Exclusive: RAF Croughton base 'sent secrets from Merkel’s phone straight to the CIA'

Communications hub plays key role in relaying embassy based spying

Data from the global network of US embassy spy posts implicated in the eavesdropping on Angela Merkel’s mobile phone is funnelled back to Washington through a secret hub in Northamptonshire, The Independent can reveal.

Vast quantities of information captured by America’s “Stateroom” system of listening stations in diplomatic missions – including phone calls and data sent over wi-fi links – are routed back to spy chiefs via a communications hub within the US Air Force base in Croughton, near Milton Keynes.

The facility at RAF Croughton has been identified as a relay centre for CIA clandestine and agent communications. It has also now been named in documents leaked by the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden as playing a key support role in embassy-based spying.

Documents seen by The Independent name the base as one of two centres for “tech support activity” by the Special Collection Service (SCS) – the joint CIA/NSA unit which runs the network of about 100 listening posts operated in parallel with an identical British scheme overseen by GCHQ.

An SCS intelligence “nest” on top of the US embassy in Berlin appears abruptly to have been shut down last week following the revelation that the NSA had targeted Mrs Merkel’s mobile and the subsequent diplomatic row over Washington’s surveillance in Germany. The rooftop US spying site lies less than 150 metres from a cylinder on the British embassy which is at the centre of concerns that Britain may also have been eavesdropping on communications in the German capital.

The Snowden documents and other US reports imply that any material gathered from the US embassy in Berlin would have been relayed back to SCS headquarters at the joint CIA/NSA facility in College Park, Maryland, via the secure facility at Croughton.

The siting of such a critical installation on British soil underlines the close integration of British and American intelligence activities.

Although GCHQ and the NSA are known to share the results of embassy interception, RAF Croughton also has a direct link to GCHQ’s Cheltenham headquarters which has been operating for more than 20 years. Under the legal framework for US military bases in Britain, each facility is under the supervision of a British military commander who must ensure that UK law is not breached. The Ministry of Defence last night declined to comment on the role played by the SCS relay station at RAF Croughton.

The Northamptonshire base is home to the 422nd Air Base Group, whose role includes processing at least a quarter of all US military communications in Europe. The base, which was originally used by the Americans in the 1950s to relay nuclear bomber communications, hit the headlines earlier this year when it emerged that British Telecom won a contract to supply a secure fibre-optic link between RAF Croughton and a US air base 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 at RAF Croughton “neither fly nor control” any remotely piloted aircraft.

The NSA documents provided by Snowden include a map listing the locations of the US embassy spying operation which could yet provide further embarrassment for Washington. Among the 74 “Stateroom  staffed locations” are Paris, Rome, Geneva, Madrid, Vienna and Athens.

The revelations about embassy-based bugging have already triggered investigations in Austria, Switzerland and Greece.

Keeping quiet: The village at the centre of the storm

Much of the talk along Croughton’s honey-stoned High Street was about high-speed communications networks and their impact on village life.

But rather than raising questions about the vast amounts of secret data sucked through the adjoining American-manned RAF Croughton air base from US embassy spy bases around the world, the debate was instead about efforts to bring high-speed broadband to the pretty Northamptonshire village.

A preoccupation with state-of-the-art communications technology is something that unites this rural community of around 1,000 people with the personnel of the 422nd Air Base Group – the branch of the US Air Force that operates the former bomber base as a vast data hub.

Several residents approached by The Independent were reluctant to discuss the role played in village life by the US base, whose vast golf-ball-shaped radomes concealing electronic equipment stick out like giant marbles in the surrounding landscape.

One business owner said: “I don’t really feel comfortable talking about the base. They do a lot of good work in the community. I wouldn’t want to be seen saying anything bad about them.”

Indeed, despite the sensitive nature of much of the work carried out inside the facility, its transatlantic occupants go out of their way to fit in, even employing a community relations adviser “to promote friendship and understanding between local British people and the base personnel”.

Among the events held to bind the two groups together is a regular “British-American quiz night” held in the village school.

A promotional video for the base states: “The majority of our folks live off-base in the local community, so they are  fairly well integrated into the local village.”

Cahal Milmo