Mystifying Pine Gap – again

Mar 21, 2024
Pine_Gap_by_Skyring_c Image: Wikimedia Commons / By Skyring - Flying back from London on Qantas, looked out the window and there it was.Previously published:, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Brian Toohey’s article “Untruths, the CIA, and Whitlam’s dismissal”, (Pearls and Irritations, 14 February 2024), begins by dismissing as ‘astonishing’ a recent ASPI article by former Defence Deputy Secretary Paul Dibb on ‘Kissinger’s role in avoiding nuclear war, and the key part Australia played’ – ‘astonishing because it is riddled with major errors.’

The key facts about Pine Gap’s operations have long been known from the work of robust and well-documented research studies.

But media self-censorship and acceptance – if not cultivation – of a mystique of impenetrable opacity about Pine Gap has facilitated public acceptance of government silence, misdirection, and mendacity about Pine Gap.

In fact, despite all the politically useful media fluff of ‘the secrecy abounding the mysteries of Pine Gap’, and undoubted remaining blank spots, there have been more authoritative and detailed publicly available research studies of Pine Gap in the decades following the publication of Desmond Ball’s A Suitable Piece of Real Estate in 1979 than on any comparable US intelligence facility.

Despite his remarkable achievements of journalism over many decades, on this occasion Toohey has further muddied the always murky waters of Pine Gap media commentary, making the government project of mystification of the base a little easier.

I make no comment on Toohey’s main concerns about the CIA, Whitlam, and exactly when Whitlam was told what about Pine Gap, with one exception which Toohey curiously omits:

Kissinger: considered ‘the alternatives for relocating essential existing U.S. security functions outside of Australia’

Released to James Curran for his 2015 book Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War, Henry Kissinger’s National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 204, (1 July 1974) demonstrates that by at least mid-1974 Kissinger seriously considered punishing the foreign policy sins of the Whitlam government by threatening to tear up the agreements concerning the key components of the US alliance with Australia – Pine Gap, Nurrungar, North West Cape and the Alice Springs seismic detection facility.

Kissinger instructed his NSC staff to ‘deal with the following issues’:

  • ‘The prospects for keeping U. S. defence installations in Australia, and the policy options for trying to prolong their existence there.
  • ‘The alternatives for relocating essential existing U. S. security functions outside of Australia, and the impact on our alliance relationship of doing so.
  • ‘The prospects for locating additional U. S. defence installations in Australia, and the policy options for trying to do so.’

While the crimes of Henry Kissinger were horrendous, numerous and catastrophic in their consequences (think East Timor, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia), Paul Dibb is correct on Kissinger’s significant role in the US and the Soviet Union reaching agreement on the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement (SALT I) and its successor SALT II in 1979.

In the 1970s and 1980s, highly imperfect bilateral nuclear arms control was both essential to reduce the risk of nuclear war and politically extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

Despite the vigorous efforts of disarmament movements in those decades, in the absence of a global nuclear abolition movement on the scale that achieved the passage at the United Nations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, bilateral arms control was a necessary, if undoubtedly insufficient, restraint on the outbreak of nuclear war.

On this matter it is Toohey, not Dibb, who is in error on the important matter of Pine Gap’s role in verification of Cold War arms control agreements.

Writing following the death of Henry Kissinger, Dibb focussed, to Toohey’s ire, on

‘Kissinger’s appreciation of the crucial role Pine Gap played in reassuring Washington about Soviet compliance with the detailed counting rules of the various strategic arms limitation agreements throughout the 1970s and 1980s.’

‘Contrary to Dibb’s account’, writes Toohey,

‘Pine Gap had almost no role in checking on Soviet compliance with the counting rules in the various strategic arms limitation agreements.’

On this matter, Dibb is correct, and Toohey, wrong.

Four contradictory truths about Pine Gap

‘All journalism simplifies’ goes the old saying; ‘but which story gets simplified remains the key.’

But Pine Gap is complex.

Why would we expect the analysis of the largest US intelligence base outside the United States itself, built and maintained by the US at fabulous cost over more than half a century, a critical element in its nuclear domination of the rest of the world, dependent on the collusion – willing when it is not suborned – of the Australian government, to be readily amenable to short form explanation without distortion?

Thinking about Toohey’s attack on Dibb, we need to keep in mind four fundamental and sometimes contradictory aspects of the long and complicated history of Pine Gap.

Firstly, the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap is a U.S.-auspiced intelligence facility, carrying out a wide range of electronic and infrared surveillance and command and control functions of critical importance to US nuclear war-fighting capabilities and global military operations.

This was true during the decades of the Cold War, and even more so today given the expansion of Pine Gap’s military missions and technological capabilities.

Secondly, Pine Gap was, and always has always been, the most important element in Australia’s alliance with the United States, binding Australia ever more tightly into U.S. global military operations, nuclear and otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, all Australian governments have regarded legitimating Australia’s integration into US warfighting capabilities through Pine Gap in the eyes of the Australian public as a primary, if rarely admitted, political task.

The main Australian government tools for achieving this goal have been, and remain, silence, mendacity, dissembling, misdirection and misinformation.

Thirdly, Australian government claims about Pine Gap’s role in verification of bilateral arms control agreements that was first acknowledged in 1988 have been variously – at different times and for different arms control agreements – more or less correct, misleading, anachronistic, or simply mendacious – but always obfuscating.

The contribution Pine Gap’s signals interception capabilities made to verification of the SALT I (1972) and SALT II (1979) agreements, or even START I (1990), was politically essential to obtaining the necessary U.S. Congressional approval. Only signals intelligence could provide critical information on whether the Soviets were ‘cheating’ by testing new missiles with new capabilities – cameras in spy satellites could not do that job.

At the same time, that political achievement was entirely dependent on the original purpose for which those signals intelligence capabilities were built at Pine Gap – U.S. nuclear war-fighting capabilities – a.k.a. ‘deterrence’.

Today, the Australian government’s repetitive claims of Pine Gap’s contribution to arms control verification is almost wholly fallacious. The days of SALT and START are long gone.

The last remaining significant US-Russian treaty restraint on avoiding nuclear war, the New START Treaty (2009) will expire in under two years.

New START verification never had need of Pine Gap’s current primary surveillance systems, which involve electronic intelligence and infrared imaging of missile launches. Pine Gap has never played any role in verification of New START, which depends on direct visual scrutiny of nuclear launch platforms – missiles, submarines and bombers – and their base facilities, through onsite inspection and by overhead visual imaging.

Fourthly, despite the fact that the CIA initially built Pine Gap primarily for interception and monitoring of Soviet missile testing telemetry, it did so against the intense opposition of the National Security Agency and other parts of the Pentagon that jealously controlled US military signals intelligence operations. The NSA and the services increasingly demanded greater allocation of satellite and processing resources to communications intelligence – intercepting much more usable strategic and militarily intelligence than simply missile testing data.

As a political compromise between the CIA and the military, the first two Rhyolite satellites controlled by Pine Gap were given a small communications intelligence collection capability.

For the next two decades a bitter bureaucratic turf war between the military and the CIA led to almost complete victory for the National Security Agency – and a primary Pine Gap focus on usable communications intelligence.

The current four Advanced ORIONs controlled from Pine Gap make up the Australian portion of Mission 7600, which was, the NSA stated

‘designed originally as a FISINT [foreign instrumentation signals intelligence, including telemetry)] collector but now is primarily used as a COMINT [Communications intelligence] collection system against known targets of high intelligence value. Currently, about 85% of Mission 7600 collection is against these COMINT targets.’

Needless to say, it has suited both the US and Australian governments to ignore the essential nuclear command, control, and communication intelligence role of Pine Gap, all the while murmuring about a now almost obsolete – and never primary – role in arms control.

Readers can make up their own minds on Toohey’s claims about Dibb on four key historical matters in this attachment, published on the Nautilus Institute website: Richard Tanter, ‘Evaluating four claims by Brian Toohey against Paul Dibb on Pine Gap’, 20 March 2024.

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