Menwith Hill

Friday, 28 September 2012

Situated awkwardly in the heart of rolling green English countryside is the United States’ largest overseas intelligence station. Surrounded by farmland and sheep, hundreds of National Security Agency staff go to work every day at RAF Menwith Hill, where they eavesdrop on communications intercepted by satellite dishes contained in about 30 huge golf ball-like domes.

Used by the NSA since the 1960s, Menwith Hill is an important spy center. But there is growing disquiet in Britain over whether intelligence gathered at the base is being used to help with the CIA’s controversial clandestine drone strikes. And the government is keeping mum.

Earlier this month, Ken Macdonald, former chief prosecutor for England and Wales, spoke out on the subject in an interview with the London Times. He told the newspaper he believed there was compelling evidence that Britain was providing the United States with information subsequently used to help with drone attacks in countries like Pakistan. Because the United Nations says that the CIA’s covert drone campaign possibly violates international law, the allegation was politically explosive. The implication is that the British government could itself be complicit in unlawful drone bombings, which in Pakistan alone since 2004 have killed up to an estimated 3,337 people, among them hundreds of civilians.

Prior to Macdonald thrusting the issue into the spotlight, it had been simmering for some time. In May, a Pakistani student whose father was killed in a suspected U.S. drone attack launched legal action against the British government in a bid to expose whether it hands over intelligence for drone attacks on terrorist suspects. And a study published in March claimed the Menwith Hill base was being expanded to “support 'real-time' U.S. military actions, including drone attacks and those carried out by special operations forces.”

What goes on inside the Menwith station is impossible to know for sure. However, according to a 2001 European Parliament report, it is part of a surveillance network called ECHELON, situated to intercept communications routed over the Indian and Atlantic oceans. Former NSA employee Margaret Newsham, who worked at Menwith Hill 20 years ago, told CBS it monitored Russian and Chinese communications (but on one occasion spied on U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond). And the Federation of American Scientists has claimed it is capable of intercepting an astonishing two million communications an hour.

If these reported capabilities are correct, it seems highly plausible that the base’s satellites are today intercepting at least some communications from the Middle East — which could help how the CIA picks its targets for drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

It’s also plausible that any intercepts gathered at Menwith play a crucial — not just contributory — role. In April, the Washington Post revealed that the White House had approved drone strikes in Yemen based solely on intelligence signatures. These are defined, according to the Post, as patterns of behavior indicative of a plot against U.S. interests “detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance.”

This brand of intelligence-led warfare has already led Germany to limit information it shares with the United States. The British government, however, does not take the same position — and is contributing to the secrecy that surrounds drone operations.

Fabian Hamilton, a member of the British Parliament, asked the government earlier this month whether Menwith Hill plays a role in the planning and deployment of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The response? He was not permitted to know. “For operational and security reasons we do not comment on the specific activities carried out at RAF Menwith Hill,” said Andrew Robathan, minister of state for the armed forces.

The secrecy is a problem, for basic democratic reasons if nothing else. It’s obvious that the British government wants to protect Menwith Hill’s activities on national security grounds, which might be justifiable to some extent. But if a foreign military is using a base in the English countryside to help conduct covert wars in far-flung lands, that’s a different matter altogether — and surely the British public has a right to know about it.

This article first appeared at

Anniversary of Occupy

Monday, 17 September 2012

It inspired people from Manchester to Moscow, led to thousands of arrests, and continues to generate debate. The Occupy protest movement, founded to oppose corporate greed and inequality, is this week celebrating its first anniversary. For many of those involved it has been an emotional and life-changing journey.

Occupy began in earnest on 17 September last year, when a group of protesters descended on New York’s Wall Street financial district. Angry over the banking industry’s role in the global financial crisis, the protesters wanted to come together to address what they called the “corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process.”

Inspired by the Arab Spring and a massive Spanish protest movement that had bloomed earlier in 2011, the Occupiers formed a make-shift tent-city a stone’s throw from Wall Street, where public assemblies and discussions were held. As the size of the camp quickly grew, international media attention soon followed. Before long, Occupy became a contagious phenomenon, spreading across America and across borders to more than 80 countries on almost every continent.

Ed Needham, 45, remembers the birth of Occupy well. The 45-year-old communications strategist was attending a conference for organisations working for progressive causes in Washington DC. He was approached by an activist who told him about a new protest called Occupy Wall Street in New York, which had begun a few days earlier. He decided to visit, was immediately impressed by what he saw, and joined in with the protest.

“For me Occupy represented a reaction to where we were as a society,” Needham says, recalling his first impressions. “I just thought that this was an extremely historical moment and that instead of some fly by night political party initiative or something, that this was the beginning of a social movement. And everything that has happened since has affirmed that.

“Rather than people coming together under the many different organisations or political entities, people were coming together under a much larger banner. It happened in a way that I think really captured the imagination of where we were – and still are – as a nation in terms of what has happened to us over the last 30 years.”

A crucial aspect of the Occupy movement was its cross-generational appeal. In the first few days it was characterised mainly as a youth movement, but as it grew that changed. Organised labour groups eventually got involved, as did senior citizens, war veterans, high-profile academics, musicians – even people who had worked within the financial sector. “At that point it just took off because people could no longer characterise the people down at the square as a bunch of hippie kids,” Needham says.

To date, there have been more than an estimated 7000 arrests of activists participating in Occupy protests across the US. The main camp in New York was evicted in November, but today the movement continues. The activists are currently collaborating on international actions to mark the one-year anniversary, and they still meet regularly and organise protests outside banks and run “teach-in” educational groups about economic issues.

Though some activists are pessimistic about the level of change they have managed to achieve, most believe that at the very least they have managed to shape mainstream political discussion by putting more focus on problems related to inequality. New splinter groups have also taken shape due to Occupy, with activists using different protest tactics to voice their discontent about the current status quo.

Los Angeles-based artist Alex Schaefer garnered media attention last year for expressing his indignation at the greed of the banking sector in a creative manner – by painting pictures of banks on fire. Schaefer is hugely frustrated at how little has been done in America to hold the financial sector to account for bringing the country’s economy to its knees, and he recently started a new trend that is beginning to catch on in various cities. He calls it “chalking” – a form of civil disobedience that involves drawing information about bank wrongdoing in chalk on pavements outside bank buildings.

“It needs to be a constant reminder,” Schaefer says. “It’s a different protest than a march. This is a way to just casually do it consistently. I wish every bank would wake up to this on this sidewalk every morning.”

So far Schaefer has been arrested once for vandalism, but the charges were eventually dropped. He says the tactic was in part borne out of a deep dissatisfaction that nothing was being done to address the issues raised by the Occupy movement.

“Nothing has changed, it’s ridiculous,” he says. “Occupy is an uphill battle. The problem is that Occupy was only a fraction of the population. There are so many more people out there that need to get upset before a change is going to happen.”

In England, activists speak of the same frustration. Occupy spread to London in October last year, with a large encampment established outside St Paul’s Cathedral near the city’s stock exchange. Small campsites eventually formed in a number of cities across Britain – from Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland to Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, and Sheffield in England. But most of the camps were either evicted or slowly disbanded as the cold bite of winter set in – and some protesters feel that they failed to agree on a coherent message across the different sites.

“Even from London to the regions there was a huge difference in scope and aims,” says Daniel, 34, an activist from Liverpool who spent time at Occupy protests in England and America. “I felt aspects I was experiencing at occupations abroad, particularly in the US, did not translate locally. What we saw regionally was more a kind of nebulous protest, and the camps ended up quite detached from the global movement.”

Daniel says that he found Occupy in London to be “quite brilliant” and well organised. An empty office block that was squatted by the activists in London’s financial district and turned into a giant makeshift community centre called the Bank of Ideas also impressed him. However, in Liverpool he says groups including the Socialist Workers’ Party “appeared intent on co-opting, while not overtly supporting the movement, which was predictable and divisive.” And at some Occupy camps he visited, the initial energy which had catalysed the movement became diluted.

Other protesters had similarly negative experiences of camps outside London. In Birmingham, activist Tom Holness said the camp had included people who believed in “Jewish banking conspiracies” and a member of the far-right English Defence League, which dissuaded new people from joining. “The Facebook pages were a mess of arguments and conspiracy theories and that put a lot of people off,” he says.

Yet despite its flaws, Occupy as a movement is likely to persist in some form at least for the foreseeable future. The issues driving it, such as rising unemployment and a growing disparity between rich and poor, have not been addressed. And many activists, though they are tired and frustrated, are still intent on pushing for change.

In Spain, the movement that preceded Occupy may offer a glimpse of what is to come. Thousands took to the streets across the country last summer to protest against austerity measures, corporate power and political corruption, camping out in public squares and holding lengthy debates in a bid to find solutions to economic problems. Calling themselves the Indignados (the indignant) they continue to organise demonstrations and political actions, weary but energised by groups in other parts of the world.

“It’s been absolutely inspiring to see how some other movements have been out in the States and in London and everywhere,” says Beatriz Pérez, a 31-year-old activist who has been involved with the Indignados movement since it began in May last year. “We share the sense of frustration and rage with a lot of other people.”

As a result of the Indignados movement, locally organised public assemblies are now held regularly in cities including Madrid and Barcelona for anyone to come and address grievances. Though unemployment is soaring in Spain and the protesting has not managed to achieve substantive political changes, it has brought people together in a way that has in itself had a positive and lasting impact.

“Life in Spain, in Madrid, has changed a little bit for everyone that has been in the movement,” says Pérez. “I feel like in my city there is a lot more love out there – it’s a romantic thing to say but that’s how I feel. It’s less individualistic here than it was. And I think that has got to be a very good thing for our lives.”