Operation Big Ear

Tam Dalyell

  • The Unsinkable Aircraft-Carrier: American Military Power in Britain by Duncan Campbell
    Joseph, 351 pp, £12.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 7181 2289 5

This is the advice I shall give to those of my Parliamentary friends who have an interest in the American military presence in Britain, but who may have neither the time nor the inclination to read a 340-page book. ‘Go to the Oriel Room in the Commons Library, and having got the Unsinkable Aircraft-Carrier, turn to pages 76 and 77. There you will find a map of all the American bases and installations in Britain. You and I are meant to be public representatives in this land, but I’ll bet you had no more notion than I had of the sheer scale of the United States presence.’ I doubt whether Government sources will be able to deny much that Campbell says, since as Field Marshal Lord Carver has put it, ‘Campbell does not rely on emotion or distortion.’ I have reservations about only one point of fact. At the beginning of his book, he says:

In June/July 1946, shortly after the formation of the Strategic Air Command, US Air Force Commander General Carl Spaatz visited England to obtain permission to use British bases for atomic bomb missions in emergency. Spaatz obtained the agreement of Air Chief Marshal Lord Tedder, the Royal Air Force Chief of Staff, to have five RAF bases designated and made ready for B-29 bombers. The Spaatz-Tedder agreement was struck between officials, without public discussion or political debate of the momentous issues involved. This secret administrative agreement was the first step, extremely casually taken, in the establishment of post-war US bases in Britain.

Campbell goes on to recall that in August 1946 an official of the US ‘Manhattan District’, code-name for the atomic bomb construction project, one Colonel E.E. Kirkpatrick, visited England to supervise the construction of assembly buildings and loading pits at the chosen bases – Lakenheath, Mildenhall, Scampton, Marham and Bassingbourn. Atom-bomb handling facilities in Britain, and in the Mariana Islands in the Pacific, were ready by 1947. In August 1948, a month after it was established, the Third Air Division at Marham was made a permanent military unit. Lord Tedder’s RAF Deputy Chief of Staff, Sir William Dickson, proposed that the US bases remain designated as Royal Air Force stations: a cosmetic disguise intended to alleviate local hostility to the presence of foreign military forces on British soil in peacetime. The proposal was accepted, and on this footing almost all American bases in Britain are described as ‘RAF’ bases, and have an RAF ‘commander’. These ‘commanders’ – Squadron Leaders who are two or three ranks inferior to the US Commanding Officer – are in reality local liaison officers with no rights or responsibilities beyond community relations. Campbell is right about the end result, but I offer a different version of events. And if I do so, it is because my version of events has a relevance to the immediate past when James Callaghan agreed to Chevaline without telling most of the Cabinet, let alone the Labour Party, and when Margaret Thatcher with the solitary aid of Cecil Parkinson conducted the major decisions of the Falklands War.

It so happens that Arthur Tedder was a distant kinsman of my father, who married, after his first wife died, my father’s cousin, ‘Toppy’ Seton (sister of Bruce Seton, alias the first TV Inspector Fabian of the Yard). Because of this double family connection, my parents knew Arthur Tedder very well, and I remember him staying in our house several times during my childhood. I used to sit and watch him sketching the hills on the other side of the Firth of Forth. It was on account of this former relationship that I used to go to Banstead in Surrey from time to time to chat with the ‘old boy’ after Toppy had died, when I had become a Member of Parliament. Though physically crippled, Arthur Tedder was absolutely ‘compos mentis’ until shortly before he died. Because I was a young MP, he talked about politicians a good deal, for whom he had no great esteem as a breed. And one of the reasons that politicians irked him was their habit of pretending that they did not know when they had indeed had something spelled out to them. Tedder’s disenchantment with Churchill was considerable, and related not only to Churchill’s role in the bombing of Dresden. (Sir Arthur Harris, who died recently, advised against the destruction of Dresden.) For Clement Attlee, however, Tedder had a generally high regard: he indicated to me that he had himself voted Labour in 1945, and was not in the least distressed that a kinsman of his had become a Labour rather than a Tory MP. But I remember his being adamant that he had told Clement Attlee about the ‘Spaatz-Tedder’ proposals, and that it was Attlee, with Ernie Bevin’s knowledge, who had instructed him to accept the American suggestion. Shades of the Chevaline affair three decades later! Really critical decisions on Defence matters have been taken by the most intimate cabal of senior ministers. If this is never allowed to happen again, it will be thanks in part to Duncan Campbell, who has been one of the most effective champions of open government and accountability where they hugely matter.

Campbell has assembled a great deal of information which was news to me and will be to my Parliamentary colleagues. We may be partially forgiven, since any Parliamentary Questions on security matters are ruled out of order – by decision of the Commons itself, in support of governments, rather than of the Parliamentary Clerks and Table Office, who simply carry out the instructions of the House. I wonder how many informed people in Britain could tell you what they connect with ‘Menwith Hill’? An iron-age fort? A stock-car racing site? Menwith Hill is no such thing, I fear. In 1956 a US Army team arrived to develop the new base at Menwith Hill, near Harrogate, and it has become the giant American NSA ‘Big Ear’ for European Communications. Now that international diplomatic and military signals are increasingly sent by cable, not radio, a special network of microwave radio connections run there by British Telecom feeds a radio station at Hunters Stones near Harrogate, where Campbell has found out that high-capacity underground cables run along the B 6451 road and cross into the monitoring base. All Britain’s international telex, data and telephone connections are secretly tapped by the NSA or its partner GCHQ. In intelligence work it is almost as important for nations to keep an eye on their friends as on their enemies.

Campbell’s knowledge is encyclopedic – this is precisely where his book is different from any other I have read remotely appertaining to this field. Fact piles on fact, on a base of more fact. And he also writes exceedingly well. This cascade of information reinforces his case for open government and for a Freedom of Information Act in this country. When some form of Freedom of Information Act comes before the House of Commons, as it surely must, I hope it will be under the new procedure whereby the Standing Committee considering a Bill can call before it expert witnesses. One of the first should be Campbell. His book is full of the Beef which Mr Mondale purports to admire.

Perhaps the most interesting and important aspect of Campbell’s book is his deployment of the argument that the present operational, administrative and legal status of US forces in Britain is quite unacceptable. He claims that the British Government has repeatedly misled the public, or been in manifest ignorance itself, about US military activities or intentions. Campbell say that these failures of information are almost entirely the product of British inadequacies, rather than American mischief. It would be a true political innocent in Whitehall or Westminster who ever expected US military commanders to act other than in consonance with the long-term national interests of the United States, or to tell the British more than they had to rather than as little as they could get away with. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the British people have been treated with evident disdain in dealings with the United States. British prime ministers have set great store by being fêted on the lawn of the White House by American Presidents, whoever they were – and Harold Wilson adored being invited to LBJ’s ranch. Mrs Thatcher appears to have taken the view that almost anything goes, so far as the deployment of US Forces is concerned. But her government is in a deeply contradictory position, as Campbell points out. On the issue of British sovereignty, they found that war with Argentina was necessary over the Falkland Islands. For the sake of sovereignty and ‘independence’, £10 thousand million is to be spent on Trident missiles and submarines – so that we shall have our own completely independent national nuclear deterrent, non-negotiable at the Geneva arms reduction talks. Yet in respect of the risks for, and restraints on, British independence which are created by the presence of foreign military bases on our soil British sovereignty is regarded both as negotiable and as almost irrelevant. Last year Mrs Thatcher’s Government made a fleeting attempt, recalls Campbell, to restore some of the rights and sovereignty which the British Government should have had, and which previous administrations gave away. But she and her minister found that an expedient alternative to this difficult political task was to exaggerate the extent of British control over American activities, citing the previous Labour Government’s acceptance of the status quo – as if that implied that matters were automatically satisfactory. As Campbell says, American Congressmen would not have stood idly by while Washington civil servants handed away territory en masse at no charge, sanctioned the imposition of a foreign legal code, and capped the whole by permitting a foreign nation – ally or not – the right to start a war from US territory, without guaranteeing even as much as a by-your-leave. The other day I petitioned the Scottish Law officers without success for an Amendment to the Visiting Forces Act to allow Scottish courts to deal with US servicemen found guilty of using hallucinatory drugs while attached to nuclear submarine bases on the Clyde. The most serious abrogation of British sovereignty now bound into the special relationship is the ‘understanding’ – or lack of it – about the ‘emergency’ use of US bases in Britain. This is ‘a matter for joint decision’ – an elastic form of words.

On 9 April I went to St John’s, Smith Square, to hear the address by Mrs Jeane Kirkpatrick, not only American Ambassador at the United Nations, but a lady with the ear of the President of the United States. No one who heard that address can be in the slightest doubt that this American Government will do precisely as it thinks fit in these and other relevant matters. So cursory was the consultation with Downing Street over Grenada that our Queen had to learn (to her fury) of the invasion of a Commonwealth country from her TV set. Does anyone imagine that the Americans would be tender about British opinion if the crunch came? They are unlikely to have been made more responsive by the fact that Mrs Thatcher lacked the sense to consult the American Government about the sending of the Battle Fleet to the Western Hemisphere and South Atlantic, let alone about the decision to sink the Belgrano. As was made quite clear in a recent lead letter to the Times by an American strategist, American law does not permit the President to enter into joint decision-making.