked Duncan Campbell -- the investigative journalist behind the Register article revealing the Oman location -- if he too had copies proving the allegations, he responded: "I won't answer that question -- given the conduct of the authorities." "I was able to look at some of the material provided in Britain to the Guardian by Edward Snowden last year," Campbell, who is a forensic expert witness on communications data, tells us.
The timing of the release is obviously of note. The Register decided to detail the information on the one-year anniversary of Snowden's initial revelations. This is despite "some media organisations" seemingly caving to government pressure and refusing to publish the Oman information.
In his article, Campbell details the location, an aerial image of the base and details of the operation's codenames.
Campbell pointed Wired.co.uk to one of the pieces of corroborating evidence he has sourced, a website collating surveillance bases across the globe. It includes an Oman "Comms Link Site 1" in Seeb, operated by the Sultan of Oman's Air Force and "also connected to a nearby NSA/Echelon monitoring station" -- a signals intelligence collection and analysis network.
The whole operation was referred to as Circuit and the Overseas Processing Centre 1 (OPC-1), and Seeb is just one of three bases extracting communications data from the cables going from the Strait of Hormuz (between the United Arab Emirates and Iran) into the Persian/Arabian Gulf in the heart of the Middle East. These access points, he says, are classified three levels above Top Secret and referred to as Strap 3. Campbell alleges the Timpani base is well-placed to monitor Iraqi communications, while Clarinet in the south is well positioned for Yemen. The location of the third base Guitar, was not given.
The original Independent article detailed how huge swathes of emails, telephone calls and web traffic were being gathered from the secret Middle Eastern hub. The intelligence was then sent direct to GCHQ's UK headquarters for analysis and was thought of as an "early warning" system for preventing terror attacks originating in the region. Towards the end of last year, further investigations off the back of the Snowden leaks revealed a surveillance station in Eastern Cyprus was being used to intercept phone and internet records. Again, the Guardian had held back the location of this base, but other papers carried out an investigation to unravel the evidence.
Campbell refers also to last year's revelations that the likes of BT and Vodafone were allegedly on the GCHQ payroll, helping them intercept information. But of course they are not operators in the Strait of Hormuz so it's unclear what further assistance -- if any -- the government agency received.
Oman has excellent relations with the UK -- as well as contracts with UK defence company BAE Systems -- and generally good relations with its neighbours. But Campbell is adamant that there is absolutely no reason this type of information cannot be revealed. "This is not something that affects national security," he told Wired.co.uk. "The information has been reported before, and the site as you can see is perfectly visible and it's one of many things the UK government and GCHQ sought to suppress from entering the debate."
Attempts to publish this type of material before, is something he says were met with "a wave of threats and intimidation; threats of injunctions", culminating -- in the case of the
Guardian -- with the destruction of the Snowden hard drives, "when it was well understood it existed in at least three major cities around the world". "It was not for the protection of national security."
In the Register he writes that after the
Guardian withheld the additional details about the base, the pressure was off and there was no impending punishment for publishing "Strap 1" level security data.
Campbell has been breaking exclusives for more than three decades. He was in fact the first journalist to reveal the existence of GCHQ in 1976. He has been releasing revelations about the security services ever since. Today, one year on from Snowden's game-changing leaks, he is not all that hopeful that the UK will make the moves it needs to to assuage the public's fears. "Change in the US has started to happen," he says. "Change in the UK seems to be happening on a pace that could be measured in parts of millionths. Change in Europe hasn't proceeded very fast."
In response to Wired.co.uk's enquiries, GCHQ said: "It is a
longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters.
Furthermore, all of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict
legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised,
necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including
from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services
Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All
our operational processes rigorously support this position."