The UK under Occupation – America’s Impregnable Death Star in the North Atlantic
My country has been under occupation since the end of the Second World War. Large tracts of land have been surrendered for the construction of foreign airstrips, while giant electronic spy bases provide intelligence as part of a global network reporting directly to the occupier’s homeland headquarters. My government has no control over these activities but characterises this abandonment of national sovereignty, not as an occupation but as an alliance, not as subservience but as a ‘special relationship’ – the bedrock of our security.
Martial law is not required but protesters who, in the absence of real democratic accountability, have the temerity to enter occupied land for peaceful witness against militarism and illegal warfare; or whistleblowers who expose the workings of a secret state that has placed itself beyond the law, face imprisonment under draconian legislation. Nothing can be tolerated that undermines the smooth running of this global system for power projection.
Our occupiers prefer the quiet life. Leery, uniformed bullies swaggering around city centres is strictly verboten. Direct contact with the natives is not encouraged but tolerated through activities like local charity events that symbolise good-will between the occupier and the occupied. Know your place, tug your forelocks to the masters and be grateful, as the occupation grinds on towards its centenary. Even the Romans would have been impressed.
But, as with all imperial regimes, this one is collapsing and the legacy of failure is unignorable. In its last spasms, under an extreme form of neo-conservative militarism, the stakes will be raised even higher. Threats of invasion and nuclear war, the expansion of special forces operations and drone strikes, as well as political sabotage against countries attempting to steer an independent course, all these are on the Trump foreign policy agenda. Rather than being America’s impregnable death star in the North Atlantic, the UK can signal its determination to support international peacebuilding by closing all the occupier’s bases and sending its forces home.
The UK’s fate in the geo-strategic planning of the United States was set, even before the end of the Second World War, as the realities of superpower politics became clear. The nuclear bombing of an already defeated Japan was intended to signal to the Soviet Union, a temporary ally but long-term ideological competitor, that the United States would maintain military supremacy and fashion a post-war, capitalist international system based on open markets and Western access to global resources. Europe was divided into zones of superpower domination, while any lingering hopes of rebuilding a long-term peace around a demilitarized Germany were swiftly crushed as Nato and the Warsaw Pact confronted each other with both conventional and nuclear forces.
US bases, already established during the war were rapidly expanded, the most prominent being Lakenheath and Mildenhall in Suffolk, homes respectively to giant B52 bombers equipped with nuclear weapons and to re-fuelling aircraft. Although completely under US military control, they were designated as RAF bases to provide a superficial, public-relations cover of UK national sovereignty. Also constructed were naval bases such as Holy Loch in Scotland, home to the first generation of ballistic-missile submarines, an extensive military communications network to co-ordinate US and Nato forces and early-warning radar stations.i
But the most significant, in terms of US global strategy, was the construction of a highly-secret intelligence centre high on the North Yorkshire moors, near Harrogate. Menwith Hill (an RAF base with no planes and no pilots) intercepted Soviet and Warsaw Pact signals and, as satellite communications rapidly developed, it’s strategic significance became clear.
Under the control of the NSA, Menwith Hill was part of a global, electronic spy network, stretching across the Pacific ocean, from sister bases in Hawaii and Australia, through to Europe, all with their infamous giant, white, ‘golf-ball’ radomes, masking radar dishes. Operations buildings housed advanced supercomputers to process foreign encoded signals, while specialist intelligence personnel including cryptologists (experts in codes and cyphers) and linguists focused on sensitive data.ii
Together, these bases provided comprehensive intelligence support for military operations, reporting directly to the NSA’s vast headquarters at Fort Meade, near Washington. For example, during the first Gulf War in 1991, Menwith Hill intercepted Iraqi military communications that assisted the targetting of both military and civilian infrastructure.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, the Bush administration raised military expenditure to fund the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq but also to expand the capacity for clandenstine warfare using special operations forces and remotely-controlled weapons, particularly drones. Integral to these new forms of warfare was a multi-billion dollar expansion of the NSA’s global intelligence network.
Over a fifteen-year programme, Menwith Hill combined satellite interception with access to global, optical-fibre communication networks for phones and emails. To process the vastly increased volume of data, a new operations building was constructed, housing the most technologically-advanced supercomputers in the UK. On the completion of the construction programme in 2016, Menwith Hill could rightly be described as the leading coordinator of intelligence for US special operations.
The true nature of these spy bases has been kept completely secret from the British and American people, with the official double-speak that these were communications-relay and research centres. However, thanks to the efforts of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, documentary material exposed the extraordinary scale of electronic spying carried out by the NSA. It designated the collection of stored internet data as the Prism programme, while GCHQ’s contributed to the NSA by providing access to optical fibre communications through the Tempora programme at jointly-run bases in the UK. A sophisticated software package, Xkeyscore, filtered the hundreds of millions of emails addresses and keywords for more focused surveillance of targets.iii
These revelations were extremely important but the focus in the media was almost exclusively on the issue of individual rights to privacy in the face of an all-powerful secret state. The main purpose for this global system, to support US special operations, hardly registered in the public debate. But, as was made clear in the Yorkshire CND report published in 2012, Menwith Hill’s crucial role in new forms of warfare was to combine intelligence from electronic interceptions with satellite imagery to indentify target locations. For the first time in history, the NSA and its sister agencies gave the United States the capacity for real-time monitoring anywhere in the world and to carry out immediate attacks through special operations forces, missiles and drones.
Since its publication, new revelations from whistleblowers published in 2016 confirm the Yorkshire CND’s report on Menwith Hill’s main strategic roles. The leaked internal documents from the base focus on two programmes, Ghosthunter that harvests data from over 300 million emails and phone-calls and Ghostwolf, that identifies targets as they log into the internet, so that kill or capture operations can be initiated. The expansion of special operations could only be possible through the intelligence gathered from Menwith Hill.iv
One of the more obvious and cruder ways in which the political elites have attempted to counter the growing opposition to US militarism, is by focusing on the economic impact of the bases, specifically jobs generated directly for UK civilians on site in administration, catering and general maintainance, as well as expenditure in local economies by US personnel such as the renting of housing and on food and leisure activities, etc.
The MoD claimed that Menwith Hill generated £130 millon for the the Harrogate district economy in 2009, directly through UK employment on the base and US personnel expenditure, as well as indirectly through the multiplier effect of secondary expenditure. The threat that closure would be an economic disaster for local areas is used quite cynically to discourage campaigns for democratic accountability, or the removal of US forces.
These claims of economic benefit are wildly exaggerated and take no account of the costs associated with the US military presence. Although the terms of the occupation are codified under the 1973 UK/US Cost Sharing Agreement, these are secret and have never been subject to Parliamentary scrutiny. However, a range of secondary sources indicate that US bases effectively operate as tax-free and tariff-free zones. Also, US personnel living off-base pay no council tax on local accommodation. Not surprisingly, they spend a large proportion of their disposal income on duty-free goods and petrol purchased on-site, while savings accumulated during tours of duty are repatriated to the United States.
To put it simply, the bases are dollar enclaves. Taking into account the volume of purchases across all US bases, and the fact that the MoD is also responsible for the costs of infrastructure investment such as roads and power, the subsidies paid by the UK taxpayers will run into hundreds of millions of pounds a year. The true costs are kept secret and the government refuses to allow proper scrutiny through a responsible parliamentary body such as the Public Accounts Committee. Perhaps the US revolutionary slogan should be changed from no taxation without representation to occupation without any taxation.v
Nor can the UK escape the ultimate logic of occupation, that the future of the bases is decided by the United States alone, according to its own strategic priorities. Recently, Mildenhall was scheduled for closure by the early 2020s, as part of a review by the USAF that prioritised the expansion of facilities at Lakenheath. The UK government is absolutely powerless to prevent this from happening.
Clearly, there are costs associated with closure in terms of lost jobs and the fact the UK is responsible for environmental clean-ups and infrastructure improvements to bring bases back into civilian use. But, far from an economic threat, the evidence demonstrates that the closure of US bases represents an economic opportunity. For example, when the NSA’s electronic spy base at Bad Aibling in Germany was closed down in 2001, the local and regional authorities supported a re-use programme. New investment was made in renewable energy, as well as tourism and housing, providing a range of skilled work in both manufacturing and service industries.vi
While the number of US bases and personnel in the UK has declined since the end of the Cold War, their geo-strategic importance has grown. Lakenheath is now home to the fifth-generation fighter aircraft, the F35, which despite on-going technical problems and massive cost increases, will provide stealth capabilities intended to prevent detection by radar. Even more significantly, the expansion of Menwith Hill is integral to new forms of clandestine warfare.
The US Joint Special Operations Force’s (JSOF) objective is to carry out military strikes anywhere in the world by co-ordinating intelligence from electronic interceptions and satellite imagery, linked to the global, military communications system. Already, under Obama’s presidency, JSOF has been expanded to 70,000 personnel, larger than the armed forces of most other states. New ‘forward bases’ have been set up in the Middle East and North Africa that allow rapid deployment. The drone fleet is also being modernised as the Predator class is phased out to be replaced by the larger Reaper drone, with long-range, Hellfire missiles and other munitions, providing fire-power comparable to that of a fighter aircraft.vii
Through the work of independent organisations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, clear evidence has emerged that such attacks have led to the deaths of thousand of civilians. But because of their clandestine nature, the standard response of US authorities is to deny responsibility, or in very rare cases, admit some civilian casualties as ‘collatoral damage’.viii
The fundamental issue with special operations is that these are acts of war where no formal declaration of war has been made. Instead, an opaque legal framework has been established through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) and through executive powers, where presidential orders for lethal force are rubber-stamped in total secrecy. The UK judiciary acts as a willing accomplice in this abuse of due legal process. For example, a case was brought against the government after the unlawful killing of a UK citizen in Pakistan by a US drone strike, using intelligence assistance from GCHQ. The High Court rejected any implication of legal liability because of the potential damage this would do to US/UK intelligence sharing.ix
Essentially, the national security state in both countries has established a secret and parallel form of government that bypasses normal democratic institutions, to further consolidate and extend its powers. Sentences for publishing classfied material by whistleblowers and journalists are being increased in an attempt to crush opposition, while the NSA will have completely unimpeded access to the major data bases of global communications for special operations purposes.
Despite the terrible legacy of Western militarism, the Trump administration is determined on an aggressive, neo-conservative policy, using the full spectrum of US military power. The highest priority is given to supporting pro-Western, authoritarian governments and elite groups in failed states with contested sovereignty. Even where all vestiges of normal economic life have broken down and where elites amass personal fortunes at the expense of ordinary people living in poverty and fear, the over-riding priority will be access to resources for Western corporations.
Never before have we had this convergence of perpetual capitalist warfare abroad and a perpetual state of emergency at home. Authoritarian rule through a national security state built on the profit interests of a vast military-industrial-intelligence complex is the inevitable outcome. The quasi-judicial framework now exists to suspend the normal rule of law and for a militarised police force, trained in the techniques of special operations and armed with the full range of lethal and non-lethal weapons, to carry out mass arrests, or if necessary kill opposition activists now classified as subversives and terrorists.
It is absolutely imperative to challenge US militarism and UK complicity in the construction of the national security state. As the full implications of Trump’s foreign policy agenda become terrifyingly clear, opposition movements already established will grow and new ones will form. Already there are strong campaigns for the closure of US bases in Okinawa, Korea, Hawaii, Italy and Germany. Nothing would symbolise a new era of common security more than the death star’s dismantlement. The occupation must, at long last, be brought to an end.
i. Duncan Campbell, The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier – American Military Power in Britain (Michael Jospeh Ltd, London, 1984)
ii. Yorkshire CND, Lifting the Lid on Menwith Hill – The Strategic Roles and Economic Impact of the US Spy Base in Yorkshire (Yorkshire CND, 2012)
iii. Guardian The NSA Files Decoded – Edward Snowden’s Surveillance Revelations Explained (Guardian, 2013)
iv. Ryan Gallagher, Inside Menwith Hill – The NSA’s British Base at the Heart of US Targeted Killing (The Intercept, 06/09/2016)
v. Yorkshire CND op.cit.
vii. Nick Turse, US Special Operations Forces are in More Countries Than You Can Imagine (The Nation, 20/01/2015)
viii. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Drone Wars – The Full Data (Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 01/01/2017)
ix. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, High Court Rejects First UK Challenge to CIA’s Drone Strike Campaign (Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 22/12/2012)