American intelligence personnel are predominant at Pine Gap and throughout the Five Eyes network. This ensures that American views prevail about threats to world security, which become threats to Australia’s security. The mind-set of our intelligence community is constantly reinforced by ‘independent’ second-tier policy assessment outfits such as ASPI in Australia, CSIS (Centre for Strategic and International studies) and CNAS (the Centre for a New American Security) in the United States. All have solid military-industrial backing.
It is not surprising that the Albanese government finds it hard to make independent foreign policy judgements that go against the consensus, or against the Murdoch media with its dependence on defence industry advertising.
During World War Two, thousands of signals analysts worked under pressure at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire and Arlington Hall in Virginia. They made a substantial contribution to the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, by breaking Japanese and German wartime codes.
In the post-war hiatus, many analysts lost their jobs, but the Cold War, dramatically forecast by Winston Churchill in his famous Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri on 5 March 1946, brought them back. The Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites became the West’s new enemy, a Godless menace to democracy and the new world order. One of several US responses was to negotiate an intelligence-sharing agreement with Britain in 1946. Canada joined the arrangement in 1949, Australia and New Zealand in 1956.
And so the celebrated ‘Five Eyes’ arrangement was born – five capitalist countries with similar European origins, a common language and broadly shared views about what was proper and acceptable in the pursuit of human rights and the rule of law.
As the Australian academic strategist Des Ball observed in the 1980s, the USSR had its own spy bases and listening posts, some of them quite successful in the immediate post-war period in filching US and British atomic bomb secrets. Moscow was helped in this by American and British traitors.
But Soviet stations were overwhelmed in number and reach by those of the Five Eyes countries. According to the Five Eyes ECHELON surveillance program initiated in 1971, the US had signals intercept stations in Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, Thailand and Central America. Britain had them in Nairobi, Oman and Cyprus. New Zealand had two – at Waihopai and Blenheim, both on the South Island.
Until recently, Australia had monitoring stations at Geraldton and Darwin, then at Nurrungar, and now at the Joint Defence Facility (as it is formally known), at Pine Gap, a major surveillance and communications base near Alice Springs in central Australia. Pine Gap is supposedly jointly run by Australia and the United States ‘to support the national security of both the US and Australia’. This is a cover story. Run by the CIA, NSA and National Reconnaissance Office, Pine Gap monitors US geosynchronous spy satellites across several continents. These invigilate wireless and telephonic traffic from cell phones, radios and satellite uplinks. The base is capable of monitoring the private conversations of citizens anywhere its satellites reach, including in Australia.
Pine Gap also monitors missile launches and weapons tests in target (hostile) countries and sweeps up intelligence from foreign military data systems. It can pinpoint hostile air strikes and direct US drone and missile strikes against enemies. It is credited with initiating the assassination of individuals with security interests such as nuclear scientists in hostile countries, especially some in Iran, and of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020.
Since 7 October 2023, and possible earlier, Pine Gap is also suspected of providing the Israeli Defence Force with data on Hamas rocket launch sites in the Gaza strip.
Not that Washington policies have always been wholeheartedly endorsed among the lesser members of the Five Eyes. The disclosure in 1975 by ministers in Whitlam’s Labor government of Pine Gap’s CIA connections was hardly popular in Washington, and led to rumours that his dismissal was partly arranged by the United States. New Zealand’s refusal since 1984 to allow nuclear-powered or armed warships to berth at its ports caused irritation in Washington, as did New Zealand’s 2021 warning that it would not allow the Five Eyes to dictate the terms of its relations with China. Canada’s decision in 2003 not to send troops to the invasion of Iraq, and the disclosure that a Canadian Royal Naval officer was spying for Moscow in 2012, were also sources of annoyance. Canada’s breach of cordial relations with India in October 2023 over India’s alleged involvement in the extra-judicial killing in Vancouver of Kurdistan extremist Hardup Singh Nijjar has interested the other Five Eyes, but is hardly likely to distract the group from their central preoccupation with their traditional enemies.
The fact is that the overwhelming presence of US intelligence officers and agencies in the Five Eyes, their fixation on China, and the backing they receive from dozens of America-centred military contractors including Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, leads to a narrow view among the Five Eyes about who the main enemy is.
Rumblings about China’s growing economic power have been heard for years. Actual steps to rein it in were kicked off on 1 December 2018, when a Huawei executive was arrested on espionage charges at Vancouver Airport. Two Canadian nationals were expelled from China in response. Chinese virologists were also sent home from Toronto. Restrictions were placed by Washington on technical exchanges.
Not to be outdone, the Turnbull government in Canberra jumped into the fray. First, Turnbull refused a licence for Huawei and a major Chinese dairy company to operate in Australia. He then imposed anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminium products. Foreign influence laws, obviously aimed at China, were then legislated in Canberra. The call for an inquiry into the source of COVID was then made by Turnbull’s undistinguished Foreign Minister Marise Payne. Coming as it did straight after her return from a visit to Washington, the Chinese naturally assumed she was put up to it by Trump. Very likely so, since Australia’s exports to China suffered and America’s did not.
China retaliated with bans on a range of Australian products, about which Prime Minister Albanese, Foreign Minister Penny Wong, and Trade Minister Don Farrell have been working hard to reverse.
Not so, Opposition leader Peter Dutton. It seems that anything he can find to stymie Sino-Australian rapprochement he will. His latest effort is to demand that Albanese reveal whether or not he tackled Xi Jinping in the margins of the APEC summit on Washington on 20 November about rumours that a Chinese warship had turned its sonar on HMAS Toowoomba in international waters off Japan the day before Albanese’s brief talk with Xi.
Fortunately, Canberra has not sided completely with US intelligence and military perceptions that China is truly an unrelenting enemy of democracy and the (Western) rules-based order. But its Five Eyes advisers are unlikely to drop that argument. Nor is Andrew Shearer, Director of ONI, who was described in 2020 by the ALP as a ‘partisan operative’.