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US to spend $317 million on British intel hub upgrade - report

Published time: May 18, 2014 17:24
RAF Croughton dish (Photo from Wikipedia.org)

RAF Croughton dish (Photo from Wikipedia.org)

Washington is to upgrade RAF Croughton, one of its UK bases allegedly involved in mass surveillance and drone strikes, to make it the largest intel hub outside mainland US and a center for its operations in Africa, The Independent on Sunday reports.

The US government will spend $317 million upgrading Royal Air Force (RAF) Croughton, a US Air Force base in Northamptonshire, in southern England, to an ultra-secure intelligence facility with up to 1,250 personnel. It will become a new center for US counter terrorism activities called Africom or Africa Command, according to the report.

The new plans will include an installation for the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s main military intelligence service and will see Croughton grow in size and importance to that of RAF Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire by 2017.

Menwith Hill is the National Security Agency (NSA’s) main listening post in Europe and is co-staffed with members of the British intelligence family.

The USAF briefing document, seen by The Independent on Sunday, makes it clear that RAF Croughton will be at the forefront of intelligence activities and will also include personnel from British spy agencies.

The upgrade will reportedly involve consolidating six existing US intelligence groups, which are currently based at RAF Molesworth and RAF Alconbury in Cambridgeshire into one facility at Croughton. The Pentagon has said that the project will save at least $75 million a year and that accommodation for staff at RAF Molesworth is outdated and unsuitable.

RAF Croughton, which is just 20 miles from Prime Minister David Cameron’s constituency, already has a direct cable link with the British government’s GCHQ in Cheltenham and is currently used as a CIA communications relay station.

It was revealed last year that British Telecom laid a high speed fiber-optic cable between RAF Croughton and Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the Horn of Africa, where the US has a major counterterrorism operations base used for operating drone strikes in Yemen.

The communications link between the two bases led to concern that RAF Croughton is also to be used in drone operations, although the British government has strenuously denied this.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) insists that US personnel at Croughton “neither fly nor control any manned or remotely piloted aircraft anywhere in the world.”

It was also reported by The Independent last November that RAF Croughton was used to send back information from the CIA’s global network of spy listening stations in US embassies, including the Berlin station where the NSA allegedly hacked Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls.

The news that Croughton is to be upgraded has sparked anger among campaigners and senior politicians that there is no proper oversight of US bases in the UK. US bases in Britain are currently governed by a law dating back to 1951, when surveillance technology was in its infancy.

“The new spend of $317 million on facilities at RAF Croughton is a shocking revelation. There can be no doubt now that communications activities there must be thoroughly reviewed, and arrangements governing the use of the base updated,” said Labour MP Tom Watson, a former Defense Minister.

According to a report in The Guardian last year, the UK government has no plans to change or update the legal basis of US bases in Britain.

“There is no requirement for an additional agreement regarding the use of RAF Croughton by the United States visiting forces, the Department [MoD] has no plans to review this arrangement nor review the activities undertaken by the US at the base,” an unnamed government minister told the paper.

On Saturday, the MoD again insisted, when asked by The Independent, that under “no circumstances” could bases “made available to the US be used operationally without the agreement of Her Majesty’s Government.”

But Lindis Percy, coordinator of the Campaign for the Accountability of American Airbases, said there needs to be debate in the UK parliament on the issue.

“This massive new development at Croughton is clearly of great importance to the American military and government, but what say has the British Parliament or the Ministry of Defence had?” she said.

The weak regulation of US bases in the UK has led some commentators to compare Britain to George Orwell’s description of the UK in his novel, 1984, as “Airstrip One”, subservient to a US-led super-state.