Exclusive: Peers call for proper scrutiny of American military bases in UK used for drone strikes and mass spying
Britain's oversight of US bases ‘in urgent need of revision’
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Saturday 25 January 2014
Scrutiny of American military bases in Britain could be increased dramatically for the first time in more than 60 years under cross-party proposals provoked by evidence that the installations are being used for drone strikes and mass spying activities.
Draft proposals tabled by peers from all three major parties demand that the Government overhaul the “outdated” rules under which the Pentagon’s network of UK outposts operate following claims of British complicity in US drone missions in the Middle East and eavesdropping on European allies.
The Independent revealed last year that RAF Croughton, the US Air Force base and CIA relay station in Northamptonshire, was used to funnel back to Washington data from the network of diplomatic spy posts implicated in the monitoring of the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The same base has a secure data link to a US counter-terrorism facility in Djibouti used for drone strikes in Yemen while questions remain about the use of other US bases in Britain, in particular the National Security Agency eavesdropping facility at RAF Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire.
The revelations have fuelled concern in Parliament that British oversight of the bases, which operate under the 1951 Status of Forces Agreement, is outmoded and in urgent need of drastic revision because the legislation was drawn up long before technology such as drones or mass surveillance.
Three senior peers from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats - along with a crossbencher - have tabled amendments to defence legislation currently going through the House of Lords demanding that the Government considers the introduction of measures including a new “scrutiny group” for each US base to ensure all activities carried out comply with British law.
Under current arrangements, each US base is nominally under the command of a British officer but critics say meaningful oversight is impossible.
The proposed scrutiny panels would include a “member holding high judicial office” and an independent scrutineer “with expertise in the particular technology used and services carried out by the visiting forces”.
Lord Hodgson, the Conservative peer backing the proposals, told The Independent: “These amendments are designed to enable light to be shone on an area causing increasing public concern.
“They will enable proper scrutiny in Parliament so that ministers responsible can decide whether steps should be taken to review laws and agreements which, in the light of innovative uses of modern technology, appear increasingly outdated.”
The amendments, which will be debated next month, would need to be adopted by the Government to become law but the peers and senior MPs said they underline a growing disquiet within Parliament that current oversight is inadequate.
The proposals also place a duty on the Interception of Communications Commissioner, who is responsible for reviewing the eavesdropping activities of Britain’s spying agencies, to produce an annual report on whether US bases are operating within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which lays out the limits for public bodies to carry out surveillance and investigation. The Government admitted last year that there is no requirement to monitor US compliance with RIPA at bases including RAF Menwith Hill.
LibDem peer Baroness Miller added: “The Government cannot claim that the American bases in the UK are accountable to anyone but the Pentagon under current legislation. It is time we made what happens to UK citizens on UK soil the responsibility of the UK Government.”
The Ministry of Defence, which The Independent revealed last month is drastically tightening security around RAF Croughton using military byelaws, has denied that US bases in Britain have a role in the Pentagon’s controversial drone campaign, which it emerged this week has led to 2,400 deaths in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen in the last five years. Campaigners claim that in Pakistan alone at least 461 civilians have been killed by the remotely-piloted aircraft; though a British study this week revealed that the civilian death toll for 2013 had fallen to four.
While the era has passed in which American bases in Britain once housed nuclear weapons in case the Cold War turned hot, Washington’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” remains a vital hub in clandestine operations, including the Anglo-American industrial-scale projects to eavesdrop on electronic communications exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Documents disclosed by Mr Snowden show that RAF Croughton is used as a relay station for the Special Collection Service, the network of embassy-based listening stations used to spy in locations including Berlin. The base also has a direct link to GCHQ’s Cheltenham headquarters which has been operating for more than 20 years.
RAF Croughton also hit the headlines last year when it emerged that British Telecom won a contract to supply a secure fibre-optic link from the base to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti used to co-ordinate drone strikes over Yemen. The £14m contract raised suspicions that it could be used to relay instructions for drone attacks. The MoD insisted that USAF staff in Britain “neither fly nor control” any remotely piloted aircraft.
Kat Craig, legal director of campaigning group Reprieve, said: “It is a scandal that there is so little oversight by the British Government of potentially criminal activities taking place on our own soil. Moves to ensure the current unquestioning support is brought out of the shadows are therefore very welcome.”
Labour MP Tom Watson, who had campaigned on the issue of drones, said: "The amendments would overhaul scrutiny of US bases in the UK. It is astonishing that use of UK bases is regulated by an agreement made in1951. These proposals would enable proper review of interception and communications activities carried out from our country."
An MoD spokesperson said: “We will consider these amendments and will respond to them as part of the Lords consideration of the Defence Reform Bill in February.”
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