Exclusive: MoD tightens security at American spy bases linked to drone strikes

'Draconian' laws would help the US cover up illegal activities

The Ministry of Defence is set to introduce “draconian” new powers to tighten security and limit access to US airbases in Britain implicated in mass surveillance and drone strikes, The Independent can reveal.

The measures, which include powers to arrest for offences ranging from taking photographs to failing to clean up dog mess, would be put in place through a little-known project to overhaul the by-laws surrounding military facilities across the country.

Among the sites where the new rules are set to be imposed are two US Air Force bases used as key communication hubs for clandestine eavesdropping.

The Independent revealed earlier this year that RAF Croughton, near Milton Keynes, is used to funnel back to Washington data from a global network of spy bases in US embassies, including the secret Berlin facility alleged to have been used by the National Security Agency to listen in on the phone of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The base, which serves as a relay centre for CIA agent communications, is also at the centre of concerns that it may be used as a support site for US drone strikes operated from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti against Yemeni targets.

Along with RAF Menwith Hill listening station in North Yorkshire, the base is understood to be one of Washington’s key intelligence facilities in Britain, although the MoD insists USAF staff at RAF Croughton “neither fly nor control any remotely piloted aircraft”.

Until now neither RAF Croughton, nor its adjacent site, RAF Barford St John, which is also used as a signal relay station, have been subject to military land by-laws, despite being military bases for more than 60 years. During the Second World War, Barford St John was used as a top secret test facility for Britain’s first generation of jet fighters. It currently hosts an array of transmitter masts maintained by US military personnel.

But the two bases now feature on a list of nearly 150 military facilities where by-laws are being introduced or revised amid criticism that the new rules are being used to impose unprecedented levels of secrecy around sensitive sites. Similar revised by-laws for RAF Menwith Hill and nearby RAF Fylingdales, a US radar station earmarked for use in Washington’s missile defence system, are expected to be produced in the coming months.

Jennifer Gibson, of the human rights group Reprieve, said: “These by-laws have been designed to prevent any transparency about what activities take place at RAF Croughton and Barford St John. There is strong evidence that Croughton plays a role in the US drone campaign. But instead of coming clean with the public, the Ministry of Defence has decided to help the US further by drafting draconian by-laws that give the military the power to arrest dog walkers who stray in the general vicinity of the base. It must be asked what is going on at RAF Croughton and elsewhere and why is the UK helping the US cover it up?”

Proposals for new by-laws for RAF Croughton and Barford St John were published earlier this year by the MoD. It is understood that up to 38 other military sites where no by-laws currently exist are also being reviewed. The new regulations designate an outer “controlled area” around each facility, where a wide-ranging list of banned activities applies, and an inner “protected area” with more stringent restrictions.

Among the 20 activities to be banned within the controlled area are camping “in tents, caravans, trees or otherwise”, digging, engaging in “any trade or business” or grazing any animal. Also among the offences, which can result in an individual being “taken into custody without warrant”, is a failure to pick up dog waste or causing damage to “any crops, turfs, plants, roots or trees”.

The list of 10 banned actions within the protected area includes a prohibition on taking “any visual image of any person or thing”.

The MoD insisted it is merely bringing up to date a disparate set of by-laws which were first introduced in 1892, and seeking to bring about a “layered” set of legislation which will increase public access to some military land.

The German interior ministry has pledged to raise in talks with London and Washington the revelations concerning the alleged eavesdropping on Mrs Merkel’s phone and the use of RAF Croughton.

Exemptions for breaking the rules which have applied previously have also been reviewed. The last set of laws drawn up for RAF Fylingdales in 1986 states that no offence is committed if it is “proved that an act or omission was unavoidable by the exercise of reasonable care”. The proposed new rules contained no such exemption. An MoD spokesman said the clause would be restored to the by-laws.

Lindis Percy, a veteran peace protester and co-founder of the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB), said: “Byelaws have not been used around other bases for years and yet they are now being brought in for these locations. Why? Does this mean an expansion of both bases? As usual there is a cloak of secrecy thrown around these US occupied and controlled bases as to what they are planning.”

Many “critical” military bases are also already protected by measures in the 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA), which introduced an offence of criminal trespass on bases, punishable by up to a year of imprisonment.

The MoD said it had ensured there was a “wide-ranging” public consultation in each location to be subject of the new byelaws. A spokesman said: “The Ministry of Defence is the second-largest public landowner in the UK and has a commitment to encouraging responsible safe public access across its land, where this is compatible with operational activities.”

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