Debate grows over role of US-Australia intel facility

Located just outside Alice Springs and covering an area of 20,000 sq km, Pine Gap has been used to monitor Chinese and Russian missiles, eavesdrop on ISIS and order drone strikes in Pakistan, say analysts.
Located just outside Alice Springs and covering an area of 20,000 sq km, Pine Gap has been used to monitor Chinese and Russian missiles, eavesdrop on ISIS and order drone strikes in Pakistan, say analysts.PHOTO: KRISTIAN LAEMMLE-RUFF

Site's capabilities continue to expand, but some ask Canberra to reassess its involvement

In the Australian outback, a strange series of dome structures and vast antennas has protruded from the flat desert landscape for almost 50 years, but it remains shrouded in secrecy.

The site, just outside the city of Alice Springs, is the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, a United States-Australian intelligence facility which was built during the Cold War in the 1960s, and has since been used - according to analysts - to monitor Chinese and Russian missiles, eavesdrop on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and order drone strikes in Pakistan.

Pine Gap would provide the first signal to the US of a nuclear attack and is regarded as one of the most important US intelligence facilities outside its territory.

The 20,000 sq km site employs about 800 people, roughly half are Americans and the rest Australians.

Despite the secrecy surrounding the facility, analysts believe it continues to expand, and its role in intercepting signals intelligence has become ever more extensive in the age of mobile phone interception and drone attacks.

A former US National Security Agency employee who worked at Pine Gap for 18 years said the site has "saved the lives of military personnel as well as civilians".

In the past 15 years, according to analysts, Pine Gap has gone beyond providing high-level intelligence to the US president and top security agencies in Washington, and has been increasingly used to provide military intelligence to on-the-ground battlefield operations in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

But this changing role has led to growing questions about whether Canberra is being forced to join a growing number of US military actions. Some say Australia should demand that the site not be used for purposes - such as drone strikes - that may be illegal under international law.

Dr Richard Tanter, an expert on Pine Gap and its history, said the facility has come a long way from when it was used to "help the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) monitor the technical capabilities of Soviet ballistic missiles".

The senior research associate at the Nautilus Institute and honorary professor at the University of Melbourne said the facility now has 33 antenna systems - 10 times more than when the site became operational in 1970. 

"It can now listen to a lot more and it can see a lot more - its ears are bigger and more powerful and more discriminating," he told The Sunday Times.

"It used to be mainly run by the CIA, with very few military - now it is mostly run by the military and contractors."

Observers say the newest of the dome-like structures was built in 2013 and is believed to be linked to satellites from the Space Based Infrared System, which includes those that collect intelligence critical for missile defence.

Dr Tanter said the US military used the site for operational intelligence as well as monitoring the military capabilities of countries in Asia-Pacific and beyond, including its allies.

"The military is very interested in what Pine Gap can give them for operational intelligence - on-the-ground information in Afghanistan, North Korea and Syria," he said.

"Also, in what the Chinese military are doing, and what the Chinese government and the senior parts of the Politburo and the Chinese high command are thinking.

"The (US) military is interested in North Korea, India's and Pakistan's activities, missile testing and communications from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan."

Pine Gap was set up after Australia and the US signed a treaty to establish an intelligence facility in December 1966. For Australia, it has long been seen as providing an extra benefit beyond its intelligence capabilities: It has helped to cement the US alliance.

However, some analysts and commentators have called for Canberra to reassess the nature of its involvement.

Shortly before he died in October, Professor Desmond Ball, a renowned Australian defence expert and author of a book on Pine Gap, said he believed Australia received enormous amounts of intelligence from the facility but "it's not really what we want".

"It's just grown into a mega-intelligence station that has nothing much to do with our requirements," he told The Saturday Paper.

"We get all this wonderful raw and processed intelligence… 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."

But other analysts disagree, saying the site is crucial to Australia's defence.

A former US National Security Agency employee who worked at Pine Gap for 18 years said the site has "saved the lives of military personnel as well as civilians".

"For any significant threat, Australia may task Pine Gap to collect information on anything it feels is necessary for our nation's security," Mr David Rosenberg wrote in The Australian on Dec 9.

"This information may be unique to Pine Gap, meaning the base remains a crucial part of Australia's defence strategy."

According to The Saturday Paper report, Australia has occasionally asked the CIA to redirect antennas for its own purposes, such as to spy on Indonesian military discussions during the violence and tension in 1999, in the lead-up to Indonesia's withdrawal from then East Timor.

Prof Ball said Australia should demand the facility be used for its own purposes, such as tracking members of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the South-east Asian terrorist group.

"We should be searching for JI members who log in on any system, anywhere, any time," he said.

Dr Tanter, who worked closely with Prof Ball, agreed but said the Australian government tended to avoid challenging the US and was highly unlikely to demand changes to the use of Pine Gap.

"The more Pine Gap is involved in actual military operations, the more there is a pull to make our default position the same as the American one," he said.

For now, there is little sign that Australia would consider pressuring the US over Pine Gap.

According to its latest Defence White Paper released in February, Pine Gap makes a "critical contribution" to the security of both Australia and the US, including providing intelligence on terrorism and military and weapons developments.

"All activities at the joint facility are consistent with Australia's interests," the paper said.  

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Debate grows over role of US-Australia intel facility'. Print Edition | Subscribe