Your Influence Counts ... Use It! The SPOTLIGHT by Liberty Lobby

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NSA listens from Station F83

  • A vast "communications" complex in the UK, known as Station F83, is really an incredible surveillance facility occupied by NSA agents and the U.S. military.
By Christopher Petherick

MENWITH HILL, England -- Two weeks ago, The SPOTLIGHT reported on the vast signals intelligence (SIGINT) surveillance system known as Echelon which has the technology to tap into every conceivable form of domestic and international communication.

One of the largest facilities in Echelon -- and arguably one of the most public -- is located on a British military base at Menwith Hill in England near the town of Harrogate, called Station F83.

According to Jon Pike, a director at the Federation of American Scientists, the cover story for the facility is that Menwith Hill is "a communications relay center." Interestingly enough, this base was awarded the National Security Agency's (NSA) "Station of the Year" prize in 1991 for its role in the Gulf War.

Critics of the base point out that the same countries involved in a secret alliance dating back to 1948 and privy to information provided by Menwith Hill, "were the same countries prepared to support American military action against Iraq."

The history of this facility is no doubt complicated, rooted in secret agreements and alliances between the United States and Britain.

The Menwith facility is owned by the British Ministry of Defense, but began with an alliance called UKUSA, banding together the intelligence agencies of the United States and England. An arrangement between the two governments dated Dec. 11,1951, stated that the United States could "remain in occupation until this agreement, unless otherwise excepted, is either terminated or modified."

As of 1956, the U.S. Army Security Agency controlled the facility, but the station did not actually become operational until 1959. Shortly thereafter, in 1966, the operation was turned over to NSA with the Army 713th MI Group handling the daily administration.

Much of the information that has been gathered on this facility has come from political activist in England, angry at U.S. military troops and NSA officials occupying British land and snooping on, among other, Europeans.

Until recently, since the land was "officially" British, British citizens could "jump the fence," break into the operations buildings and steal files facing mere trespassing charges. However, with the recent addition of razor wire on the fences and changes in the British courts, trespassers have seen much stiffer penalties. In one case, British officials recently jailed one activist, Tracy Hart, for breaking into the base more than 300 times.

The UK-based organization, Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases, headed by Anni and Lindis Indigo, is one such group that keeps a constant vigil over the ever-expanding base.

Through such activists as the Indigos, it is known that prior to 1974, the vase focused on intercepting communications between governments and ordinary commercial traffic, know as leased carrier traffic. This was done by linking into the telegraph and telephone ministries of eastern and western Europe. In 1974, with the completion of eight large satellite dishes, Menwith Hill began intercepting the first satellite communications.

The Indigos say the facility operates on more than 560 acres. There are currently two large operations buildings, antennae and a large number of radar dishes, most of which are enclosed in radomes, bubble-like structures covering the radar, protecting them from weather and obstructing their angle. There are a number of large generators on base also, which supply the buildings with an independent power source.

The main section of the base where all satellite intercepts are downloaded is referred to as "The Runway." This part of the facility consists of a score of radomes, running east to west across the south edge, linking up with advanced satellites intercepting communications. This may have been updated recently by another system known as "Rutely," which compliments the Runway.

Josef Tarkowski, former head of counter-espionage for the German government, told The Sunday Times that there are over 1,400 American staff based at Menwith, "including engineers, physicists, mathematicians, linguists and computer scientists, plus 370 staff from Britain's Ministry of Defense. In total, the seemingly quiet Station F83 has a staff as large as M15, Britain's domestic secret service."

The base is reportedly broken down into systems, each one performing a vital intelligence function.

The Silkworth system, according to Pike, began intercepting satellite transmissions in 1979, targeting microwave radio communications all over Europe and parts of Asia. Using this system, "Operators in Menwith Hill can monitor messages and conversations passing between companies and individuals within, say Jordan or Ukraine. Other international messages and conversations being conveyed by the same route can also be intercepted." It was constructed by the Lockheed Corp.

The Moonpenny system consists of radar dishes and antennae that intercept all other signals broadcast to Earth by communication satellites. Pike says "these may include satellites launched by single nations, such as Russia or Israel, or by groups of nations, such as ARABSAT [a group of Middle Eastern countries involved in satellite technology], or by the international community as a whole."

The United states and Britain have been dumping huge amounts of money, developing the site and improving upon existing technologies.

Pike states that in 1984, the British and U.S. government spent more than $160 million in a project codenamed Steeplebush upgrading the existing satellite surveillance system with an expansion of their operations building, new power generators and special monitoring equipment.

In the early '90s, in a project codenamed Steeplebush II, "a subterranean, radiation-hardened facility, had also been installed to process information from the Runway satellites..." This system is believed to be involved in downloading information from the newer and more technologically-advanced geosynchronous SIGINT satellites known as Vortex. Or Magnum."

According to Tarkowski, there is now a third phase in construction, enlarging the base and increasing the number of satellite dishes. The Indigos say that as of Oct. 17, 1998, new infra-red radomes are being constructed, suggesting more satellite dishes are on their way.