Hamish McDonald wrote this article in the Saturday Paper on October 1, 2016. The paper was also a tribute to Des Ball who died recently. He was the best informed and independent commentator on Pine Gap. The following is an introduction to Hamish McDonald’s article with a full link at the end to the Saturday Paper. John Menadue
It’s one of two sacred sites to which you can drive from Alice Springs. The other is the red stone monolith of Uluru, said by the Pitjantjara to bring down a curse on anyone who removes a rock.
This one, though, is the huddle of gleaming white fibreglass domes known as Pine Gap which, if penetrated by the uninitiated, could threaten the security of the West.
Nonetheless, some are trying to break its spell. This week, a group of “Quaker Grannies for Peace” set up a breakfast stall on the road outside, to engage some of the 800 staff, half American and half Australian, as they commute to work. Possibly some more forceful activists, Christian or left-wing pacifists, will try to repeat past incursions through the security perimeter.
In Alice Springs itself, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network is holding a conference this weekend to explore what is known about the role of Pine Gap and the implications for this country. Essentially, participants will argue the base would be an early target in any nuclear attack against the United States, and short of that, it implicates Australia in conflicts outside our sphere of interest, in nasty and illegal ways.
The occasion is a historical marker. Pine Gap is rather younger than Uluru, but has just reached the 50th anniversary of the Harold Holt government’s agreement to the US building what was announced to the public as a joint “space research” facility in the middle of Australia.
A tight circle of Australian politicians and officials was well aware it was a monitoring and control station in the new field of intelligence collection by satellite. The Americans were about to put satellites into geosynchronous orbit north of Australia to pick up electronic emissions from the Soviet Union and other Cold War enemies.
Alice Springs was ideal. Its location meant the Soviets could not sail spy ships anywhere near enough to read the downloads from the satellites, which at that point were unencrypted. Indeed, Pine Gap had no neighbours close enough to do that, and ASIO advised Canberra that Alice Springs was a “clear area” of local communists.
Secrecy held until the mid-1970s, when the World War II signals intelligence operation known as Enigma was finally revealed, and the role of the US Central Intelligence Agency in running Pine Gap became public during the final days of the Whitlam government.
Hamish McDonald is the Saturday Paper’s world editor and a former correspondent in Asia.