The Tiny Italian Town Killing the U.S. Navy’s Surveillance Plans
NISCEMI, Italy — Sicilian pensioner Salvatore Terranova blames America for messing with his pacemaker. Every six months or so, he has to drive across the island to Palermo to get it re-calibrated. His doctors told him that he uses the computer and cellphone too much, even though he says he doesn’t actually use electronic devices much at all. Terranova says his pacemaker won’t keep its beat because he lives across a dusty road from the U.S. Navy’s Niscemi Naval Radio Transmitter Facility antenna farm and Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite ground station. “My doctors told me I had to move out to the countryside for my heart,” he told The Daily Beast at a café in the main square here. “But I’m afraid the country life is going to kill me.”
Terranova, who is the base’s closest neighbor, keeps a constant eye on the facility’s two 495-foot-high antennas and the 40 other smaller sensors that flicker on and off, sending low-frequency radio signals to U.S. and NATO ships in the region. He says the antennas aren’t all on at the same time, and that usually when authorities come to test the area for air quality, fewer of its lights are flickering. But he’s really worried that when a trio of new massive satellite dishes go online, the real trouble will begin. He also says that every few weeks or so, the giant “No MUOS” protest sign hanging on his front gate disappears. “It’s the Americans who take it,” he says. “I report their military license plate numbers to the police, but nothing ever happens.”
The antenna farm has been running unchallenged for around 20 years, but activists are focused on blocking the additional three 60-foot-diameter MUOS satellite dishes, which are nearly ready to beam communications to unmanned drones and U.S. soldiers in real time via the Niscemi site as well as ground stations in Australia, Hawaii, and Virginia. The dishes are set to go live sometime after the last of five Lockheed Martin satellites are launched in November—and only if the United States manages to overturn a stop-work order handed down by local Sicilian authorities in time.
Ever since the Italian government under Silvio Berlusconi signed off on the U.S. Navy’s use of the land six years ago, the No MUOS activists of Niscemi have been doing everything they can to stop work at the site—with an astonishing level of success. Twice, they have won injunctions against the United States. At the moment, work at the site is at a standstill as a court in Palermo weighs the legality of the facility’s existence, based on a challenge stemming from the Region of Sicily’s decision to withdraw its authorization in 2013. On April 27, a Sicilian court rejected the United States’ appeal to release the sequestered site. There are still legal avenues for the U.S. military to pursue, including another court date July 8, and they could always ask for intervention from the Italian government. Meanwhile, the activists were able to notch one more victory in their David vs. Goliath battle: Two weeks ago, the activists went to the European Commission in Brussels to launch an appeal to stop MUOS at a European level as well.
Residents aren’t only worried about health effects from electromagnetic charges. The Niscemi site is also smack in the middle of the protected Sughereta Nature Reserve, known for its ancient cork oak trees and recognized as a protected site by the EC. The MUOS base sits high above a forest, on a plateau where construction is legal. Just a few feet away, breaking ground for any reason is strictly prohibited. The No MUOS activists claim that the border distinguishing those two areas was moved in 2012.
The activists say they are worried about the “consequences of the installation of this system on: human health, the ecosystem of the Sughereta park, the quality of agricultural production, right to mobility and to the development of territory, right to peace and security of our homeland and of its inhabitants.”
Protesting MUOS has become an obsession for the town of 28,000, which, according to a sign at Niscemi’s city limits, is also known as the artichoke capital of Sicily. Before the latest stop-work order, activists frequently cut through military fences and scurried up the giant antennas, forcing the U.S. Navy to halt transmissions. The vocal Mothers Against MUOS lined up children’s toys against the base’s fences and organized shifts to block the road. Other No MUOS groups held protests along the road leading up to the base with such vigor that the U.S. Navy needed hundreds of Italian police in full riot gear to protect the delivery of equipment and personnel during the height of the construction phase. Since 2009, there has been a sit-in encampment not far from Terranova’s farm, where protesters hold constant vigil on a little piece of land they bought from a local farmer.
Few believe the stop-work order will last. A previous halt was overturned because the permissions that were granted were done so legally. The current injunction means the U.S. Navy cannot conduct the crucial tests to prepare the MUOS ground station for the November launch, though few activists in Niscemi believe tests aren’t being done anyway.
Gaetano Impoco, one of the most vocal leaders of the activists, points to a February 2010 conversation between former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Ignazio La Russa, Italy’s then-minister of defense, that was exposed by WikiLeaks (PDF) and during which, he says, the pact with the devil was made. According to the diplomatic cable, the United States put pressure on Italy to cut corners. “On MUOS Niscemi, SecDef requested that La Russa assist in securing final approval for the site, noting that if construction of the antenna did not begin by March, the U.S. might have to look elsewhere in the Mediterranean.”
Impoco and other activists say permissions were then pushed through without adequate tests or consultation with the local community in order to pacify the Americans, whose military-base presence in Italy is substantial and lucrative for the government. There are seven major U.S. bases in the country, not counting Niscemi and other smaller installments. “The Niscemi people were sold out,” Impaco told The Daily Beast. “By the time anyone realized what was going on, it was far too late.”
No MUOS activist Maurizio Giannetto, who is a radio technician, is a sort of NO MUOS tour guide, leading the way up a rugged off-road trail past Terranova’s farm through wildflowers and cork trees to the U.S. Navy’s perimeter fence closest to the three massive satellite dishes. Along the way, he points out the various surveillance cameras on cherry pickers that can be raised and lowered to get a closer look at who is gawking through the fence. “Look,” he says. “There are no above-ground bunkers, they are all buried below ground. What does that tell you about the safety of the site? Even the personnel are afraid of too much exposure to the radio waves.”
When asked about this, Jeff Galvin, a U.S. Embassy press attaché in Rome, told The Daily Beast there are no bunkers, and that there are certainly none hidden underground, though because the site was used by the Germans to launch counterattacks against Allied forces in 1943, no one can be completely sure just what leftovers might be in the area from World War II. In any event, he says the U.S. military is not hiding people from electromagnetic contamination. In fact, he says, the opposite is true. “MUOS is safe. It does not present a health or environmental threat to the people of Niscemi or to the people hiking around in Sughereta,” Galvin told The Daily Beast. “We can say that with assurance. We have people working there as well, and we wouldn’t do anything to put them in danger, either.”
Still, Giannetto is concerned. He says the fight against MUOS has exacted a heavy toll on the community. Six years ago, the groups against MUOS started out with one objective, but now egos and hidden agendas have started to tear the town apart. “This has become about so much more than these dishes,” he says pointing through the barbed wire fence at the three monstrous saucers backed by hundreds of antenna towers secured by cables. “It is about whose right it is to decide what happens on this land. It’s not America’s right to use our land for this.”
Like others, he is also concerned that the peaceful town where he was born will be a military target once the MUOS is online, and he, like others, have little doubt that despite their protests, the Americans will prevail. “If you want to disrupt the United States’s military power, you disturb the telecommunications,” he says. “We are all in the target area.”
Some of the NO MUOS protesters have a strong desire to de-militarize all of Sicily. Elvira Cusa leads a protest group different from the one Impoco and Giannetto are part of. Speaking to The Daily Beast as she smoked cigarettes outside a MUOS meeting in Niscemi last weekend, Cusa admitted health wasn’t her group’s primary concern. “The principal reason may be risks to our health, but we also know this base will be an instrument of another kind of death,” she told The Daily Beast. “They won’t just kill us, they will kill others, too from our town with their drones.”
Referring to the collateral death of Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto in an unmanned drone attack against al Qaeda in January, she said, “If we allow this to happen, we are all accomplices to killing our brothers.”
One of the activists’ favorite theories is that the reason the MUOS was not installed at the nearby Sigonella base, which houses both the U.S. Navy and Air Force and dozens of other military contingents, is because the electromagnetic activity could cause the missiles to explode, an idea put forth by Marcello D’Amore, a La Sapienza professor of electrical engineering who concluded that anyone living near the Niscemi site was at risk. A further study conducted by AGI-Analytical and American Maxim Systems, which included a risk-assessment model of electromagnetic radiation on weapons systems, ammunition, propellants, and explosives at the existing base in Sicily, came up with similar findings. “The computer simulation of the model led to an unexpected ‘no’ to the hypothesis of using the base in Sigonella,” the authors said.
The U.S. government disputes that reasoning. Galvin at the U.S. Embassy in Rome says the MUOS was not installed in Sigonella because it offers a “navigational hazard” to the Air Force and Navy aircraft, and not the potential danger to weapons held there.
Galvin points to MUOS ground stations in Australia, Hawaii, and Vermont that have not received the same scrutiny and attention from those local populations. To appease the people of Niscemi, he says the Sicilian site will be the only MUOS ground station to have additional monitoring devices that constantly control the levels of electromagnetic and radio activity. He says that for those concerned about health risks, there is nothing to worry about. “For the anti-war protesters, though it is a highly visible symbol of something that people and activists can focus on.”