Is Pine Gap for arms control, or the US fighting machine?

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Brian Toohey.

Labor governments surrendered Australian sovereignty by agreeing in 2008 to renew the lease on North West Cape without any conditions on how US nuclear attack submarines could use the base[i]. This could include undermining China’s ability to deter a nuclear war[ii]. Labor subsequently agreed to let the US install long-range ground sensors at NWC to help conduct space warfare against Russia and China in violation of Australia’s support for a treaty outlawing the militarisation of space[iii].  The public were not told about the significance of these developments, nor about similar changes at the Pine Gap satellite base near Alice Springs.

The US National Security Agency essentially runs Pine Cap’s role in intercepting a wide range of electronic signals providing real-time targeting information for battlefield use by US forces. It also helps detect data on heat emissions from missiles, jet engines and ground explosions that feed into military operations, including space warfare, regardless of whether Australia opposes a particular US war. [iv]

More than any other minister, Kim Beazley was fascinated by the Pine Gap and Nurrungar bases. Despite the strong pressure in Labor circles in the 1980s to kick them out, Beazley as Defence Minister was determined to keep them.  He later enthused about how an ANU strategic specialist Des Ball was crucial to converting Labor to this cause. He called Ball a ‘man of the left, not only intellectually but in lifestyle and demeanour’ whom he arranged for the ANU to appoint as a ‘special professor’.[v]

After Ball’s death in October 2016, Beazley and Labor ex-foreign minister Gareth Evans told a remembrance service that he had been enormously influential in gaining support for the bases. Each failed to mention he later switched to vehement opposition.[vi]Beazley wrote that Ball’s 1980 book a suitable piece of real estate changed Labor’s attitudes by showing that Pine Gap had a role in supporting arms control. The book contained a single sentence asserting that the ability of the base’s satellites to intercept telemetry data was one of the principal means the US used to monitor ‘Soviet compliance with the SALT agreements.’ Ball opposed the base’s continued presence on other grounds.[vii]

In 1979, a former CIA deputy head Herbert Scoville had explained  that the focus of international arms control agreements was on reversing the nuclear arms race by cutting missile numbers and  warheads. Because telemetry couldn’t count the total missiles numbers, Pine Gap contributed next to nothing. [viii]

A quick glance at a map rebutted Ball’s claim that Pine Gap’s isolation in the middle of Australia was essential to preventing adversaries getting close enough to eavesdrop on its satellite downlinks.[ix] The US/UK signals intelligence base at Menwith Hill has links to geosynchronous satellites similar to Pine Gap’s. Yet it is in north Yorkshire in a particularly narrow part of  the British Isles that’s readily accessible to hostile eavesdroppers onshore and offshore. The CIA deceived the Defence head Arthur Tange, who repeated its claim claim that ground stations had to be isolated geographically.[x]  In 1975, US government sources told the NT journalist Andrew Clark that it had considered shifting the ground station to its Pacific Island territory of Guam.[xi]

Ball was much more enthusiastic about Pine Gap in his evidence to a parliamentary committee in 1981 than in his 1980 book. He said he had no doubt whatsoever that the Soviet Union would target Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape. He told the committee he didn’t like the idea of nuclear bombs falling on Australia, but said, ‘ I cannot imagine any scenarios involving nuclear bombs falling on Australian cities.’[xii]

Ball didn’t mention that the Soviet warheads were far more powerful than the bombs the British tested in Australia. Yet the radioactive fallout from the British tests spread across large areas of Australia.  Unlike Ball, a senior analyst Bob Mathams told the same committee that Joint Intelligence Organisation considered the Soviets could target Sydney with a nuclear missile. [xiii] A million people could lose their lives.

Ball was more dogmatic in 1987 when he said, ‘It is simply not possible to seriously support arms control and disarmament and at the same time argue for the closure of the Pine Gap station’.[xiv]  On the contrary, it is entirely consistent to support the former and call for the closure of the latter. The reality was that Pine Gap had almost no role in arms control or disarmament, but a growing role in US mass surveillance programs and war fighting. Ball went even further in evidence to a parliamentary committee in 1999 where he scoffed at claims that Pine Gap would be used to pick up individual phone calls.[xv]

This is an odd statement from someone who stressed the importance of understanding technology.  In this case, the receiving antenna automatically intercepts everything in its frequency range that is transmitted within its very large coverage. This includes phone calls, texts etc as part of a vast US eavesdropping network.  The network can, and does, identify and access huge numbers of phone calls.  Echelon was an early program with this capability. The British journalist Duncan Campbell publicly revealed its existence before Ball gave evidence.[xvi]

It is unclear why Ball became such a zealous supporter of Pine Gap that he thought hosting it was worth risking a nuclear attack – something he had dedicated a large part of his academic life to preventing. One possibility is he was misled by secret briefings in Australia and the US.[xvii] Secrets can be seductive – and deceptive.

Pine Gap did not suddenly switch to a new role of contributing to US mass surveillance programs and war fighting capabilities. That was its core capability from the start. Ball himself said that soon after Pine Gap became operational in 1970, one of its satellites was tasked to ‘monitor signals coming from Vietnam . .   . The war was still going during this period’.[xviii]  Continuing improvements in satellite sensors and data processing power mean it can make a stronger contribution to these roles.

Starting in 2013, the whistleblower Edward Snowden provided vast amounts of information on NSA’s global activities for gradual release via sites such as The Intercept. In collaboration with The Intercept, ABC journalist Peter Cronau used unpublished Snowden documents in 2017 to make a Background Briefing radio program giving an authoritative account of Pine Gap’s role in war fighting and mass surveillance. One of the key revelations in the program and the associated documents is that Pine Gap and Menwith Hill jointly collect and often analyse Sigint (signals intelligence) before it ends up with NSA in the US. The program showed the bases’ core tasks, called Mission 7600 and Mission 8300, explicitly include ‘support to US military combat operations’. [xix]  The combined coverage includes the former Soviet Union, China, Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Atlantic landmass. The program showed that the two stations collected Sigint on radars and weapon systems such as surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, fighter planes, drones and space vehicle activities, along with other military and civilian communications.

When combined with photographic imagery from sources such as the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation, the Sigint can have a decisive role in detecting military and terrorist targets. Background Briefing interviewed two ex-members of the US military, Cian Westmoreland and Lisa Ling, who worked on the drone program. Westmorland explained drones were ‘like the tip of the spear but the rest of the spear is actually the global communications surveillance system’.[xx] Ling said it was not like she went to work in the morning and pressed an Enter key on a keyboard and suddenly a child died in Yemen. She said this death would be the result of a much more complex targeting system to which the contributing nation states are ‘complicit in what happens’. [xxi]

Although the US National Reconnaissance Office has a general supervisory role at Pine Gap and Menwith Hill, the documents used by the ABC program showed an NSA official is firmly in charge of Sigint collection under the direction of its Washington headquarters. An official from the Australian Signals Directorate is called the deputy Chief of Facility and ‘advises and assists on [the base’s] overall management and administration’.[xxii]

In September 2016, Ryan Gallagher, using Snowden’s documents, reported in The Intercept on the magnitude of Menwith Hill’s ability to locate individual targets around the globe for ‘capture kill’ operations.[xxiii] As well as links to geostationary satellites, Gallagher reported that, Menwith Hill, the NSA’s biggest overseas base, has ground antennas that could eavesdrop on communications sent via 163 foreign satellites in 2009. The numbers have since grown. He said the NSA documents show that during a 12 hour period in May 2011 its surveillance systems logged more than 300 million phone calls and emails. Since then, he said a new collection posture had been introduced at the base, the aim being to ‘collect it all, process it all, exploit it all’.[xxiv] While figures for Pine Gap are not available, it should be able to generate similar volumes of material.

In September 2016, Ryan Gallagher used documents provided by Snowden to reveal information in The Intercept about the magnitude of the Menwith Hill station’s ability to locate individual targets around the globe for ‘capture kill’ operations in collaboration with Pine Gap.[xxv] One document showed a more powerful version the program called Ghosthunter would be installed at 27 NSA/CIA Special Collection Service sites around the globe by 2010 to achieve more wide-ranging capture/kill operations.  The global coverage requires the use of Pine Gap’s geosynchronous satellites as well as Menwith Hill’s. 

Gallagher reported that Jemima Stratford QC, a leading British human rights lawyer, warned that if British officials facilitated covert US drone strikes outside of declared war zones, they could be implicated in murder. A British MP, Fabian Hamilton told The Intercept: ‘I don’t buy this idea that you say the word ‘security’ and nobody can know anything. We need to know what is being done in our name.’

To his credit, Ball joined colleagues in publishing well researched reports on Pine Gap that countered his earlier claims. A 2015 report set out how thoroughly militarised Pine Gap had become through its close involvement in operations of the US military worldwide, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.[xxvi] A 2016 report said Pine Gap hosted a distinctively shaped Torus antenna system that could intercept transmissions from 35 or more commercial satellites simultaneously; adding to the US’s ability to collect, analyse and store enormous volumes of communications that have nothing to do with verifying arms control agreements.[xxvii]

Faced with the evidence that Pine Gap had become fully integrated with the US military’s kill chain, Ball told the ABC 7.30 program on 13 August 2014, ‘I’ve reached the point now where I can no longer stand up and provide the verbal, conceptual justification for the facility . . . We’re now linked in to this global network where intelligence and operations have become essentially fused and Pine Gap is a key node in that whole network, that war machine, … which is doing things which are very, very difficult, I think, as an Australian, to justify. . . . It’s now using data directly from …. satellites up above, down to Pine Gap, directly to the shooters.’ Ball said, ‘I don’t know how many terrorists have been killed by drones, but I would not be surprised if the total number of children exceeds the total number of terrorists.’

He was even blunter in an interview with a journalist friend Hamish McDonald in the Saturday Paper on 1 October 2016 just before his death. He said, ‘The base now has nothing much to do with our requirements . . . it’s about finding individuals and targeting them for killing by drone and air strikes . . . in places that are not designated war zones.’  In his subsequent obituary in Fairfax Media on 19 October 2016, McDonald said that in his last email to him Ball said, ‘It’s not my PG [Pine Gap] anymore. That means that if it is the strategic essence of the alliance, I now have to question my overall support for that too!’ It was never Ball’s Pine Gap.  It always belonged to those who controlled the US military/ industrial/intelligence complex to do with as they wished.

Beazley was confronted with the same evidence as Ball, but has become even more enamoured with the base following his posting as the Australian ambassador to Washington in 2010 and his subsequent appointment to the Australian board of Lockheed Martin, the giant US weapons manufacturer whose space division makes the satellites used at Pine Gap, the rockets to launch them into orbit and systems for the new era of space warfare. (He resigned after becoming Governor of Western Australia in May 2018)  In 2016, he said our ‘interest is best served by expanding the joint facilities [i.e. Pine Gap and five other US intercept assets in Australia].[xxviii]

The man who once extolled these bases for their supposed contribution to arms control and peace, has now embraced their use for war fighting in distant parts of the globe that pose no threat to Australia.

This article draws on Brian Toohey’s book SECRET, the making of Australia’s security state released on 3 September 3. It is reprinted from John Menadue’s blog Pearls & Irritations of 29 August 2019.

[i] See chapters on North West Cape.

[ii] For an earlier example, see, ‘Cold War strategic ASW’ in the official US navy magazine, Undersea Warfare, Spring 2005. and  Healy, Melissa. Lehman: We’ll Sink Their Subs’, Defense Week 13 May 1985, p 18.

[iii] See chapter 18.

[iv] See chapter  21.

[v]  Beazley, Kim, ‘Des Ball, a personal recollection’, The Strategist,  27 October 2016.

[vi] Author’s note, Memorial Service for Des Ball, 22 November 2016.

[vii] Ball, pp 147-8.

[viii] See previous chapter.

[ix] Tanter, Richard, ‘The Joint Facilities Revisited – Desmond Ball, democratic debate on security, and human interest’, Nautilus Institute,  12 December 2012 p 46.

[x] Tange p 70.

[xi] Clark Andrew, NT, 17 November 1975.

[xii] Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Threats to Australia’s security: their nature and probability, AGPS, Canberra, 1981, p 18.

[xiii] Beazley, Kim, ‘Thinking security: Influencing national strategy from the academy; An Australian experience’, Coral Bell Lecture, 2008. Footnote 14.

[xiv]Ball, Desmond, A Base for Debate: The US Satellite Station at Nurrungar, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, London and Boston, 1987, p. xii.

[xv] Testimony of Professor Desmond Ball to the Joint Standing Committee On Treaties, Reference: Pine Gap, Official Committee Hansard, Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, 9 August 1999.

[xvi] Campbell, Duncan, ‘Somebody’s listening’, 12 August 1988. See also Hager (1996) and the  European Parliament, Report by the Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System 2001

[xvii] Confidential source

[xviii] Testimony of Professor Desmond Ball to the Joint Standing Committee On Treaties: Committee Hansard, Commonwealth Parliament, 9 August 1999

[xix] Cronau, Peter, ’The Base: Pine Gap’s role in US War Fighting’, Background Briefing, Radio National, 20 August, 2017. www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/the-base…/8813604

[xx] ibid

[xxi] ibid

[xxii] ibid

[xxiii] Ryan Gallagher, Ryan, ‘Inside Menwith Hill, the NSA’s British base at the Heart of US Targeted Killing’, The Intercept, 6 September 2016.

[xxiv] ibid

[xxv] ibid

[xxvi] Tanter, Richard, Ball, Des, and Robinson, Bill, ’The Militarisation of Pine Gap’, Nautilus Institute, 14 August 2015.

[xxvii] Ball, Des, Robinson, Bill, Tanter, Richard, ‘The Antennas of Pine Gap’, Nautilus Institute, February 22, 2016. This report said Pine Gap’s conventional ground stations for intercepting communication satellites began operating in 1999. They are part of a global network of collection stations, including NSA stations at Misawa in Japan, Menwith Hill and Bude (in Cornwall) in the UK, Cyprus, Oman, Ontario, Geraldton in WA, Shoal Bay in the NT, and Waihopai in New Zealand.

[xxviii]  Beazley, Kim,  Lockheed Martin Vernon Parker Oration,  Canberra, 22 June  2016.

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