MICHAEL McKINLEY. Pine Gap: A Case of Australia’s Reckless Endangerment

The Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap is a reproach to  Australian democracy, independence and government.  Over the years Australia has achieved its goal of being fully integrated within the operations of the facility to such a degree that it is significantly responsible for the consequences of those operations. Among these consequences are the facilitation of illegal modes of warfare and of illegal operations per se.  At the same time those responsible for this involvement have remained silent and allowed issues of fundamental importance to be ignored.

In a recent article of real political significance and public service by Peter Cronau for ABC News’ Background Briefing, attention was once again drawn to the role of the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap.  Based on leaked US National Security Agency documents, it detailed the facility’s integration into US global warfighting in general and, more specifically, special forces operations and drone strikes.

The essential significance of the five documents in question – dated between May 2005 and April 2013 – is that they confirm the forensic research undertaken by Desmond Ball, Bill Robinson, and Richard Tanter, and subsequent publications between 2013 and 2016 under their names by the Nautilus Institute, and also by Hamish McDonald.  Notwithstanding these valuable contributions, they are relatively unknown by the great majority of the public – a form of ignorance which the government, by omission, has only encouraged.

What the evidence points to, neverthgeless, is a process of fundamental transformation from Pine Gap’s sole role up until the end of the 1990s of controlling and processing and analysing signals intelligence collected by satellites in geosynchronous orbit under the aegis of the US National Reconnaissance Office and the Central Intelligence Agency – to “the militarisation of its principal missions, among which counter-terrorist and special operations forces are accorded highest priority.” So transformed, Pine Gap and the Wideband Global Satellite facility Defence Satellite Communications Station at Kojarena, near Geraldton, became regional communications “gateways” within which Australia’s participation is described as “pervasive,” and “completely enmeshed.” Indeed, it is so integrated into Pine Gap’s operations that the only area denied to it is the US National Cryptographic Room.

The geographical scope of collection, moreover, is extraordinarily extensive: excluding the polar regions, the three Orion SIGINT satellites controlled by Pine Gap make possible signals collection from every continent except the Americas and Antarctica.

In light of the fact that this coverage perforce includes Africa and the Middle East, and that these two theatres of operation are first and second, respectively, in terms of the deployment of the total 70,000 US Special Operations Command personnel, Australia’s responsibility is similarly extensive. The former includes military action in countries with which the United States and its allies are not at war with – Yemen and Somalia, for example – while the latter covers 32 nations, or nearly 60 percent of the countries on the continent, 20 of which, on any given day are host to nearly 100 missions.

In support of many of such missions, but also independent of them in many cases, are the drone  strikes to which the US is now addicted, and which, just as clearly are legally (both internationally and domestically) and ethically dubious, and economically, tactically, and strategically problematic.  To concentrate of the former, to the extent that they target individuals in countries outside of war zones, international law at least does not define them as combatants and those responsible for the killing are not only not entitled to combatant immunity, but are, quite possibly, accessories to murder.  Rationalisations of the type offered by ASPI Executive Director, Peter Jennings, that it is “appropriate” for Pine Gap to provide the resources for these operations because Australia and the US are fighting “necessary” wars are thus irrelevant if ethics, and the law, are to be served.

Empirical evidence indicates this is a grave issue: the record of those killed in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan: of the total number of those killed – measured in the thousands – only 2% were militant leaders; in addition some 25% of those killed have been classified as “unknown militants” – term which implies that the CIA had no specific knowledge of who they had killed.

Put another way, 98% of those killed were either “low-level militants,” “unknown militants” – both dubious or deliberately misleading classifications – or civilians. The former counter-terror advisor to General David Petraeus, David Kilcullen (writing with Andrew McDonald Exum), confirmed the counter-productive nature of these strikes in an op. ed. piece in The New York Times as early as May 2009 when he admitted that 50 civilians were killed for every militant killed.

From this, and much else, extends the case for Australia’s reckless endangerment.  The term itself derives from an exploration of criminal conduct – in this case by Australian personnel – which involves a substantial risk of death or grievous bodily harm to another individual, and with culpable disregard the potential, or foreseeable consequences of whatever action is taken. Lack of intent is irrelevant and does not excuse or absolve the perpetrators.

Expressed plainly according to this concept, the total integration of Australian personnel with the operations of Pine Gap makes Australia both a de facto and de jure party to US wars and warlike operations by default. This, it must be emphasised, is regardless of whether Australia’s participation in the type of wars envisaged in exercises such as Talisman Sabre or Ulchi Freedom Guardian are realised, or Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s promise to enact ANZUS in the event of North Korea attacking the United States, and regardless of the attachment of senior ADF officers to US command positions, or the deployment of RAN fleet elements to US Navy patrols designed to intimidate China in the South China Sea, and Australia’s “enhanced partnership” with NATO.  Pine Gap precedes them.

If continuous critical scrutiny of every operation at the facility according to criteria which strictly and independently define Australia’s, national interest, and the authority to veto them if the criteria are not met, is absent, then it cannot be otherwise.

Australian personnel, moreover, to the extent that they are involved, are in a state of legal and ethical jeopardy as the result of the consequences of the operations.  The Australian body politic is not excused either once it knows what it should. From his famous work on morality, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s formulation is worth recalling: “in a free society all are involved in what some are doing.  Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Michael McKinley taught International Relations at University of Western Australia and at ANU; he is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty of the Australian National University.


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2 Responses to MICHAEL McKINLEY. Pine Gap: A Case of Australia’s Reckless Endangerment

  1. James O'Neill says:

    Thank you Michael for a very important article and to John for publishing it. We need to explore further the extent to which Australia is culpable for war crimes committed by the US with the aid of Pine Gap. Holding those responsible accountable in a court will be the real challenge.

  2. Evan Whitton says:

    I hope Michael McKinley is researching an important question:

    Did the CIA’s Theodore Shackley, tell Sir John Kerr to dismiss Gough Whitlam because the Prime Minister was examining CIA agents in Australia and because Shackley thought Whitlam might close Pine Gap?


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