A rose coloured view of the dangers of Pine Gap

Jun 25, 2020

Fifty years ago this month Pine Gap, the American military base in the centre of Australia, commenced operations. With no public fanfare, this anniversary might have passed by unnoticed if former National Security Agency electronic intelligence analyst at the base, David Rosenberg, hadn’t drawn it to attention.

After leaving the agency in 2008, he wrote Inside Pine Gap: The Spy Who Came in from the Desert (Hardie Grant, 2011) and more recently was a technical and creative consultant for the Netflix TV series, Pine Gap.

In the lead-up to the anniversary he submitted an op-ed to the Alice Springs News, an independent news site of which I am one of the founding journalists. His piece celebrates the base as “a symbol of the ties that bind the United States and Australia”. What follows is my response (originally posted on our site) to the way he uses several sleights of hand to exempt the base from any moral responsibility in the military operations to which it contributes intelligence.

I am not a specialist journalist in this area but, prompted by local events, I have spent much of the last two years writing a book that delves into the issues (it will be in bookshops in early August). So I’m informed insofar as enquiring citizens can be and affirmed in my belief that Australians should not allow the excessive secrecy around the base and its aura of high-tech impenetrability to shield us from the responsibility involved in hosting it on our soil.

Rosenberg suggests that its contribution of such intel is based on “rumours”, which in turn have caused “journalists or conspiracy theorists to express concern over American and Australian culpability in this action”. In linking “journalists” to “conspiracy theorists” he tries to undermine the credibility of journalists’ work in this area, when it has been done by people at the top of their game, such as Brian Toohey, Philip Dorling, Peter Cronau, to name some of the relevant Australian investigative journalists.

He then tries to limit concerns held about the issues to this impliedly disreputable group, whereas the concerns are shared by a much broader base – including research experts, medical doctors, public intellectuals, people of faith, the rare politician and military veteran – even if they struggle to build a majority view.

In the very next sentence, Rosenberg himself treats the “rumours” as fact: “Importantly, any intelligence from Pine Gap in these scenarios is not used in isolation.”

So, any responsibility for consequences, he is arguing, is mitigated by Pine Gap being part of a network; its intel is fused with intel from other sources. And it doesn’t press the button, he adds. It has neither that capacity nor responsibility, its role is merely passive.

Can we really take comfort from that?

This diffusion of responsibility – the distance between the person identifying the target and the person pressing the button, which goes via the intel collectors – is a characteristic of our increasingly technological ways of killing. It makes it much harder, for instance, to prosecute war crimes.

It shouldn’t make it harder to have the ethics of these scenarios vigorously debated in the public domain. The blanket of secrecy over the base and the complete refusal by our political and military leaders to answer any questions about its role in military operations, both covert and conventional, stifles any such debate.

Rosenberg, who early in the piece says it is “important that Australians know more about Pine Gap: its purpose; what it does; what it does not do”, seems to promise some answers. But really, what he offers is just gloss: Pine Gap’s intel contributions “in any military operation would minimise harm with the goal to eliminate the unnecessary deaths of non-combatants”.

This is a very anodyne way of describing the chain of actions in which Pine Gap is a critical link and which end on the ground in bombs and blood. Let’s say it like it is – military operations kill people, injure them, terrorise them (behind every bomb is the threat of another), they destroy infrastructure, destroy livelihoods.

Rosenberg is also assuming here that there is a high level of certainty about the identity of targets, about who are considered combatants or non-combatants, and of when deaths may be necessary or not. All of these decisions – in covert operations especially and even with the extraordinary technology of the Five Eyes network at their disposal – are fraught with difficulty. This is not to mention the questionable ethics of such operations when they are essentially policing in countries of other people who we are not at war with and only capital punishment is applied, no questions asked.

As well, he is taking for granted that there is a high level of commitment to minimising harm, when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Maximising harm was, for instance, the initial strategy in the war in Iraq, in which Pine Gap and the Five Eyes network undoubtedly played a significant role; Rosenberg even laments this role in his book. He writes of the “dismal, expensive” legacy in Iraq of both Bush presidents, that it “impacted on our work in Operations throughout my time in Alice Springs.”

Now he appreciates that there may be disquiet about Donald Trump as US President. He certainly does not hold the man in high regard.

But his claim that Pine Gap has been “shielded from any fallout from the policies and action of the current, as well as previous administrations” is either laughable or a worry. Laughable if, as we might assume, it operates within the chain of military command in the US, with the President as Commander-in-Chief; a worry, indeed, if it doesn’t, if it has become a power unto itself.

All the more reason for Australian citizens to demand accountability from our government, and for the Australian government to pursue a more independent agenda in relation to the base’s activities, not hide in the wriggle room of the “Full Knowledge and Concurrence” policy.

Australia’s “concurrence’” was explained in the last Ministerial Statement about the base as meaning agreement to the purpose of its activities and understanding their outcomes, even if we don’t approve of them.

But there is no transparency whatsoever about these activities done in our name.

Harking back to American and Australia’s “historical kinship” and the fact that our armed forces “have fought and died alongside each other”, as Rosenberg does, is of no comfort on this fundamental challenge for a healthy democracy.

Kieran Finnane is the author of Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia (UQP, 2016) and Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, national security and dissent (UQP, August 2020).

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