Hamish McDonald
What really happens at Pine Gap

It’s one of two sacred sites to which you can drive from Alice Springs. The other is the red stone monolith of Uluru, said by the Pitjantjara to bring down a curse on anyone who removes a rock.

This one, though, is the huddle of gleaming white fibreglass domes known as Pine Gap which, if penetrated by the uninitiated, could threaten the security of the West.

Nonetheless, some are trying to break its spell. This week, a group of “Quaker Grannies for Peace” set up a breakfast stall on the road outside, to engage some of the 800 staff, half American and half Australian, as they commute to work. Possibly some more forceful activists, Christian or left-wing pacifists, will try to repeat past incursions through the security perimeter.

In Alice Springs itself, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network is holding a conference this weekend to explore what is known about the role of Pine Gap and the implications for this country. Essentially, participants will argue the base would be an early target in any nuclear attack against the United States, and short of that, it implicates Australia in conflicts outside our sphere of interest, in nasty and illegal ways.

The occasion is a historical marker. Pine Gap is rather younger than Uluru, but has just reached the 50th anniversary of the Harold Holt government’s agreement to the US building what was announced to the public as a joint “space research” facility in the middle of Australia.

A tight circle of Australian politicians and officials was well aware it was a monitoring and control station in the new field of intelligence collection by satellite. The Americans were about to put satellites into geosynchronous orbit north of Australia to pick up electronic emissions from the Soviet Union and other Cold War enemies.

Alice Springs was ideal. Its location meant the Soviets could not sail spy ships anywhere near enough to read the downloads from the satellites, which at that point were unencrypted. Indeed, Pine Gap had no neighbours close enough to do that, and ASIO advised Canberra that Alice Springs was a “clear area” of local communists.

Secrecy held until the mid-1970s, when the World War II signals intelligence operation known as Enigma was finally revealed, and the role of the US Central Intelligence Agency in running Pine Gap became public during the final days of the Whitlam government.

In the 1980s, Pine Gap and another satellite station at Nurrungar gained a benign status for Labor under Bob Hawke: as instruments of verification for nuclear arms control agreements between the Americans and Soviets. A succession of Australian Defence officials argued for and won greater access to the intelligence “product” out of Pine Gap. For a contribution that is still only about $14 million a year, Canberra won access to satellite-collected signals intelligence that in the words of then Defence deputy secretary Paul Dibb was “priceless” and could not be replicated by Australia “at any price”.

Yet after 50 years, there are new and valid questions about Pine Gap. They probably won’t be asked in the review of Australia’s intelligence services that Malcolm Turnbull’s government is about to commission, which is more a five-yearly check-up of the way the different agencies are operating, and whether they need new powers, resources, and co-ordination. But they should.

The broader US alliance also needs a review. The Turnbull government is preparing a new foreign policy white paper, which would be a suitable vehicle and could seize back some of the international policy ground steadily taken over by the military-intelligence community in recent years.

First, though, Pine Gap. It’s still run by the CIA, with 25-year agency veteran Tim Howell the current station chief. Every bit of information it collects is shared with the Australians there under deputy director Gary Thorpe, an IT specialist from the Australian Signals Directorate.

Even satellite infra-red data on missile launches, downloaded at Pine Gap after Nurrungar closed in 1999, has been sent since last September by fibre optic cable to Australian Defence centres in Canberra and Bungendore, instead of routed for analysis to a US air base in Colorado where Australian personnel have been stationed.

But the nature of Pine Gap’s activities began changing after the first Gulf War, when US military chiefs demanded more immediately usable battlefield information from an intelligence system designed to find out longer-term trends inside the Soviet Union. Then between 2006 and 2008 – as charted by intelligence experts Desmond Ball, Bill Robinson and Richard Tanter in a series of papers for the Nautilus Institute – it was “fundamentally transformed” into a “regional gateway” that blends information collected by ground-based electronic systems, satellites, aircraft and drones, interrogation reports, and human intelligence into product “accessible to war-fighters in real-time”.

When I asked Desmond Ball what Australia now gets out of Pine Gap, he replied: “Everything, and nothing. Everything, in the sense that we get access to all this intelligence flowing through. Nothing, in the sense that it’s not really what we want.”

Pine Gap is no longer the “suitable piece of real estate”, as Ball titled his path-breaking 1980 book on the station. The downloads are now encrypted and can be accessed securely anywhere. “It’s just grown into a mega-intelligence station that has nothing much to do with our requirements,” Ball said. “We get all this wonderful raw and processed intelligence, we have 50 Australian intelligence officers working alongside Americans seeing everything, and it’s about finding individuals and targeting them for killing by drone and air strikes, in battle zones and in places that are not designated war zones.”

Nor is it particularly good at that task. The CIA and the US Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, now make more use of Pine Gap’s counterpart station at the Menwith Hill air force base in northern England, which has less elaborate processes. “It’s easier now for Menwith Hill to detect the guy on his laptop in North London talking to a guy in Yemen,” Ball said. “As soon as the VSAT [a small satellite terminal] is on, they’ve got him. With Pine Gap it takes a couple of minutes. The guy has time to send off his data, close his laptop or cellphone or shut down his VSAT connection, and clear off.”

Menwith Hill, under sole US control, is “slightly less restrained” by rules of military engagement than Pine Gap, a joint facility with Australia, but Ball doesn’t think that matters in practice. “The rule books are already thrown away,” he said. “I don’t think we are abiding more by the rule book. We are just two minutes slower.”

On occasion, the CIA agrees to redirect an antenna on one of Pine Gap-controlled satellites to regional theatres on Australian request, such as in 1999, to hear Indonesian military chatter during the East Timor crisis. The only other recent time, according to the leaks by Edward Snowden, was the UN climate change conference in Bali in December 2007, when Indonesian linguists at Pine Gap listened to the mobile phones of the provincial police chief and other officials.

Ball asks why part of Pine Gap’s capacity is not directed  full-time to trying to track members of the South-East Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. “Of the 54 antennas, why can’t we have one or two working for us before the bomb goes off?” he says. “We should be searching for JI members who log in on any system, anywhere, any time… Our participation should be governed by rules, principles and procedures. Capture, arrests, warrants, evidence. We should leave the killings to the CIA and JSOC cowboys at Menwith Hill.”

This new intelligence relationship morphed out of the close “Five Eyes” partnership that didn’t necessarily require members to participate in US wars. At times, the British, Canadians and New Zealanders have opted out. “The signals relationship is very, very intimate: Australia pretty well understands and manages the implication for that,” says Hugh White, a former Defence deputy secretary, now Ball’s colleague at the ANU. “But the operational stuff is much newer and has got very different implications.”

Deeper integration with US operations in the Middle East is matched by closer involvement in the Western Pacific than at any time since pulling out of Vietnam, White told me. In the past five years we have planned for conflict in Korea, assigned an Australian general as deputy commander of US land forces in the Pacific, attached a frigate to US naval forces in Japan during a flare-up in the Senkaku islands dispute, and hosted a US marine task force in Darwin.

“These are terribly significant strategic steps that have been taken with very little strategic analysis, certainly with no public discussion, but I strongly suspect with very little serious analysis within government either,” White said. “We’re sliding into situations where we are sending to the United States through these activities a message that we are willing to support them in military operations in Asia against China, and I don’t think we are.

“My worry is not that we’ll end up accidentally finding ourselves sliding into a commitment to go to war with China. What we are doing is giving the Americans a wrong impression. And when the shit hits the fan, we’ll bug out. It’s very unlikely that any Australian government would support the US in military operations against China in almost any conceivable scenario. Possibly a full-scale invasion of a Japanese home island. But in the South China Sea – no. In the East China Sea – no. In Taiwan – no. I don’t think Australia would support the United States in any of those circumstances, but we are sending a message that we would. That’s a dumb thing to do.”

The foreign policy white paper might explain where we are being taken. It should, but it probably won’t.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2016 as "Mind the Gap".

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