Pine Gap is still there — bigger and badder than ever

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Aerial view of Pine Gap (Image by Skyring via Flickr, cc)

With Donald Trump putting a blowtorch to the Cold War, it is time to take another look at all the U.S. bases in Australia, including Pine Gap, writes Dr Norm Sanders

PINE GAP, Northwest Cape and Nurrungar were the focus of the Australian Peace Movement in the 1980's. Then the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock crept slowly away from midnight and the removal of the bases didn't seem so urgent. The clamour to close the bases died down.

I got elected to the Senate on an anti-nuclear, environmental platform in 1985. One of my first actions as a senator was to meet up with anti-base activists in Alice Springs. As I got off the plane, I noticed several U.S. Airforce Lockheed C-141 Starlifter cargo planes on the airport apron. They were dark green and had no marking of any kind — not even the usual serial numbers on the tail. They came and went as they pleased — no immigration, no customs, as if they weren't on Australian soil at all. For all they cared, they were still Stateside.  

The peace group had organised a ute to take me to the Pine Gap gate. The plan was for me to try to get on the base and be refused entry, which the guards did, as expected.

I said:

“I am a senator of the Parliament of Australia.  This is Australian Territory and I demand entry!”

They told me to wait and got hurriedly on the phone. 

A white Holden raced up from the base and two Australians got out. They introduced themselves as the Pine Gap Australian liaison officers and added that they were telemetry engineers who had formerly worked at Woomera.

I asked:

“Do you guys remember the ARPA-NASA tracking vans that got sent over here in the 1960's?” 

They looked a bit startled and said they had heard about them. 

I said:

“Do you know where they are now?” 

They ummed and awwed and finally said they thought they were at Island Lagoon

“Well,” I said, “you better get out there quick, because the Amphenol connectors on all the cables are gold plated and worth a fortune.” 

(I had helped install them when I worked as an engineer for Collins Radio before I went to Aerojet-General.)

Their faces fell as the ramificatons of this conversation slowly sunk in. Here was an anti-bases politician who actually had experience in satellite tracking and telemetry!

We were warily escorted to our ute and the Australians shot back to the base, no doubt to alert Langley (CIA HQ, officially 'The George Bush Center for Intelligence'.) The CIA would be very interested to hear about a former Yank satellite tracking engineer, now an Australian senator, who attempted to enter Pine Gap. They would no doubt soon find my connection to American anti-nuclear campaigner Colonel David Hackworth.  

I actually knew quite a bit about what Pine Gap was up to at the time, but it was child's play compared to what they are doing at present. A simple place to start is Pine Gap's assumption of the function of Nurrungar in 1999. Nurrungar was located at Island Lagoon, Woomera and was crucial to America's defenses during the Cold War. Nurrungar furnished “Launch on Warning” surveillance of ICBM or other rocket launches anywhere on the globe. Analysts regarded it as one of the USSR's top ten targets. 

Now, Pine Gap has probably surpassed Nurrungar in the rankings. It is one of the largest satellite ground stations in the world, with over 33 satellite antennas. Pine Gap houses a number of U.S. Government agencies, such as the National Reconnaissance Office (spy satellites,) the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the Geospatial-intelligence Agency. In addition, all branches of the U.S. Military are represented.

Pine Gap is a major element of ECHELON, a signals intelligence collection and analysis network. Echelon can eavesdrop on faxes, computers and telephones, and can even scan bank accounts. It can actually pick up enemy combat forces talking to each other in the field. The U.S. Government says Echelon doesn't exist and never did. In fact, it may have now merged with XKeyscore, another system at Pine Gap. It is run by the National Security Agency and shares data with the Australian Signals Directorate.

XKeyscore was exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013.

In an interview with a German TV station in 2014, Snowden answered the question of what he could do with XKeyscore by saying:

You could read anyone's email in the world, anybody you've got an email address for. Any website: You can watch traffic to and from it. Any computer that an individual sits at: You can watch it. Any laptop that you're tracking: you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world. It's a one-stop-shop for access to the NSA's information.

…You can tag individuals… Let's say you work at a major German corporation and I want access to that network, I can track your username on a website on a form somewhere, I can track your real name, I can track associations with your friends and I can build what's called a fingerprint, which is network activity unique to you, which means anywhere you go in the world, anywhere you try to sort of hide your online presence, your identity.

No wonder Snowden has to stay in Russia!

But Pine Gap is more than a giant electronic vacuum cleaner. The facility is also involved in tactical warfare, through programs like "The Red Dot Express"

Red Dot uses a plethora of imaging techniques, signal intercepts and other sources to identify IED's (Improvised Explosive Devices) by their electronic emissions. All this data passes through Pine Gap, gets analysed and, ultimately, is displayed as a red dot on a Humvee computer as a warning that there is a possible IED just ahead on an Afghan road.

More controversial is Pine Gap's role in drone strikes. This prompted the late Des Ball, a leading ANU intelligence expert, to criticise the Pine Gap facility which he formerly supported.

On the 7:30 Report, broadcast 13/08/2014, he said:

“I've reached the point now where I can no longer stand up and provide the verbal, conceptual justification for the facility that I was able to do in the past. We're now linked in to this global network where intelligence and operations have become essentially fused and Pine Gap is a key node in that whole network, that war machine, if you want to use that term, which is doing things which are very, very difficult, I think, as an Australian, to justify.”

He went on:

“You have to start confronting this conflation of intelligence and operations. I don't know how many terrorists have been killed either by drones, but I would not be surprised if the total number of children exceeds the total number of terrorists.”

Des Ball's previous support for Pine Gap was based on the facility's role in monitoring arms control agreements. I never accepted this as sufficient justification for the base.

Undaunted by my experience at the Pine Gap gate, I later tried another assault on Pine Gap, this time at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra. I got out a press release to the effect that at 10am on Friday morning, Senator Jo Vallentine (Nuclear Disarmament Party) and I would nail a Pine Gap eviction notice to a door of the Embassy. 

The media scrum was starting to grumble when my old Datsun 120Y drove up. The driver was my nuclear researcher Richard Bolt. Richard had embarrassed the Hawke Government by tracing the path of Australian uranium all the way to French bombs at Mururoa and Russian nuclear warheads. He also dug up all the information we used to stop the Navy from moving from Garden Island to scenic Jervis Bay. Richard now plays a Sir Humphrey role as Secretary of the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, in the Victorian Government. His brother Andrew has a TV show and undoubtedly supports Pine Gap.

I had purchased a second hand door which was on the roof rack. We placed the door against the gate and nailed up the notice. There were looks of relief on the other side, where a group of grim looking men with crew cuts, suits, and ear pieces were watching intently thourgh their inevitable sunglasses. We offered them the door, which they took away with great care. (We later heard that they had thrown it in the swimming pool, in case it was a bomb.) Great media, but Pine Gap is still there.

So is Northwest Cape. The facility is officially known as “Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt”. There is a certain irony in the name because rumours circulated at the time of Holt's death that he was assassinated by the CIA as he was intending to pull Australia out of the Vietnam War.

The base is six kilometres north of the town of Exmouth, Western Australia. Exmouth itself was built to support the base and be a home to dependent families of the U.S. Navy personnel. 

The station is a key link in the communication capability with U.S. Navy and Australian ships in a vast area of the Western Pacific and Eastern Indian Ocean. It transmits on VLF (very low frequency,) at 19.8 kHz with a power of 1 million watts, which makes it the most powerful transmitter in the Southern Hemisphere. For comparison, commercial TV transmitters have about 1⁄10 the power.

The powerful transmitter has been linked to two incidents in which Qantas airliners had equipment failures while flying in the area. Qantas Flight 72 had to make an emergency landing at Learmouth, near Exmouth, after uncontrolled pitch-downs which caused fractures, lacerations and spinal injuries to passengers and crew. 

In order to transmit this massive power, Northwest Cape has a huge spiderweb array of antennas supported by 13 towers, each almost 400 meters high. Buried underneath the antenna is 386 kilometres of bare copper mat as a ground plane. 

The combination of the very low fequency and immense power means that Northwest Cape can communicate with nuclear armed submarines while they are submerged to at least 20 meters to avoid detection. The orders to launch nuclear missiles in time of war in the region would be sent through the base. It is this function which makes Northwest Cape an obvious prime nuclear target.

Instead of trying to pump up hysteria over a non-existent North Korean missile strike, The Turnbull Government should take a hard look at the very real threat that Pine Gap and Northwest Cape pose to Australia.

Dr Norm Sanders is a former academic, TV journalist, Tasmanian MP and Australian Federal senator. 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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