BT condemned for listing cables to US sigint station
4 September, 1997
A judge has lambasted BT for revealing detailed information about top secret high capacity cables feeding phone and
other messages to and from a Yorkshire monitoring base. BT admitted this week that they have connected three digital
optical fibre cables - capable of carrying more than 100,000 telephone calls at once - to the American intelligence base
at Menwith Hill, near Harrogate.
Menwith Hill is run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), which monitors the world's communication for US
intelligence. NSA acknowledges that "the Hill" is the largest electronic monitoring station in the world. Over 1,200 US
civilians and servicemen work round the clock at the base, intercepting and analysing communications mainly from
Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
Much of the information reaching the base comes from spy satellites. The base has 26 large white golfballs or "radomes"
for space communications, making it an inescapable landmark in the Yorkshire dales.
In a courtroom fiasco this week, British Telecom's solicitors first sent documents and a witness to give details of the
cables to York Crown Court, where two women campaigners were appealing against conviction for trespassing at the
station. The next day, they sent a second solicitor to attempt to silence their own witness and to withdraw evidence
Judge Jonathan Crabtree agreed to grant public interest immunity "BT had no business whatsoever to disclose anything
of the kind", he said. He then ordered Mr R.G. Morris, BT's head of emergency planning, not to give any more evidence
about the secret cables.
After being privately briefed in his chambers by BT's second solicitor, the judge said that it was immaterial if Menwith
Hill was spying on British citizens and commercial communications and may have cost British companies in billions of
dollars of lost sales.
"The national interest of the United Kingdom, even if if is conducted dishonestly, requires this to be kept
secret", said Judge Crabtree.
"The methods of communicating to and from Menwith Hill, whether military intelligence or commercial spying, is clearly
secret information. The governments of the United States and United Kingdom do not want this information to be
divulged", he explained.
But he said that BT's list of secret cables in and out of Menwith Hill could not be withdrawn from the case. "Half the cat
is out of the bag. The contents of the letter are now in public domain. I just don't know what BT think they were doing",
According to the letter, the Post Office (now BT) first provided two high capacity "wide bandwidth" circuits to Menwith
Hill in 1975. They were connected on a coaxial cable to the BT network at Hunters Stones, a microwave radio station a
few miles from the US base.
During the 1970s and 1980s, almost all Britain's long-distance telephone calls were carried on the microwave network
of which Hunters Stones is part. The existence of the cables connecting the network to Menwith Hill has been known
since 1980, but the authorities have always refused to comment. BT now claims that the cables were connected directly
to the United States via undersea cable, and did not link to other parts of the British system.
The system was upgraded in 1992, says BT, when a new high capacity optical fibre cable was installed. This linked to a
different part of the BT network, but was also carried directly to the United States via undersea cable. Since then, BT
revealed, the capacity of the system has been trebled by adding two more optical fibre links. These could carry more
than 100,000 simultaneous telephone calls.
Lawyers for the two women campaigners, Helen John and Anne Lee, say they were astonished by the company's
sudden change of heart. They said that the letter giving details of the cables may have been written for PR purposes, and
appeared intended to suggest that BT wasn't helping NSA tap telephones. This, BT said, was a "misapprehension which
is damaging to this company's reputation".
BT staff also hinted that other British communications companies are supplying tapping capacity to the American base.
Even as BT's solicitor was seeking to have his evidence prohibited, BT's witness was outside court giving further
information to the women's solicitor implying that other British communications companies were also involved in the
spying activities at Menwith Hill. "You should ask me about other companies", he said before he was silenced.
Tony Benn - who was the Postmaster General at the time cables were first installed connecting Menwith Hill to the
British communications network - also gave evidence. He said that although a Cabinet minister and privy councillor, he
had been told nothing of the secret arrangements with the Americans.
BT were ordered to pay the legal costs caused by their change of heart. The judge accused them of giving away
confidential commercial information and national secrets. "If I had a burglar alarm system, I would now think twice about
having it operated by BT", he said.
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