Mysterious Menwith Hill: Nothing to see here
August 18, 2013
This report has been corrected.
RAF MENWITH HILL, England — The giant white “golf balls” look out of place next to the rolling hills, stone fences and picturesque farms of the Yorkshire countryside.
The “golf balls,” or radomes, dwarf the buildings at this tiny U.S. military base in northern England. They house satellite receivers and transmitters that help Menwith Hill’s workers fulfill the mission of providing “intelligence support for U.K., U.S. and allied interests,” according to the base website.
Lately, installations such as Menwith Hill have come under scrutiny and criticism, following disclosures made by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden that the U.S. was using NSA surveillance programs to secretly gather information about phone calls and Internet communications worldwide.
Yet, despite the recent news, the locals seem unconcerned.
“You often wonder what goes on there,” said one farm worker who asked not to be identified. “If they want to listen to my conversations, it would be a bit boring for them.”
John Fort, a Yorkshire county councilor, said the people he knows are supportive of the base, even in light of Snowden’s eavesdropping revelations.
“It’s like any other industry, and it’s a good industry because as a result of what happens, probably lives are saved,” Fort said.
The precise role of the base has been a bit of mystery for years.
In June, The Guardian newspaper ran an article based on documents from Snowden that strongly implied Menwith Hill had a massive capability to intercept satellite transmissions.
“Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time? Sounds like a good summer project for Menwith,” said NSA director Keith Alexander in documents quoted by The Guardian.
Though an NSA operation, the base website describes the base as a cooperative effort between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. U.K. government ministers are “fully briefed on the activities at RAF Menwith Hill as a matter of course and visit the base as part of their normal pattern of Ministerial duties.”
The mystery surrounding the base even extends into the world of pigeon racing. A 2012 race made headlines in numerous media outlets when a large number of pigeons were reported to have disappeared. A suspicion was reported that Menwith Hill, which was near the pigeons’ course, somehow interfered with the birds’ homing instinct.
Base officials seem content with maintaining the mystique surrounding the facility.
“I will not discuss operations,” said Squadron Leader Geoff Dickson, the base’s Royal Air Force Commander in an email. “Please keep away from this area.”
The commitment to secrecy also is evident among the base’s work force.
Speaking to Stars and Stripes, Pfc. Christopher Chandler with the 66th Military Intelligence Brigade, struggled to describe his military job, concerned about revealing more than he should.
He says he does not even talk about his work when he calls home to the United States.
“The only thing I tell them is how England is,” said Chandler, a signals analyst.
Still, there are some critics of the base.
The Campaign for the Accountability of American bases stages a weekly protest at the base’s main gate. In addition to concerns over spying, they are also worried about what they describe as America’s use of violence around the world.
Lindis Percy, who spearheads the campaign, has a relatively simple way of making her point.
She stands in the street outside the main gate, holding an upside-down U.S. flag with writing on it protesting the prison at Guantanamo Bay. She stops departing vehicles for a few moments with the flag in front of her, and then steps aside with a bow.
“So what we do here ... is to say to the people on the base who work here that tonight there are just a few of us who are deeply concerned about what you’re doing,” Percy said.
Her demonstration, however, does not seem to draw much support from the local community. This may stem from the fact that locals are happy to reap the benefits of Menwith Hill. There are about 2,200 U.S. and U.K. workers at the base, according to the base website. About a third of the workers are active-duty military, a third are U.S. civilians and a third are U.K. nationals.
Dickson said in a phone interview that the base reaches out to the local community, putting up stalls at local shows, inviting handicapped children to base for a mini-Olympics and providing “enhanced police presence” to the community.
“I think we give a lot, and we’re welcome because of it,” Dickson said.
Correction The original version of this report, published on Aug. 1, 2013, contained inaccurate information. Pfc. Christopher Chandler is a member of the 66th Military Intelligence Brigade.