Spain: Secret military telecommunications interception stations in Madrid, Conil de la Frontera, Gibraltar and Rota

"Libertad Vigilada" (Freedom under Surveillance), a recently published book by Nacho Garcia Mostazo, analyses the presence in Spain of a number of stations for the interception of telecommunications and to conduct signals intelligence operations that are run separately by the Spanish, British and US military. It focuses on two secret Spanish military intelligence establishments, one near Madrid and the other in Conil de la Frontera, near Cadiz, two military installations run by the UK military in Gibraltar, and another by the US military in its airbase in Rota, also near Cadiz. These are deemed to violate the constitutional guarantee of privacy for the telecommunications of Spanish citizens. Foreign intelligence agencies are only forbidden from intercepting telecommunications of their own nationals. In the case of domestic military intelligence structures, these are subject to less democratic control and regulation than their civilian counterpart, the newly-established National Intelligence Centre.

The Fresnedillas-Navalagamella Satellite Monitoring Station in the mountain range (Sierra) located to the north of Madrid is allegedly being used to intercept satellite communications of the countries surrounding Spain, and possibly civilian communications within Spain itself. The base is owned by the Ministry of Defence and is shrouded in secrecy. Defence minister Trillo Figueroa denies the institution's ownership of the station although it pays 11,713.52 euros annual tax on the property, and claims that activities conducted there are "a mystery". Ten large parabolic antennae with diameters of over 18 metres are found at the base, as well as six smaller ones; their inclination indicates that they may be aimed at geo-stationary telecommunication satellites hovering above the equator at an altitude of around 36,000 km. The author stresses that the European Parliamentary Commission that investigated the Echelon affair concluded that "if two or more satellite reception antennae of over 18 metres (in diameter) can be found at a (military) station, it is certain that civil communications are listened to there".

It is significant that the station is run by the military. The former Spanish intelligence agency (CESID) was run by the military, and was recently replaced by a civilian agency, the CNI (National Intelligence Centre, see Statewatch vol 11 no 3 & 4). This change was partly motivated by a lack of accountability, and of a clear legal basis for interception, that resulted in the illegal interception of Spanish citizens in the past. The CNI is subject to interception guidelines requiring a judicial warrant for the interception of communications involving Spanish citizens, which are protected from interference by the Spanish constitution, although telephone tapping was not regulated until the new law was passed last year.

The author of "Libertad Vigilada" says that the parallel activities of military structures and personnel may be used to circumvent the limitations that have been introduced. They support this notion by noting that at the same time as the CNI laws were passed, the Ministry of Defence set up the so-called Armed Forces Intelligence Centre (AFIC - CIFAS in Spanish) to enable "the process of rationalising the intelligence capabilities of the Defence, Army and Navy Staff". AFIC is not regulated by any law, other than a ministerial order specifying its internal organisation. The authors also note that a secret military project approved in 1986, and known as the "Santiago programme", is due to be fully operational by 2008. It is reportedly aimed at "capturing electro-magnetic broadcasts and images in zones defined as of strategic interest for national security". Thus, in spite of the official military intelligence agency being shut down:

"Spain has a military espionage network composed of surveillance planes (the Air Intelligence Centre at Torrejon de Ardoz), observation satellites (Helios and others that will soon be launched) and land bases - although the system is not yet complete"

A secret intelligence operation in Conil de la Frontera was set up jointly by former Spanish intelligence agency CESID and its German counterpart, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), in 1975 as part of "Operation Delikatesse". It was aimed at intercepting telecommunications passing through a telecommunications station that is run by Telefonica in Conil de la Frontera, that links Spain with the Canary Islands, and other Mediterranean, African and American countries through undersea cables. In 1992, the Germans left the installation, based in a chalet and manned by military staff, as indicated by locals referring to the chalet as "house of the military" and the street name, "Camino de los Militares" (Military Way), in spite of an official absence of army installations.

The book also looks at espionage operations conducted by the US and UK in the Iberian peninsula. The US has been authorised to use bases on Spanish territory for espionage purposes since 1953, when a Hispanic-American covenant was signed to enable the construction of US military bases, of which there are two: one in Moron de la Frontera (Seville), and the other in Rota (Cadiz). The latter base has had a large antenna (with a 500 metre circumference) known as AN/FLR-13, capable of capturing radio broadcasts at a distance of over 5,000 kilometres. Members of the Naval Security Group (NAVSECGRU), the code-breaking division of the US Navy, have been stationed in Rota since the 1960s. The Hispanic-American covenant was updated on a number of occasions, and the last time, on 10 April 2002, a list of installations on US bases, such as a "naval communications station" and an "information installation for maritime monitoring", were included. The latest version of the covenant authorises the US armed forces to undertake activity in the field of telecommunications to:

"1) meet new operational requirements, 2) improve the capability of existing systems and 3) to contribute to the welfare and training of the mentioned forces"

US criminal investigation services have been authorised to conduct espionage activities in Spain, and cooperation with its Spanish counterparts is encouraged, particularly in the context of the fight against terrorism which Spain is conducting against ETA. Thus, large-scale surveillance is allowed without laws to regulate who may or may not be spied on, as constitutional guarantees only apply to nationals of the country that is doing the surveillance.

Two espionage communications posts are allegedly run by the British army on Gibraltar to listen in on communications crossing the Strait between Spain and North Africa. One is a signals station in the north part of Gibraltar, whose large antenna for intercepting radio waves, over a radius of more than a thousand kilometres, consists of a dozen metal towers joined by steel cables. The second is near to Gibraltar's southernmost point, and has two large parabolic antennae within a fortified military precinct owned by the UK Ministry of Defence. Ever since the 1970s, the UK has been intercepting Spanish communications from Gibraltar. These practices continue in spite of the UK and Spain being military allies, and the importance of the UK's military bases on Gibraltar is seen by the authors as an important reason for the two country's failure to reach a settlement over Gibraltar.

The revelations of the interception stations run by the US and UK military have important implications in view of the UKUSA cooperation involving the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that comprises the Echelon telecommunications interception network on a global scale which relies on the wholesale interception of worldwide communications.


1. Introductory articles on Spanish, US and UK installations, in English

2. Website of the book

3. E-mail contacts for authors: (Nacho García Mostazo, the author) and: (Arturo Quirantes Sierra, author of one of the chapters)

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