U.S. flies ‘routine’ spy flights from UK’s Cyprus base near Gaza for ‘third party governments’

Leaked cable raises the possibility the US is flying surveillance missions over Gaza from RAF Akrotiri and sharing the intelligence with Israel, which would further implicate Britain in war crimes in Gaza.

24 November 2023

An American U-2 spy plane parked at RAF Akrotiri, the British air base on Cyprus. (Screengrab: Google Earth)

  • UK official said US spy flights from Britain’s Cyprus base “have become routine” and included sorties over Turkey and Lebanon
  • The “intelligence product” is often “passed to third party governments”, he added
  • The Cyprus base has become hub for international military support to Israel as it bombs Gaza
  • “Other agencies” – believed to be the CIA – are using RAF Akrotiri for spying missions
  • “There are sensitivities” with Cypriot government about using the British base for US spy missions, official wrote
  • UK Ministry of Defence refuses to clarify if US intelligence collected via Britain’s base on Cyprus is being shared with Israel

The cable, published by WikiLeaks and classified as ‘secret’, was written in April 2008 by the US embassy in London and sent to Washington. 

A letter included in the cable is from Will Jessett, then the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) director of counter-terrorism, who asks for “new procedures for requesting intel flight clearances” regarding US spy missions from British bases.

Jessett refers to “the regular intelligence flights that the US undertakes from RAF Akrotiri” – the huge British air base on Cyprus. He added that “these flights have become routine”. 

He goes on to write that the American aircraft are flown by the State Department and US military “or possibly other agencies”, assumed to mean the CIA. 

The only US equipment the British government has ever admitted to being located on the UK’s so-called Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) on Cyprus is the U-2 spy aircraft. These have been permanently stationed at RAF Akrotiri for nearly half a century, and were originally operated by the CIA.

The 2008 letter adds that recent American U-2 spy flights from RAF Akrotiri had collected intelligence over Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon.

The cable is significant in light of current US activities on Cyprus. The US is moving arms to Israel from around Europe using RAF Akrotiri, but the Ministry of Defence has refused to tell Declassified what American aircraft are flying or what weapons are on board. US surveillance drones are also known to be flying over Gaza. 

For 50 years, the US and Britain have attempted to keep secret the size and activities of the American presence at the UK bases and “retained sites” on Cyprus. This territory, which comprises 3% of Cyprus’s landmass, was kept by the British after independence in 1960. 

Declassified also recently revealed that 129 US airmen are permanently deployed to RAF Akrotiri, which is a staging post for bombing campaigns across the Middle East. The US spy force, the 1st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, is permanently deployed at Akrotiri.


U.S. military is secretly supplying weapons to Israel using UK...


‘Third parties’

But the MoD official also noted that the “intelligence product” from these US sorties was often “intended to be passed to third party governments”. 

The third party governments are not revealed, but it is likely this includes Israel, which sits just 200 miles from RAF Akrotiri and is a close US intelligence partner. Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013 confirmed that the US “routinely shares raw intelligence data with Israel”. 

The MoD official warned that “sensitive intelligence gathering operations” by US assets from UK bases “where information is passed to third parties” could have worrisome legal implications. 

The UK, he added, may be “indirectly aiding the commission of unlawful acts by those governments on the basis of the information gathered through the assistance we provide to the US.”

The US is the key military supporter of Israel’s criminal bombing campaign in Gaza. It has been supplying large amounts of weapons to Israel and sent senior US army officers to the country to advise on the Gaza ground operation.

The New York Times reported on 2 November that the US is flying surveillance drones over the Gaza Strip. The drones were discovered by the paper on a flight tracker website and later confirmed by two US Defense Department officials. 

The aircraft are MQ-9 Reapers, which are operated by US Special Operations forces, the paper noted.

Declassified understands the New York Times could not establish where the drones were taking off from. The flight path indicates that it could be RAF Akrotiri, among other possible locations. 

The MoD would not confirm or deny if US drones were flying from the British base on Cyprus, or if intelligence was being shared with Israel. 


RAF admits to making 17 military flights to Israel since...


‘Sensitivities with government of Cyprus’

The use of RAF Akrotiri and other UK facilities on Cyprus by the US military and intelligence services has long been controversial. Much of the activity is kept secret from the Cypriot government. 

One Snowden document noted that American intelligence staff are required to dress as tourists around the bases because the UK has promised the Cyprus government that only British staff work there.

The secrecy appears to be continuing with regard to the US support for Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza. 

Declassified recently revealed that over 30 military transport flights, operated by the RAF, had flown from RAF Akrotiri to Tel Aviv since the bombing of Gaza began. But Cypriot government spokesman Konstantinos Letymbiotis told the Cyprus Mail he had received no information about the flights.

Declassified then reported that the US was using Akrotiri to transfer weapons to Israel. The Cypriot president Nikos Christodoulides was asked about it in a press conference. “There is no such information, our country cannot be used as a base for war operations,” he said.

The need for secrecy about US spy flights was noted by the UK official who wrote of “the political risk that other governments become aware of, and potentially object to, the [US] flights”. 

The official added: “In particular, there are sensitivities with Government of Cyprus regarding the use of Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus.”

“I am sure you will understand the sensitivities involved in the use of UK bases for covert or potentially controversial [US] missions,” he told the Americans.

The British have long used their bases on Cyprus for military and intelligence purposes behind the back of the Cypriot government. Declassified recently revealed that during the Cold War, the UK secretly turned non-aligned Cyprus into a key NATO asset. 

A spokesperson for the UK Ministry of Defence told Declassified: “In response to the situation in Israel and Gaza, we are working with international partners to de-escalate the conflict, reinforce stability and support humanitarian efforts in the region. Any use of UK bases will be in line with these objectives.”

The US Department of Defense did not respond to Declassified’s requests for information and comment.