The Trouble with Menwith
FFirst the good news. A packed courtroom in Harrogate, England this week applauded when a judge threw out an attempt by the Ministry of Defence to use an asbo against veteran peace protester Lindis Percy.
‘Asbos’ are ‘Anti-Social Behaviour Orders’ which the British government introduced in 1999. Basically, their purpose is to reduce crime and disorder. To target and tackle activities which disrupt the lives of individuals, families or communities.
Anyone can apply for an asbo on anyone else. All you have to do to satisfy the civil court that they deserve one is to prove that the accused caused or was likely to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’, and if you succeed in doing that — congratulations! – you’ve scored an Asbo!
Now your asboed victim has to refrain from doing what they were doing for at least 2 years. If however they don’t refrain, then this time they are committing a criminal offence – and can face a penalty of up to five years in prison. Catch 22 revisited.
Judge Roy Anderson told the court that the law clearly intended asbos to be used against "oafish and intimidating" behaviour, and none of the incidents involving Lindis Percy "was accompanied by any aggressive behaviour, abusive language or any threats of violence. Her convictions all seem to stem from her activities as a peace campaigner."
"She may, in her relentless expression of her views, be thought by many to be a fanatic and, I suspect, by some to be a crank. Nevertheless she is entitled to express these views unless she breaks the criminal law of this country."
He dismissed the attempt by the Ministry of Defence as an attempt "to use a club to beat down the expression of legitimate comment and the expression of views on matters of public concern".
But now for the bad news. Applause was replaced by cries of "Shame!" as Judge Roy Anderson instead imposed an eight-week 8pm to 6am curfew and electronic tag on Lindis Percy, the first time tagging has been ordered on a British peace campaigner.
Outside the court, Mrs Percy said she would appeal against the sentence, and added:
"You can’t suppress the human spirit. If any good comes from this case, I hope that it’s that people will hear and read about it and more of them will get involved with protesting about what’s happening at Menwith Hill. This is political. This is all about the American bases in this country and what the Americans are doing here."
Menwith Hill? American bases? Who is this woman and what is she talking about? Let’s read and find out
Lindis Percy is a 63 year old midwife, an anti-war protester and political activist who has been arrested, detained and charged many times over 20 years, imprisoned on 12 occasions.
She made the news in 2003 by dodging tight security to scale the six-meter high wrought iron gates of Buckingham Palace on the eve of U.S. President’s George W. Bush’s state visit to Britain, unfurling an upside-down U.S. flag with the inscription ‘Elizabeth Windsor and Co we don’t want him here.’ She was arrested and later bailed.
But that wasn’t the reason for the Asbo application.
Lindis Percy is Co-Coordinator of the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB) working to bring public scrutiny and accountability to US Visiting Forces and their Agencies in the UK, and since 1990 has taken part in pickets and demonstrations outside the Menwith Hill monitoring station in order to highlight concerns about the function of the base; the secrecy which surrounds it and the lack of accountability of the base to parliament.
RAF Menwith Hill looms out of the mist on the bleak North Yorkshire moors, a series of huge white domes, looking like giant golf balls. The perimeter fence is punctuated by watchtowers and patrolled by guard dogs. Curious passers-by who linger to stare are quickly met by military guards who inquire as to the nature of their interest.
Sprawling across 560 acres, it has an operation centre and on-site town, including houses, shops, a chapel and a sports centre. It also has its own uninterruptible electricity supply.
The name is misleading — it is not a British airbase. It is the largest electronic monitoring station in the world, and it’s run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), which monitors the world’s communication for US intelligence. It has a staff of more than 1,400 American staff including engineers, physicists, mathematicians, linguists and computer scientists, plus 370 staff from the Ministry of Defense, working around the clock inside "hardened" buildings intercepting and analyzing communications mainly from Europe, Russia and the Middle East. NSA and its charter and any mention of its duties are classified.
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 large golfballs or "radomes" contain satellite receiving dishes.
NSA controls a global spy system called ECHELON, shared with the GCHQ of England, the CSE of Canada, the Australian DSD, and the GCSB of New Zealand. These organizations are bound together under a secret 1948 agreement, UKUSA, whose terms and text remain secret even today.
This system positions communications receiving stations all over the world to capture all satellite, microwave, cellular and fiber-optic traffic, and then processes this information through the massive computer capabilities of the NSA, including voice recognition and OCR technology, and looks for code words or phrases (known as the ECHELON "dictionaries"). Intelligence analysts at each of the respective "listening stations" analyze any conversation or document flagged by the system and forwards any relevant information back to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Most of the information gathered by this system passes through without notice to the intelligence agencies. But if you should mention the word "bomb" or "Bin Ladin" or maybe even "Bush" or "revolution" in a phone conversation, you can be sure that some intelligence analyst will review the transcript of your conversation to ensure that you are not engaged in a terrorist plot. And who knows what other words they might have in their ‘dictionaries’?
Voicing his opinion in 1975, Senator Frank Church cautioned against the technological power of the NSA:
"That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny. There would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capacity of this technology."
And shortly before he was killed in a road accident in May 1994, in a speech in the House of Commons MP Bob Cryer, a committed supporter of the peace movement opined:
"Menwith Hill is a spy station- a sophisticated version of the man in the dirty raincoat looking through a bedroom window or the pervert spying through a lavatory keyhole. Those who defend the station’s invasion of our land, which has never been approved by parliament, are no better. There is no glory or wonderful purpose involved in Menwith Hill. That is all the more true now that the cold war is over. Ministers justified the Menwith Hill base by saying it was part of the cold war, but we understand that that has finished. What is their justification for the spy station now?"
The weekly non-violent protests organized by the Campaign for Accountability of American Bases outside at Menwith Hill are aimed at the base’s employees and involve holding up US flags with the words "No More Meddling Please" written on them.
After Lindis Percy’s last arrest she was found guilty of five counts of obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty and obstructing the highway, and along with fellow campaigner, Anni Rainbow, with aggravated trespass and resisting arrest.
The Ministry of Defence police then decided to apply for the Asbo against her, accusing Ms Percy of ‘frightening, harassing and alarming the community including babies and children’.
In a statement Ms Percy said: "The application for this Asbo is all about stifling peaceful protest."
This week the Ministry of Defence failed in its attempt to use one against her.
However, although he rejected the attempt, before passing sentence, Judge Anderson warned that "there could be circumstances where anti-social behaviour orders may be used against those engaging in political or other protests, if they indulged in intimidating behaviour".
In the meantime, the alternative he came up with was to tag her and keep keep her under house arrest overnight.
But the indefatigable Lindis Percy says that she will continue to protest at Menwith Hill, and along with other campaigners is determined to make the work of the base properly accountable to parliament.
MICHAEL DICKINSON is a writer and artist who works as an English teacher in Istanbul, Turkey. He designed the cover art for two CounterPunch books, Serpents in the Garden and Dime’s Worth of Difference, as well as Grand Theft Pentagon, forthcoming from Common Courage Press. He can be contacted through his website of collage pictures at http://CARNIVAL_OF_CHAOS.TRIPOD.COM