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A lesson from history for those who strive to bring intelligence agencies to account

 

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By Simon Davies

Sixteen years ago a high-profile campaign began in Europe to expose the NSA’s global spying operations – an activity which at the time was almost unknown to the world. The outcome of this prolonged campaign should be a warning from history to anyone who believes that reform of the intelligence services can easily be wrought from the current spying controversy.

The role of Menwith Hill is to act on US instructions to spy on the world’s communications systems.

I’ve written this narrative of that early campaign in the hope that it adds a useful strategic and historical dimension to this issue. I believe the factors which led to the disappointments of the 1997 campaign continue to imperil the present-day chances of reform. Knowledge of past failures may help campaigners who are fighting for greater accountability of intelligence agencies.

The emperor has no clothes

There’s a stark oddity that towers over the ancient landscape of the North Yorkshire moors in England. Sprawling across 500 acres, amidst winding country lanes, stands a heavily defended military facility identified by a single notice declaring it to be “RAF Menwith Hill” (RAF is short for Royal Air Force).

The sign is deceptive in two respects. First, the facility is not controlled by the RAF. Second, its function has little to do with traditional Air Force operations. The role of Menwith Hill is to act on US instructions to spy on the world’s communications systems. The presence of at least thirty huge spherical raydomes masking the base’s satellite receiving dishes gives testimony to what goes on there. Only in recent times has this place become infamous as the world’s biggest electronic monitoring spy base.

Menwith Hill sits at the heart of a web of integrated spy systems that have become collectively (and erroneously) known as ”ECHELON”. The network is controlled by the United States, managed by the key English speaking countries bonded by a secret agreement called UKUSA and operates under targeting instruction from the US National Security Agency. The system uses a grid of spy bases intercepting countless communications via vast underground computer systems and satellite dishes. According to the European Parliament and other sources almost every phone line in the world in almost every communication system can be intercepted (though presumably not all at once). The system is used not only for defence but also for economic espionage and to monitor the communications of Non Government Organisations.

The network is controlled by the United States, managed by the key English speaking countries bonded by a secret agreement called UKUSA and operates under targeting instruction from the US National Security Agency.

In its first decade the base sucked data from cables and microwave links running through a nearby Post Office tower, but the communications revolutions of the Seventies and Eighties gave the base a capability that even its architects could scarcely have been able to imagine. With the creation of Intelsat and digital telecommunications Menwith and other stations developed the capability to eavesdrop on an extensive scale on fax, telex and voice messages. Then, with the development of the Internet, electronic mail and electronic commerce the listening posts were able to increase their monitoring capability to eavesdrop on an unprecedented spectrum of personal and business communications.

Sixteen years ago when the watchdog NGO Privacy International (of which, at the time, I was director) first became interested in Menwith Hill, covert activity on such a scale was unimaginable in the public mind. Despite the enormous size of this operation almost nothing was reported in the press and there was little knowledge of it in academic or political circles. The only official recognition was a consistent message from government that the Menwith area was a UK “defence facility”. Even the locals in neighbouring towns and villages knew nothing, even after half a century of patronage in their pubs by visiting US operational staff who – despite homesickness and a classic inability to handle the strength of the local ales – remained loyal to their lifelong confidentiality contracts. Nonetheless, the secrecy of the base and the entire global spy operation was about to unexpectedly unravel.

In 1997 Professor Steve Wright, a brilliant UK academic with sound credentials in the surveillance field gave us a heads-up that he was about to submit a report to the European Parliament blowing the whistle on the system. We might, he suggested, want to prepare a media campaign.

My immediate response was skepticism. If Wright was to be believed, the UK government had been working secretly with the Americans for decades and had allowed every British phone line to be made “intercept friendly” – as indeed had most Western countries. While communications providers had been selling their services on the promise of better security they had been part of a quiet arrangement to leave a gaping back door to governments across the world. The challenge of proving such a conspiracy would be enormous.

If Wright was to be believed, the UK government had been working secretly with the Americans for decades and had allowed every British phone line to be made “intercept friendly” – as indeed had most Western countries.

It was true that governments have openly forced telecommunications companies to make their networks accessible to law enforcement and security agencies but the global operation was on a much grander scale. In 1994 the US Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) that in effect required manufacturers and providers to give agencies full access to lines and equipment. The imposition was sweetened with a $500M compensation deal.

The media vacuum

So why was nobody talking about the grandest of all global arrangements? It was mystifying that despite the fact that two extremely detailed books by James Bamford and Nicky Hager had been published on the subject – and the renowned investigator Duncan Campbell had exposed it eight years earlier in the UK magazine New Statesman – little else had emerged since.  Logically the existence of the system added up, but the silence over many years by media and governments made its existence appear implausible.

The matter had been raised multiple times in the UK Parliament, only to draw the conventional response from either species of the incumbent government. Campaigners such as the late Bob Cryer MP argued for greater transparency and accountability. The official response was resolutely that such a move would run counter to the national interest. A few interested people knew there was a secret trans-Atlantic agreement and operational cooperation between the US and the UK, but little was known beyond that point.

One of the most difficult challenges faced by any campaigner working against a secret global system is the lack of material evidence and the perception that they are engaging in conspiracy theory. The bottom line as far as most newspaper editors are concerned is that any claim of a truly grand cover-up (or at least one that they don’t already know about) is nothing but conspiracy – and anyone who peddles conspiracy is a nutcase. The fact that many great truths start out as conspiracies is immaterial. Privacy International decided all the same to make some attempt at sparking media coverage and elevating the issue from a dialogue among experts to pub conversation. The task proved almost insurmountable.

One of the most difficult challenges faced by any campaigner working against a secret global system is the lack of material evidence and the perception that they are engaging in conspiracy theory.

Fearful about blowing our credibility with a notoriously cynical broadsheet press I pitched the story to the editors of a dozen smaller publications, all of whom treated me as if I was mad. As a media specialist this failure was intensely frustrating and seemed irrational. I’d sold a thousand stories to the press, and this one seemed to me perfect. Even if material evidence wasn’t in abundance, it was a rollicking good yarn peppered with all the elements of a great thriller. But no; not a single media outlet bit on the story. They focused instead on arguing that I needed a holiday – and perhaps some medication.

The reality is that media has an ingrained denial process. If the story involves anything unknown – where there’s no corroboration by an official – smaller media will almost never risk publishing unless the claim had been validated by a large established newspaper. Large established papers in turn rarely publish unless the claim has been reference in another equally established paper.  And big papers don’t follow small ones unless there’s institutional comment. A lone report written by an academic for the European Commission didn’t cut it. Thus, a vicious cycle.

So the reason for the continued silence about the world’s biggest spy system, controlled by US security, operating outside national jurisdiction and turning each country into a spy for the others was purely down to the fact that it existed outside media’s frame of reference – a sort of modern day Emperor with no clothes.

The exact opposite is true of the current NSA scandal. It’s as hard these days to find people who doubt the story as it was in 1997 to find people who believed it. The real puzzler is whether it’s possible to change anything for the better.

Then came the roll that all campaigners hope for. The story spread to country after country as serious newspapers plagiarised or syndicated the Telegraph article. 

The campaign begins

I started working through contacts in the European Parliament and found a political member of the European Parliament (MEP) who I thought might help. After lengthy reflection he agreed the Parliament needed to investigate, but his colleagues would require serious media coverage up front so the Parliament’s back was covered. Put bluntly, the European Parliament wasn’t going to jump first. I left with a commitment of support in principle for an inquiry as long as I generated the media coverage. No easy task.

Depressingly, I continued to draw blanks across the media spectrum. One of the Guardian editors responded “we have enough ammunition on the Special Relationship without adding a conspiracy theory”.

In a last-ditch effort I targeted the Daily Telegraph. As the Conservative flagship it was the most unlikely place for a story that exposed US security – which was the very reason why its’ backing would carry weight with other media. Under the editorship of Charles Moore the paper was slowly turning 180 degrees into a freedom fighter (which by the way is one of the great untold heroic stories of British media).

Armed with an informal unwritten undertaking from the MEP I then approached a section editor there – Ben Rooney – who’d published my work before. On the strength of the European Parliament going public he agreed to commission me to write the article, adding the caveat that both our necks were on the line. For the Telegraph – steeped in loyalty to the Anglo-American alliance – this was a brave move.

On December 16th, 1997 the Telegraph published the article as a supplement cover story. Nine days before Christmas and with all parliaments closed it was the worst possible time to publish, but still, there it was – in print and in colour.

By February of the following year talk of the global spying system and Echelon was common currency, and few people doubted its existence.

Hang around media long enough and you learn that the shelf life of a news article is usually a few days or less. However there is a rare species of story that – sometimes for completely random reasons – triggers a global wave.  Despite being a poor third cousin to the fine work of Campbell, Hager and Bamford, this became one such story.

We waited. Then came the roll that all campaigners hope for. The story spread to country after country as serious newspapers plagiarised or syndicated the Telegraph article.  Excited colleagues in Germany, the US, France and on to Israel, Canada and Brazil called to express their concerns. And, predictably, people were convinced that because the story had originated in the Daily Telegraph it was unlikely to be a hoax.

I lost count of the articles after about 50. By February of the following year talk of the global spying system and Echelon was common currency, and few people doubted its existence. In 2001 even the Guardian was routinely reporting on Menwith Hill, mentioning the base and the US involvement in no fewer that twenty articles.

In the world of the perfectly conceived strategy there are two ideal domino cascades. The first is media; the second is political. As the parliaments resumed after the Christmas recess questions were asked – and from across the Atlantic you could almost hear the slow roar as a surprised Congress digested the extent of the spying operation. For more than a year representatives tried in vain to force the NSA to account for its activities and its spending until in 1999 the agency finally broke cover and admitted – non specifically – what it had been up to all those years.

As the parliaments resumed after the Christmas recess questions were asked – and from across the Atlantic you could almost hear the slow roar as a surprised Congress digested the extent of the spying operation.

Steve Wright’s report to the European Parliament – rather than inviting skepticism – then gave further substance and context to the growing public anxiety. The report bluntly asserted:

“Within Europe, all email, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency, transferring all target information from the European mainland via the strategic hub of London then by Satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in the North York Moors of the UK.”

In Europe the groundswell for a Parliamentary inquiry escalated with remarkable speed. However the effort met resistance from right wing parts of the Parliament as well as security bodies and was gutted before it even began. Finally in 2000 the Parliament agreed to hold an inquiry. Its report was published the following year.

As if it were mocking the entrenched secrecy of the spy network, the first article of the preamble to the report declared:

“Whereas the existence of a global system for intercepting communications, operating by means of cooperation proportionate to their capabilities among the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand under the UKUSA Agreement, is no longer in doubt…”

The report validated the serious research that had been known all those years before. It laid out in detail the global arrangements and the technology that underpinned the secret operations. At last, ECHELON and the NSA were exposed.

What was the result of all this activity – the European inquiry, the outrage of parliaments, the acres of news coverage, the widespread public anger?

Almost nothing. Within a year of the release of the European Parliament the spying operation had become normalised in the public mind. Indeed when I presented a BBC television documentary on privacy in 2000 the segment on Menwith Hill and ECHELON hardly caused a ripple. The viewing population was far more concerned about businesses selling their personal details on CDs.

If campaigners and rights defenders want to carve reform out of the current controversy they have a hard road ahead. Yet even so, the current healthy state of public awareness gives rise to hope that reform can be achieved.