In 1977, I was an undergraduate at Lancaster University in England coming towards the end of my first year studying politics. My perspective on America at that time had been shaped by events of the preceding decade: Vietnam; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy; Watergate and Nixon; the CIA’s illegal operations; and this amorphous but far-reaching entity called American Power.
Still, as much as America seemed to dominate the world, in my own experience — like that of most other non-Americans across the West — that domination came mostly in the relatively benign and sometimes enriching form of American culture — from Lucille Ball to Mission Impossible, and from Jack Kerouac to Miles Davis.
And then something unusual happened.
On April 6 the university was in recess for the Easter vacation but suddenly Lancaster and one student in particular became the focus of national news when Britain’s secret police raided the campus.
Steve Wright was a graduate student in the politics department engaged in research on “Social Control and Death Technologies.” Wright’s supervisor was Dr. Paul Smoker, one of the founding fathers of modern peace research, who was then Lancaster’s Director of the Programme of Peace and Conflict Research.
That Britain had a secret branch of the police force dedicated to tackling political subversion was not common knowledge, even though the Special Branch (also known as Specialist Operations 15 or SO15) had actually been created in 1883 to combat Irish nationalists.
As the force grew through the 20th century, the scope of what it deemed potential threats to public order and national security expanded to include the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, groups in the animal rights movement and later anti-globalisation demonstrators.
In 1977, there were indications that Britain’s intelligence services had also come to regard investigative journalism as a national security threat.
What would later emerge was that Wright’s arrest was part of an operation designed to protect not only Britain’s state secrets but also to protect American interests and specifically those of the National Security Agency.
At the time of the arrest, Sir Charles Carter, the Vice Chancellor (chief administrator) of the University issued a public statement in defense of academic freedom and the right for research to be undertaken without the interference of the security service. Carter noted:
Truth is not something to be determined by the state.
It would be more than a decade before the NSA’s operations in Britain were first reported in the press. This came in spite of the British government’s best efforts to suppress publication of Duncan Campbell’s investigation of Project P415, otherwise known as ECHELON — a system of global surveillance that the NSA had been building and operating before Edward Snowden was even born.
In a 2005 article for the journal Surveillance & Society, Wright (who is now Associate Director of the Praxis Centre, Leeds Metropolitan University) told the story behind the uncovering of ECHELON and an investigation in which all the key researchers got promptly arrested.
Decades after those events, this story is of particular relevance now, as the NSA presents its global mass surveillance operations as having been necessitated by 9/11. As Campbell reported in 1988, the NSA and its partners’ surveillance systems “rely on near total interception of international commercial and satellite communications”.
Not only does the NSA eavesdrop on everyone — it has been doing so for far longer than most Americans realize.
Steve Wright gave me permission to republish his 8,200 article which I have divided into four parts which I will post over the next four days, beginning with: The ECHELON trail — Part One: An illegal vision.