Pine Gap supports nuclear war fighting, not monitoring arms control agreements

Mar 27, 2024
War or weapon concept 3d rendering.

Richard Tanter stated in Pearls and Irritations on March 21 in regard to my piece on a former Defence Deputy Secretary, Paul Dibb on 14 February, that “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”. The inference is that I am guilty as a member of the media.

On the contrary, I think I can fairly claim to have done more than most to demystify what Pine Gap was about in the initial decades of its existence. Another journalist, the late Bill Pinwill, used different sources to come to the same conclusion that Pine Gap is “useless for arms control”. I happily acknowledge that Edward Snowden released more detailed information in 2013. Peter Cronau later reported his contribution on the ABC’s Background Briefing radio program.

In July 1975, I wrote in the Australian Financial Review that Pine Gap intercepted sound signals rather than receiving photographic images. I wrote that due mainly to the writings of ANU academics [such as Des Ball] and others about the US satellite bases in Australia, these had usually been regarded as playing a key role in satellite photographic reconnaissance of the USSR and China. I said that it shouldn’t be any great surprise that signals intercepts can be a valuable source of intelligence. Nonetheless, I said, “It has undoubtably suited US purposes to have it put about by authoritative academic sources in Australia that the US bases in Australia are first and foremost about photo-spying”.

On November 3-4, 1975, I reported that a CIA employee Richard Lee Stallings was the first head of Pine Gap in 1966. That was the first time that Pine Gap had been exposed as a CIA base. Stallings was there at the construction stage, but no longer its head when it became operational in 1970.

I was also the first to report the gist of the highly classified telex that the then head of the East Asia Division of the CIA Ted Shackley sent to ASIO on November 8, 1975. He threatened to cut off US intelligence unless ASIO gave him a satisfactory explanation of why Whitlam was speaking out about Pine Gap. Shackley wrongly accused Whitlam of being the source of most of these statements. I later published the full text of the telex in the AFR. In 1977, Whitlam subsequently tabled it in parliament.

Tanter says I “curiously omitted” to say that Kissinger considered “alternatives for locating essential existing US security functions outside of Australia”. Tanter is wrong. I did not omit this in my Dibb piece, as a reading makes plain.

Tanter says he makes no comment on what Whitlam was told about Pine Gap and “exactly when”. Had he checked, he would have realised that Dibb was wrong to repeat Kissinger’s claim that Whitlam in 1972 had revealed that Pine Gap was an “important CIA spy base”. Whitlam did no such thing because he wasn’t briefed until 1975 that the CIA ran Pine Gap. That fact has been unambiguously established. Later, the US National Security Agency took over the core operations of Pine Gap.

Tanter is no fan of Kissinger, and says he committed numerous horrendous crimes. But he takes Kissinger’s word that Pine Gap gave Australia a “vital role” in arms control. That would be fine, if true. Tanter then claims that Dibb was correct to claim – and I was wrong to deny – that Pine Gap played a “crucial role in reassuring Washington about Soviet compliance with detailed counting rules for the various strategic arms limitation agreements throughout the 1970s and 1980”.

Tanter says that even back then Pine Gap was “critical to US nuclear war fighting capabilities” and for monitoring the early nuclear arms limitation agreements. My point is that it was barely relevant to verifying compliance with those agreements.

The agreements required the number of warheads, missiles and bombers to be counted. But Pine Gap had almost no part in checking on the counting process. The reason is simple. Counting the numbers required the use of photo reconnaissance satellites, but none were linked to Australia. Back then, Pine Gap was linked to signals intelligence satellites. In the 1970s and 80s, which my article was about, it was good at intercepting signals, called telemetry, that were sent to and from a Soviet missile being tested. But they had little role in arms control.

A retired deputy head of the CIA Herbert Scoville, who had also been an Assistant Director of the US Arms control and Disarmament Agency, gave an accurate explanation of why photographic images from low orbiting satellites were the “crucial verification tool”. In an article in New York Magazine on 18 June 1979, he wrote these satellites had “little difficulty recognising all the weapons covered by the arms control agreements, such as land and sea-based launchers and heavy bombers”. He said the satellites could locate, count and measure modern weapons from 100 miles away. His article also explained that the US had extensive facilities to observe tests of all multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) carrying warheads —and count them — as they move towards their target zone in the Soviet Far East or the Pacific Ocean.

Scoville said it didn’t matter for arms control purposes that the CIA had lost its listening posts inside Iran in the 1979 Iranian revolution. Scoville, who had headed the CIA’s Iranian program, said gathering intelligence from listening posts is “not synonymous with treaty verification”. The listening posts allowed the CIA to intercept telemetry from a missile test site close to Iran. This is not the same thing as being able to count all the different weapons subject to the arms control treaties.

Tanter has correctly pointed out elsewhere that photo reconnaissance satellites can’t see inside a test missile. This is not a big problem. The counting rules said that if a missile’s shape and size suggests it can carry MIRVED warheads, it would be counted as doing so.
Some former Australian public servants who had been briefed on Pine Gap later told me it was wrong to conclude the base ever had a significant role in arms control.

Only much later than the 1970s and 80s, which was the subject of my and Dibb’s articles, did Pine Gap become linked to other satellites carrying infrared sensors that could detect heat from a wide range of weapons systems.

These had a possible role in nuclear war fighting, but not in monitoring arms control agreements.

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