Scrutiny of US airbases in Britain is stuck in the 1950s
Ministers have been complacent over the risk that US activities on British soil may result in the deaths of innocent civilians
RAF Croughton: ‘Made available for use by the US visiting forces under the terms of the Nato status of forces agreement of 1951’. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
Almost all first impressions of RAF Croughton – a small airbase that sits amid green fields, about 20 miles north-east of the prime minister’s Witney constituency – are misleading. From the road running out of the nearby Northamptonshire village from which it takes its name, it is visible as a series of anonymous, barn-like buildings. An understated sign on a low brick wall and a couple of cold-war-era jets, no longer in use, would appear to mark it out as a relic; a sleepy airbase whose heyday has passed.
But scratch the surface and the reality is very different. RAF Croughton, which despite its name has in fact been a US base for more than six decades, is a crucial hub for the operations of today’s “war on terror”.
The US military describes it as the headquarters for the provision of “world-class … communications and global strike operations”. BT provides state of the art links between it and a US base in Djibouti, from which highly secretive drone strikes in Yemen are launched. And recent reports have demonstrated the central role played by Croughton in the NSA’s mass surveillance programme, even implicating it in the US bugging of Angela Merkel’s phone.
The picture that emerges suggests that US bases in the UK – and elsewhere in Europe – are central not only to mass surveillance but also to the secret drone campaign being waged by the CIA and American special forces.
This campaign is one of the worst excesses of the ‘war on terror’. Strikes carried out in Yemen – a country with which the US is not at war – by robotic aircraft have killed large numbers of civilians, and are widely opposed by civil society and the country’s parliament. Earlier this year, the Obama administration was forced to open an investigation – a depressingly rare event – into a drone strike that hit a wedding party in Yemen, after evidence was unearthed by human rights charity Reprieve.
Yet despite the position of bases such as Croughton at the bleeding edge of the hi-tech war on terror, the way they are regulated is stuck in the stone age.
When I asked the government about the arrangements under which it operates, I was told: “RAF Croughton is made available for use by the United States visiting forces under the terms of the Nato status of forces agreement of 1951.”
I subsequently asked whether this would be updated, in the light of the considerable changes in technology since the 1950s, but the minister replied that, in his view, “There is no requirement for an additional agreement regarding the use of RAF Croughton by the United States visiting forces” and, “The Department has no plans to review this arrangement nor review the activities undertaken by the US at the base”.
That is why this week’s moves in the House of Lords to update and strengthen oversight of these bases are as welcome as they are overdue. Amendments to the defence reform bill, tabled by a cross-party group of peers, are aiming to drag the regulation of these bases into the 21st century. They will require the defence secretary to report to parliament on what is going on at these sites; provide a scrutiny group, headed by a senior judge, to carry out oversight; and bring the bases under the remit of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which oversees the use of surveillance in the UK.
It is shocking that ministers have so far displayed such complacency over the very real risk that activities undertaken by the US on British soil may be resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians and serious violations of international law; and it seems obvious that, in a world where drone strikes and mass surveillance on a previously unimaginable scale have become a daily reality, rules drawn up in the 1950s need to be updated.
My view has been reinforced by the expert advice of Jemima Stratford QC, which I commissioned as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on drones. Stratford advises that the government has a duty to investigate and prevent unlawful activity at US bases. She concludes that the amendments proposed may well help, where the Ministry of Defence does not “hold information” on US activities at the base.
The agreements that govern how these bases are used are almost as old as George Orwell’s dystopian portrayal of the UK as “Airstrip One”, subservient to a US-led super-state. That this portrayal now seems in some ways more up-to-date than the government’s feeble regulation of US bases in this country is surely a compelling reason for ministers to support these eminently reasonable amendments.
TAP – That would be a start. How about just closing them all down?
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