RAF Croughton, near Milton Keynes, is to have 1,250 staff and will cover US operations in Africa
Washington is to spend almost £200m to turn one of its British military bases – already implicated in mass surveillance and drone strikes – into one of its largest intelligence hubs outside the mainland United States.
The $317m (£189m) project, which includes an installation for the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s main military espionage service, underlines RAF Croughton’s position as a centre for clandestine and classified US communications in Britain.
Once complete in 2017, the facility will be comparable in number of personnel and operational importance to RAF Menwith Hill, the National Security Agency (NSA) listening station in North Yorkshire. Like Menwith Hill, it is likely to be co-staffed with representatives of British intelligence, including GCHQ.
The Independent, the sister title of The Independent on Sunday, revealed last year that RAF Croughton was used to funnel back to Washington data from a global network of spy bases inside US embassies, including the secret Berlin facility alleged to have been used by the NSA to listen in on the mobile phone of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
The British base, which currently serves as a relay station for CIA agent communications, is also at the centre of claims that it is used as a support site for US drone strikes operated from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti against al-Qa’ida targets inside Yemen.
Campaigners and senior politicians yesterday said the massive investment in RAF Croughton raised fresh questions about the oversight of US bases in Britain, which are governed by a 1950s agreement with Washington drawn up in a different age of surveillance technologies.
Labour MP Tom Watson, a former defence minister, said: “The new spend of $317m on facilities at RAF Croughton is a shocking revelation. There can be no doubt now that communications activities there must be thoroughly reviewed, and arrangements governing use of the base updated.”
Details of the RAF Croughton project obtained by this newspaper show that the upgrade will involve the “consolidation” of six existing US intelligence groups, currently based at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, into a single facility at RAF Croughton.
The Pentagon said the project was required to move intelligence staff out of outmoded and unsuitable accommodation at Molesworth, saving at least $75m a year. The move will lead to “divestiture”, or closure, of the Cambridgeshire base and its neighbour RAF Alconbury, which are estimated to contribute £40m a year to the local economy.
The result will be a substantial further concentration of US intelligence firepower at RAF Croughton, whose stated purpose is to provide “world-class combat support” for activities including “global strike operations” and has recently had its security arrangements tightened.
A USAF briefing document makes it clear that the facility at RAF Croughton will be at the front line of intelligence activities and will include personnel from unnamed British agencies. The facility will be the principle intelligence centre for the USafricom – or Africa command.
It emerged last year that British Telecom provided a high-speed fibre-optic line between RAF Croughton and Camp Lemonnier, the counterterrorism operations base used for drone strikes in Yemen and the Horn of Africa.