Menwith Hill is the largest electronic monitoring station in the world. It is run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), which monitors the world's communication for US intelligence. Menwith Hill employs 1,200 US civilians and servicemen to work around the clock inside "hardened" buildings intercepting and analysing communications mainly from Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Until a few years ago, the existence of the NSA was a secret and its charter and any mention of its duties are still classified. But, it does have a Web site) in which it describes itself as being responsible for the signals intelligence and communications security activities of the US government.
All telecommunications traffic to and from Europe and passing through Britain is intercepted at the base, including private telephone calls, faxes, emails and other communications. Much of the information is collected, processed and relayed back to the United States automatically. A great deal of this information comes from spy satellites and the base has a number of large white golfballs or "radomes" containing satellite receiving dishes.
The importance of MHS to US intelligence activities has recently been emphasised by the closure of other UK stations run by NSA, and by its new designation as a Regional Sigint Operations Centre (RSOC) which is responsible for running remote, automated intelligence-gathering sites.
MENWITH HILL - How it Operates
The main operational activity of Menwith Hill is the collection of signals intelligence from national and international communications systems for the USA. Long distance national and international communications are conveyed by cables, microwave radio links, and satellites. All forms of modern communications: telephony, television, fax, computer links and the Internet are carried in this way. Companies such as BT install and provide high capacity national and international links used for these purposes and each is subject to interception. Some long distance communications are still conveyed by traditional high frequency (HF) radio systems. Except for domestic mobile radio systems, this traffic is predominantly but not exclusively military.
Menwith Hill was first established to intercept traditional radio signals, but this is now only a tiny part of its activities. Current activities are conducted under two systems - SILKWORTH and MOONPENNY. Its primary targets are Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. This is because satellites which are positioned to provide communications in these regions are visible from Menwith Hill, but would not be visible from the United States.
The SILKWORTH system, established in 1979, uses specially designed satellites stationed over target areas to intercept long distance microwave radio communications. Apparently operated entirely from Menwith Hill using large satellites positioned over the Equator, SILKWORTH intercepts long distance microwave radio relay links between cities in Eurasia and relays them back to Menwith Hill.
Operators at Menwith Hill can monitor messages and conversations passing between companies and individuals within, say, Jordan or the Ukraine. Other international messages and conversations being conveyed by the same route can also be intercepted. Satellites can be directed to intercept and relay selected links and the received communications are then sorted and processed at Menwith Hill to select those that satisfy specific criteria. All forms of communications are intercepted and processed. Menwith Hill controls 56 satellites and a series of radomes, known as the RUNWAY running east and west across the south edge of Menwith, are believed to be involved in downloading information from the geosynchronous satellites known as VORTEX or MAGNUM and from larger, more advanced systems such as those known as ORION. STEEPLEBUSH II, a subterranean, radiation-hardened facility, processes information from the RUNWAY satellites.
The MOONPENNY system is the unauthorised reception of ordinary satellite communications used by other countries. It consists of interception terminals placed so as to intercept the signals broadcast to the earth's surface by national or international communication satellites. These may include satellites launched by single nations, such as Russia or Israel, or by groups of nations, such as ARABSAT, or by the international community as a whole (INTELSAT). Because the ordinary function of these satellites is to broadcast their signals to earth, no special equipment needs to be placed in space to intercept them.
The NSA aims to collect, examine and process all international (and many national) communications. The scale of the collection system was described by the former Director of the NSA, Vice Admiral William Studeman, in 1992. At that time the NSA's collection system generated about 2 million intercepted messages per hour. Of these, all but about 13,000 an hour were discarded. Of these about 2,000 met forwarding criteria, of which some 20 are selected by analysts, who then write 2 reports for further distribution. Therefore, in 1992 MHS was intercepting 17.5 billion messages a year. Of these some 17.5 million may have been studied for analysis.
Prior to extensive automation, sorting of messages was carried out by reference to a list of targets, known as a "watch list". In the last decade, this list has evolved into a system called project ECHELON. In this system computers, known as DICTIONARY are used to select messages which may include combinations of specific names, dates, places, subjects etc. DICTIONARY automatically searches through intercepted messages looking for particular subjects and people from target lists. Those matching particular criteria are sent for further processing by analysts. Key words for message interception are numerically coded and include diplomatic messages as well as regional communications.
ECHELON was first revealed by Duncan Campbell in 1988 in a New Statesman article and detailed in Secret Power by Nicky Hagar in 1996. The existence of the ECHELON system has been officially confirmed in a report commissioned by the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament. The report, called "Assessing the Technologies of Political Control", also calls for calls for an investigation into the activities of the NSA at Menwith Hill. (See the European Parliament section of the Campaign page).
Euro MPs have asked the European Council of Ministers whether Menwith Hill is undermining European jobs and businesses by selling European trade secrets to US companies. Selected information is exchanged with the British listening post at GCHQ, Cheltenham and a number of GCHQ staff also work at Menwith Hill. A recent report commissioned by the European Parliament has confirmed that Menwith Hill's role in monitoring UK communications for the NSA and pressure is being applied by British MEPs in the European Parliament to make Menwith Hill accountable See the page on Campaigning
The American authorities largely refuse to answer questions, give out information or allow reporters, MPs or MEPs into the base. Answers are refused to many of the questions that MPs ask about Menwith Hill in the House of Commons although many MPs have asked them in the past. Among the most prolific questioners of the status and role of Menwith Hill was Bob Cryer, who was MP for Bradford South until his tragic death in 1994. His final speech to the House, in an adjournment debate, was a succinct rendering of the questions at the heart of the campaign. Questions continue to be asked in the House of Commons but satisfactory answers are very rare. See also, page on Campaigning
There are no missiles at Menwith Hill but the base would play a crucial role in any nuclear strike mounted by the United States. As such, it would be a prime nuclear target in the event of war. Menwith Hill received an award for the part it played in "Desert Storm" during the Gulf War. Despite being an American controlled facility, Menwith Hill was in 1996 designated a RAF base.
Menwith's ongoing expansion will also enable it to transmit and receive communications and photographic images from space. This will help the US Space Command in its mission to "see" and "hear" everything on the planet and enable laser weapons to be able to reach anywhere on the earth within a target area of about six feet.
Work has already started on the Space Based Infra Red System (SBIRS) (see "Planning Applications" under "Menwith Hill" in CAAB News Letters 4-6). General Howell M. Estes III (Commander in Chief, North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Space Command and Air Force Space Command, Commander) has said in a speech urging the US Congress to "help fulfill the promise of space" that:
"Our SBIRS system consolidates DoD's non-imaging infrared systems that fulfill national security needs in areas of missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace characterization. It consists of high and low components. We need to get SBIRS High on-orbit first as a replacement for the Defense Support Program (DSP). We're going to put four satellites up to replace four DSPs. This will improve our location identification and tracking capabilities by better identifying the missile launch point, impact point and azimuth. It will also give us another level of refinement in those areas as we work the missile defense issue. The advantage of SBIRS Low is that it can track "cold bodies" in space. SBIRS Low is important for the ballistic missile defense systems. With SBIRS High, you can only track infrared signatures which means the rocket motor has to be burning. These systems will significantly improve our ability to provide much more precise launch and impact point of theater missiles to forces in a theater of operations. They are key to our ability to cue systems that we'll use for active defense as part of both theater and national missile defense."
The launch of 72 pounds of plutonium into space on Cassini in October 1997 was also connected to this space weapons program. Enormous amounts of power have to be generated in space in order to fire the laser weapons. See also Yorkshire CND space page.
Menwith is the largest regional signals intelligence station anywhere on earth and is fully involved in these plans.