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Report: Secret British spy base in Middle East taps region's internet

'Security services hook tentacles into underseas fibre optic cables'

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Among the vast haul of information lifted from secret networks by former US intelligence sysadmin Edward Snowden are details of a top-secret British spy base placed in the Middle East to tap into undersea communications cables and eavesdrop on the region's internet, it has been reported.

According to the Independent, the clandestine base is used to hoover up huge amounts of data, such as emails, telephone calls and web traffic.

America's National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK's eavesdropping nerve centre in Cheltenham (GCHQ) are recipients of data that have been sifted at the station for items of interest, it is claimed.

Left-wing newspaper The Guardian, which exclusively revealed some of the information Snowden had copied, stopped short of reporting the location of the covert base that apparently taps into and then scoops up data from underseas fibre-optic cables running through the region.

The Indy claimed that the Graun agreed with the UK government not to disclose any material contained in the 50,000 GCHQ documents that Snowden snatched in 2012 which could pose a threat to national security.

But the Indy, under no such obligation, also revealed that the former CIA techie and NSA contractor, who currently has political asylum in Russia, downloaded the docs "from an internal Wikipedia-style information site called GC-Wiki. Unlike the public Wikipedia, GCHQ's wiki was generally classified Top Secret or above."

The Register sought a statement from the GCHQ. A spokesperson simply told us: "We do not comment on intelligence matters".

Earlier this month, the Guardian did report on so-called "intercept partners" the UK government has on its books, including BT, Verizon, Level 3, Interroute and Vodafone Business. But it only did that after Germany's Süddeutsche newspaper published the names of the corporations that were said to be secretly working with the GCHQ on the spy programme codenamed Tempora.

Many of the companies mentioned in that report subsequently said that they complied with local laws in each of the countries that they operate in.

El Reg requested a statement from BT today. It repeated that line:

Questions relating to national security are for governments, not telecommunications providers. Having said that, we can reassure customers that we comply with the law wherever we operate and do not disclose customer data in any jurisdiction unless legally required to do so.

David Miranda, the Brazilian boyfriend of the Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald - the journalist at the centre of the Snowden media firestorm - was stopped and interrogated under the Terrorism Act for nine hours by police during a stopover at Heathrow airport earlier this week.

Late yesterday afternoon, Miranda secured a partial High Court injunction to stop the police "inspecting, copying or sharing" the data they seized from him - except for national security purposes.

It remains unclear what was contained on Miranda's person as he passed through the UK's largest airport. But if the information he was carrying revealed the location of the internet-spying base in the Middle East, then the spooks may argue that use of Blighty's terror laws to detain Miranda were proportionate on the grounds of national security.

Scotland Yard, meanwhile, said their Counter Terrorism Command (which carries out the former Special Branch task of working with the intelligence agencies) had begun a criminal investigation after the Met initially examined the material seized last Sunday and found what they described as "highly sensitive material, the disclosure of which could put lives at risk."

On the face of it an obvious location for spying on submarine cables leading to Middle Eastern nations such as Syria, Lebanon and Israel would be Cyprus, which is an undersea cable nexus for the region. A base there could be located inside one of the island's British military base areas, which remain sovereign UK territory. It might seem to be hyperbole on the part of the British government to suggest that spooks on UK territory inside a secure military base would find their lives endangered by exposure of their mission: or it might be that in fact the "base" or parts of it are situated elsewhere on the island or beyond it.

Or of course the reference to "lives at risk" and the extreme concern felt by the British (and US) governments regarding Snowden's revelations may not be related to the cable-tapping base at all, but to something else as yet undisclosed. ®

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