The ECHELON trail — Part Three: The Special Branch raid on Lancaster University

By Steve Wright

(The first part in this series can be read here, second part here, and an introduction to the series here.)

The Special Branch Raid On Lancaster University

Not all knowledge is from rational sources. Even the term paranoia literally means ‘beyond knowledge (para: beyond; noia: knowledge). On the night of 5th April 1977 I had a stormy, seemingly pointless argument with my wife. In frustration I declared that my wife didn’t understand the work in which I was engaged and ‘one day my work would walk through the front door.’ The instant response, quite deservedly, was ‘you’re being melodramatic – I’m going to bed!’ I reflected on this afterwards thinking it was a bit melodramatic and that I was making needless emotional waves.

A few hours later loud knocks on the door heralded the arrival of six Special Branch officers who make it clear that they wanted co-operation otherwise they will use ‘blatant search techniques’. This implied that not only would they turn the place over but that the search would become very obvious to the neighbours. Without the argument of the night before, I might have caved in. Because of it and a silly sense of ‘I told you so’ I calmly suggested that what they were doing infringed academic freedom and was unprecedented. This episode of déjà vu was so well documented in the light of subsequent events, Brian Inglis used it in his book, the Hidden Power. The lesson here is whilst one should never give way to paranoia, it is useful to develop and trust your intuition. Our minds are capable of intuitive leaps which are ours to use even if we can not necessarily rationally explain them and the history of science is full of such episodes. Our challenge is to use hunches as a methodology to conjecture with or refute.

In fact my then neighbours were so alarmed by the presence of six burly strangers strolling around our house they called the local police! The officer knocked on our door and was given short shrift by Detective Chief Inspector Moffat of Scotland Yard, who told him, ‘It’s official so piss off’. I queried what it was that I was alleged to have done and the Kafkaesque atmosphere was heightened by the response that it is an official secret and I cannot be told. In the meantime, my diaries and entire research correspondence were removed. I discovered later that the police don’t steal, the technical term is detinue – i.e. they hold on to items longer than they should, a matter which can be devastating if a researcher is working to pre-set deadlines.

In this heavy atmosphere of confrontation with secret police officers, it would have been easy to roll over but I felt it was important to stand up to their infringement of my rights to research. How was another matter. I could easily see how my academic future could be blown out of the water if a full secrets trial resulted from what was to all intents and purposes a fishing expedition.

I was taken by car to Lancaster University. It was the Easter holiday period and the special branch officers expected ‘that a bit of arm twisting’ would give them easy access to my offices in an otherwise empty campus. But the politics department was crawling with academics who were demanding proper procedures be followed. After some delay, I thanked the officers for their lift to campus and announced that I had work to do and proceeded to exit the car. This forced their hand and I was arrested under the official secrets legislation and taken to meet with Professor Phillip Reynolds the Pro-Vice Chancellor, together with various university and college officials who had assembled: Dr Roxbee Cox, Fylde principal and Mr. Forrester, Academic Registrar.

The atmosphere was tense. Special Branch demanded access to my room and I pointed out that principles of academic freedom were involved. After all I had only ever used open sources, had simply followed the university motto and no one had explained the nature of any charges laid against me. Detective Chief Inspector Moffat replied that ‘this was an issue of national security’ and told me that they had a warrant. Professor Reynolds demanded that they go through the proper channels, to which Moffat replied that he had six men present and would start breaking down doors in the department if access was denied. People began sweating – it was an unforgettable moment. I broke it by emphasizing that I had nothing to hide and suggested that they could search to their hearts’ content.1 The atmosphere was thankfully lightened a bit later with the arrival of my supervisor, Dr Paul Smoker, who amidst the hub bub in the corridors managed to give me a burst of the Beatles hit, ‘Listen Do You Want To Know A Secret – Do you Promise Not to Tell?’ Perfect: but I was later held in Lancaster Police Station for several hours, refused a solicitor and when finally released was told, sometimes you fellows are too clever for your own good.’

The raid turned my research plans upside down not to mention the impact it had on my personal life. However it was many times worse for the main researchers, Crispin Aubrey, John Berry and Duncan Campbell (now deemed the ABC defendants), who were facing the full rigours of an official secrets act trial. And yet there was a puzzle: why had Special Branch undertaken such a foolhardy exercise as to raid a British University – how come I’d touched on a raw nerve? It quickly dawned on me that I had inadvertently stumbled on a network connected with the configuration of the antennae I had photographed on the Quenmore Moor, which the authorities were desperate to keep secret. It seemed incomprehensible. I knew that Menwith Hill was a US base, but what was the link with UK phone lines, and especially the link to Northern Ireland? Just where were the results being transmitted – to the US, but how – by satellite? The system must be huge. It felt like a science fiction movie.

We now know that most US intelligence is gathered by signals intelligence using huge computers to trawl through the worlds’ telecommunications looking for selected key words using a complicated algorithm and dictionary system of key words and operated by the NSA (the National Security Agency). At that time hardly anyone had heard of the NSA despite the fact that it was the largest purchaser of computers on the planet. The days of intelligence gathered by James Bond characters or Human Intelligence (Humint) are long gone. What we didn’t know was that the US Base at Menwith Hill, with its field of radomes, was the largest NSA base on earth with many roles and function of which ECHELON was just one. It was and is involved in missile monitoring and guidance as well as satellite monitoring and control. But at that juncture all we had were jigsaw puzzle pieces and we had begun to build a model of a futuristic system of interceptions – the bulk of which as we know now, is in space. The fuller model could only be developed later as further jigsaw pieces fell into place.

However, the pragmatics of defending my position became all consuming. The university provided me with a Lancaster lawyer. He advised me that he had been told by the Special Branch officers that the researchers I have been co-operating with are extremely dangerous people and that I should cut off all contact with them. I developed the strong impression that this fellow was more used to matrimonials and conveyancing. Worse – I was paying for this disinformation. In such circumstances, one has to experience a rather steep learning curve. I sacked my solicitor and found a much more expensive firm from Liverpool: Bremner, Sons and Corlett, who were more used to dealing with Special Branch and who took a tad more professional approach in following their client’s wishes. I was advised that if I wished to take legal action to regain my papers it must go through a higher legal authority and I would have to meet with a barrister in Chambers. As a very poor student, the financial implications were horrendous and I could see a significant chunk of my terms grant disappear in legal fees.

I was told that the lawyers for the ABC defendants had been faced with considerable official paranoia over the case and that they were not being allowed to receive the trail committal papers unless their offices were equipped with high security safes. The succinct legal advice I was given was that if I continued in the task of trying to get by research papers back, ‘my future research, career and even my life would be in danger.’ I clearly needed a stiff drink after that and some further moral and political support. I went to see the then VC, a wise Quaker, Sir Charles Carter who had been influential in setting up the first Programme of Peace research in the University.

After our meeting, on the 5th May 1977, he released the following statement:

Those who work in universities cannot expect to be exempt from the application of the law, but they can reasonably ask for sympathetic understanding of their duty to seek access to all evidence relevant to their studies. Truth is not something to be determined by the state.

This was an important intervention which received national publicity. By coincidence, the Student Union had invited Duncan Campbell up to Lancaster from the ABC solidarity committee. He was able to take a copy of the statement to Robin Cook MP (Cook who died earlier this year, went on to become British Foreign Secretary and eventually father of the House of Commons)). Cook opened the first ever British parliamentary debate on the Special Branch and defended my right to research without political interference.2

There was certainly political interference. We started to receive odd threatening phone calls at home, finance was desperate and I had just weeks to bid for continuing grants. My marriage could no longer take the strain and we separated on 7 June 1977 as the rest of the people in our street celebrated the Queens Silver Jubilee. A few weeks later, my wife’s father had a heart attack and died and in deep grief she had a breakdown which eventually involved me in extracting her from the hospital and attempting to heal her troubled heart. But it was too late, the damage had been done and I had to go to ground. I got a job digging fields for £1 an hour, just within sight of the shadow of the Thornton in Lonsdale microwave tower. It was a completely desolate time but I vowed that one day I would get justice for the injustice that I had endured. It was a powerful mantra but there was no guide book as to how such a lofty goal could be achieved: just patient persistence. Twenty years would pass before I would get my chance. In the meantime, my lawyers obtained copies of my research correspondence, I was released from police bail, the ABC defendents fought and won their freedom in one of the most dramatic political trials of the 1970’s and I got back to the business of completing my PhD. All the surveillance researchers of that era had quickly realised just how important it was to join together to research state structures, if they are not to be picked off one by one when a particular security alert gets out of hand.. From that crucible, the first regular journal monitoring state surveillance was born – State Research (now Statewatch) which continues its excellent ground breaking work to this day.

Tomorrow: The ECHELON trail — Part Four: The Omega Foundation

1. For a contemporary account of this episode see Lawrence, B. (1977) ‘Nasty Branch hit Bailrigg, Scan, Edition 1, 26 April, page 1

2. Hansard 5 May 1977, col 806

(This article originally appeared in Surveillance & Society 3 (2/3) and is republished here with the permission of the author.)

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