Despite much hype about the recent “Brexit,” top U.K. officials have made clear that the UK/USA “special relationship” in diplomatic and intelligence matters will remain strong as ever. Any lingering doubt about it can safely be disregarded following revelations from the Intercept this week regarding the massive yet shadowy surveillance base in the English countryside known as Menwith Hill, and its role in supporting U.S. drone strikes.
Documents published along with the Intercept‘s story show that the secretive Menwith Hill facility, recognizable for its huge domed buildings that resemble golf balls, has shifted its mission over the years, with its network of spy satellites and other surveillance capabilities moving towards a “collect it all” and “exploit it all” framework under a program known as “Elegant Chaos.”
They also show that the base, which targets a kind of satellite system known as VSATs, or Very Small Aperture Terminals, which are frequently utilized by Middle Eastern governments and Internet cafes used by terrorism suspects, has been directly involved in locating individuals for targeted killing in U.S. drone strikes.
In May, a British parliamentary committee warned that U.K government employees involved in coordinating drone strikes could be exposing themselves to risk of criminal prosecution in the course of simply doing their government jobs. While it seems highly unlikely — at least in the current political climate — that such state workers would face prosecution in U.K courts, the committee warned of potential foreign charges.
“We owe it to all those involved in the chain of command for such uses of lethal force to provide them with absolute clarity about the circumstances in which they will have a defence against any possible future criminal prosecution, including those which might originate from outside the UK,” the parliamentary joint committee on human rights reportedly said at that time.
Despite such statements from some officials, however, further clarity does not appear forthcoming. The U.S. National Security Agency (whose staff compose a large portion of Menwith Hill employees) along with the the Director of National Intelligence and the British Ministry of Defence and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), all declined to offer any substantive comment or explanation in response to the Intercept‘s requests regarding its recent story.
The Ministry of Defence did comment on another aspect of its involvement in drone warfare this week, however, announcing a new competition to create lethal swarms of microdrones for use on foreign battlefields.
This is not the first news of discussion by the British military of using tiny drones to fight groups like ISIS. Last month, Sky News reported on a miniature “Dragonfly” surveillance drone being developed by the Ministry of Defence as part of a drive that also included an “anti-drone device that uses lasers to burn holes in enemy drones.” But this latest announcement may be the first public discussion of U.K. plans to use multiple airborne robots that, as described by the Daily Mirror, “would act like a swarm of flies honing in on their prey” to bombard their targets with missiles and lasers, all under the direction of a lone remote operator.
Given the silence of U.K agencies such as GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence on their legal rationales for using such bizarre weaponry, however, which would seemingly only be fit for a science fiction villain, it remains unclear what practical steps the lone operators tasked with killing people using these remote-controlled swarms will be able take to avoid future international war crimes charges.
In related news this week, seven suspected militants were killed by what was likely a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. The U.S. admitted in July that it has likely killed over 100 civilians in drone strikes, while independent observers claim the actual number is much higher.