Menwith Hill: why is the United States set to increase its secret spying capability at Yorkshire surveillance base and how much will it cost?

By Dave Hammond,
Published by the Yorkshire Post, 10 February 2022

It is little secret that the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) remains the primary intelligence gathering partner of the United States’ National Security Agency but concerns are mounting about the planned expansion of Menwith Hill – so why is it happening?

“I was determined to find out if an American system of mass surveillance existed and, if it did, how it functioned…the information I planned to disclose about my country’s secret regime of mass surveillance was so explosive, and yet so technical, that I was as scared of being doubted as I was of being misunderstood.”

Edward Snowden, 2019

In his explosive 2019 book Permanent Record Edward Snowden infamously blew the lid off the scale and purpose of mass state surveillance. In describing how, when working for the United States’ security agencies – before any of us really knew who was listening to our private lives and to what extent – he spoke of a worrying creep of democracies towards data-driven autocracies. Quite unnervingly, Snowden talks about the focal point of his unnease: My ultimate destination, he says, was the exact point where the state casts its eye on a human being, whilst the human being remains unaware.

Anyone curious about the US surveillance base should proceed with caution and not attemp to gain entry without authorisation.

He goes on:

“The waning days of 2012 brought grim news: the few remaining legal protections that prohibited mass surveillance by some of the most prominent members of the Five Eyes network were being dismantled. The Governments of both Australia and the UK were proposing legislation for the mandatory recording of telephony and internet metadata. This was the first time that notionally democratic governments publicly avowed the ambition to establish a sort of surveillance time machine, which would enable them to technologically rewind the events of any person’s life for a period going back months or even years…Though these laws were justified as public safety measures, they represented such a breathtaking intrusion into the daily lives of the innocent that they terrified – quite rightly – even the citizens of other coutries who didn’t think themselves affected (perhaps because their own Governments chose to surveil them in secret).”

Snowden pensively reflects on an encounter with Ira ‘Gus’ Hunt, the Chief Technology Officer of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He recalls a presentation by Mr Hunt – still available to view on YouTube to this day – at which he told a room of journalists:

Gus told the journalists that the agency (Government) could track their smartphones, even when they were turned off. That the agency could surveil every single one of their communications.

In his book Permanent Record CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden warned that the innocent were having their whole lives recorded in a way that could be rewinded in a time machine and used against them at any time at the whim of the state.

Snowden describes how in that moment he was ‘floored’; here was the CTO of the CIA stating without fear or shame that our TVs are capturing our conversations, our smartphones betraying our trust, our landlines overheard – and nobody seemed to flinch in that room.

Go watch the video; Mr Hunt goes on to say that even your humble FitBit can give away your identity. Ponder this for a moment; he says: “you can – 100% guaranteed absolutely – be identified by your gait – how you walk. Now this could be a good thing for security reasons – ie your bank uses your gait [like a finger print] to identify you but what if you don’t want to be found? What if you need to protect yourself? Maybe you don’t want your gait data identifying where you [to friends and potential enemies alike] are all of the time?’

But this is the key. He adds: ‘what we [CIA] do is this: we fundamentally try to collect absolutely everything [all human communications] and hang on to it, forever.’ For. Ever.

Razor wire and CCTV protect the golf ball spy cameras intercepting intelligence from around the world.

So, what has any of this to do with RAF Menwith Hill – Field Station 8613 – the secretive and now expanding secret spying operation based in North Yorkshire, UK?

On 8th February, 2022, longtime campaigner and advocate of human freedoms Lindis Percy wrote a letter to The Yorkshire Post that said this:

“The news that the American base at Menwith Hill, and other US bases in the UK, are to be upgraded is deeply concerning. I say this because many of us, since the base first arrived in the early 1950s, have worked to expose and reveal the truth as to what is actually going on at Menwith Hill.

The base, occupied and controlled by the American authorities is shrouded in secrecy, public scrutiny and bereft of any semblance of accountability. The outward appearance of RAF Menwith Hill gives the impression that this base is accountable to the UK government. This is far from the truth and the public are being duped.​

The American National Security Agency and the National Reconnaisance Office operate Menwith Hill and have full control of the deceitful activities operating there.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is in possession of the land but all the buildings and infrastructure are owned by the American authorities.

What they do puts all of our security at risk and it is high time that this US base is brought to account.”

The letter from Lindis Percy appears to have been prompted by reports that the US intends expanding its spying and surveillance capabilities at Menwith Hill, just outside Harrogate, to the tune of $40m.

The biggest US security partner (the UK) outside of the United States itself – one viewed with suspicion locally by some in Yorkshire – was subject to a question by Alex Sobel, Labour MP for Leeds North West. He asked the Secretary of State for Defence, how much the planned upgrades at (a) NSA/NRO Menwith Hill and (b) USAF Fairford will cost; and (b) who will pay for those upgrades.

The reply from James Heappey was: Planned upgrades at Menwith Hill and Fairford will be funded by the United States. An approximation of planned upgrade costs is:

Menwith Hill: $40 million

Fairford: $300 million

The British and US Governments maintain that this investment is one in the joint national interests and safety of our respective nations. Campaigners and human rights groups remain concerned about the scale, reach of the intellignece gathering at Menwith Hill and, more pertinently, the intent that goes with it.

See: Orignal Article