ANDREW FARRAN. We should discuss Pine Gap!

Aug 22, 2017

Whether the leaked documents from the US National Security Agency were revealing, as claimed by the ABCs Background Briefing on Sunday morning (, enough has been known about the Pine Gap facility long enough for some searching questions about its accountability to be well overdue.

Back in the 1960s one dared not utter the words ‘Pine Gapwithout a frisson of apprehension passing through ones being.  Deep in the dead heart of Australia it stood with just a few radomes then but now with a good many more.

The Joint Facilities were conceived and developed as a partnership between the US and Australian intelligence agencies for mutual defence and as an expression of the ANZUS commitment.  In response to persistent questioning, the US authorities prepared a cover story about its functions to mollify the media and others.  It transpires that even the fact that the cover story was a cover story was itself a secret.

Much light has since been cast on their function through intensive academic research by such political scientists as the late Professor Des Ball at the ANU and Professor Richard Tanter of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability.  From their work we know more about their capabilities and how they are connected to military and intelligence systems worldwide.

They have grown into a massive instrument for tracking and guiding strategic operations from the Pacific to Africa, including inter alia missile launches and their trajectories, and communication signals of all kinds no matter how miniscule, via its numerous geolocations right down to personal cell phones.  As Professor Tanter has explained:   “These days Pine Gap has twice as many antennas as it did at the end of the Cold War, in a compound double its original size.  Most importantly, far beyond its original mission, Pine Gap makes critical contributions to planning for nuclear war, missile defence of the US and Japan, US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and CIA targeted-killing operations by drones…. Decades of bipartisan support for the US alliance [and Pine Gap] rest on a belief that, despite the known risk of nuclear attack on the major bases, hosting the facilities is the price to guarantee American support for Australian defence.  Yet the possible nuclear cost for Australia remains high: Pine Gap is still, as it was throughout the Cold War, a high-priority missile target in the event of major war between the US and China, with heightened risks for the residents in nearby Alice Springs …with many more likely casualties, than it was during the Cold War. (Richard Tanter, “To War, like it or not: The Joint Facilities, Interoperability and the Erasure of Independent War Powers”, Nautilus Institute, 2015).

Initially Australian authorities did not know as much as they would have liked about their  operations and saw this as a diminishment of national sovereignty.  Through negotiations in the 1970s, the Whitlam Government obtained the agreement of the US that it would be informed of and required to assent to all operational activity on the part of the facilities to ensure that nothing would be done there that would complicate or prejudice our own diplomatic relations or national interests.

This is the significance of the recent revelations.  They tell us that the facilities are being used in connection with US military operations in countries with which Australia is not at war nor has any relevant involvement.  Moreover this has included lethal weaponised drone assassinations which may in intention have been aimed at militant personnel (not necessarily only terrorists) but which as ‘collateral damage’ have resulted in the deaths of numerous civilians (even wedding parties).

While the concept of being at warhas broadened somewhat, with the US asserting that its operations against terrorism are global, that is a definition that Australia cannot wear as a party to the International Criminal Court, which comes down to personal liability for criminal acts.

Either the Australian government has not been kept informed of these operations, as required under the disclosure agreement, or the government has condoned them regardless of its legal responsibilities for their consequences. If the latter, the offence has a name.

The point has surely been reached where the capabilities of the facilities alone are less of a secret than the nature of their use.  The Government has an obligation to disclose to its citizens what is being conducted in their name.  There has never been such disclosure nor a Parliamentary debate of any consequence to clear the air and let the nation know about their operations.  Even our own laws demand accountability.

The bottom line about Pine Gap is that its deep interoperability renders it effectively integrated into our defence force structure which in a time of major conflict we could not operate militarily without the United States – which places considerable constraints on foreign policy independence and decisions as to whether or not to join the US in conflicts that would otherwise not be in the national interest.  It could be said that this has been the case for some time.

Although we are being told that we do not have to make strategic choices between the US and China, for instance, situations can and will arise in which we would, as a matter of informed and wise diplomatic policy, choose, if not to go altogether in another direction, at least to trim our choices closer to manifest public opinion and the national interest.  With President Trump at the helm this is not at all unlikely.  If it comes to a threat of Armageddon proportions, Pine Gap and the US alliance will either protect us or we will go down in a state of mutual destruction.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser and senior academic in public and international law.

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