Pine Gap and the enemy within

As 2015 comes to a close, a war rages across the Earth.

Hospitals are bombed, villages are destroyed by air strikes, people are murdered by drone attacks, and thousands upon thousands of refugees are forced to leave their homes, from Pakistan to Somalia, creating one of the largest refugee crises ever seen.

Yet little is said or understood about Australia’s role in all of this.

Pine Gap, 16 kilometres southwest of Alice Springs on Arrernte land, has for nearly 50 years been central to military operations across Asia and the Middle East. It has been the eyes and ears of the US military since it went on line in 1969 and subsequently expanded to become the Asia-Pacific home base for US president Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars project.

More recently it has become the empire’s pointing finger, providing targeting information for the drone attacks that have killed thousands of people in the last six years.

‘Sniff, collect, know, process and exploit’

Back in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, Pine Gap was developed to monitor Soviet military communications and provide “early warning” on missile launches and tests. The Australian government argued, and continues to argue, that Pine Gap’s role is to monitor compliance with a range of arms control treaties.

For a while, that was probably its primary function. But as communications became more and more reliant on satellites, Pine Gap’s role kept pace with technology. Mission creep has led to it playing a major part in the NSA doctrine on communications data, the mantra of which states: “Sniff it all, collect it all, know it all, process it all and exploit it all”.

Pine Gap’s 34 satellite dishes enable it to sniff out communications from every possible wireless source in an arc from the East Africa to China. It is a part of the Five Eyes (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) spying network that has existed under various acronyms since the original BRUSA (Britain-USA) pact of World War II.

It manipulates data – not just from its own area of responsibility, but from every one of the ground stations operated by Five Eyes partners in more than a dozen countries around the world. “Sniff it all” alludes to former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld’s koan about “known unknowns and unknown unknowns”.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden also revealed that the installation plays a crucial role in that organisation’s Operation Xkeyscore, which he says can monitor anyone anywhere connected to communications equipment – it is not limited to Five Eyes partners.

All information is treated as significant until proven not to be: from military communications in Iraq through to your phone call to Mum this week about plans for Christmas dinner. The data are collected, analysed and processed before ultimately being “exploited” – either by providing targeting information for a ground, air or drone attack, intelligence on competing telemetry or insurgents and activists around the world, or commercial information on countries and corporations that would give Pine Gap’s corporate management an edge in business.

Because Pine Gap, much like the wars it takes part in, is ultimately about business.

War is a racket

Without doubt, this is a military installation. But of the 700 US citizens working directly on Pine Gap operations, only 106 are military: 40 from the navy, 30 each from the air force and army and six from the marines. Fifty US government civilians from the National Reconnaissance Office (who have overall charge of the facility), National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency bring the US government total to about 150.

The rest are employed by the largest military corporations in the world – Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics – along with niche companies that work exclusively for the CIA and NRO, such as Leidos, Scitor and Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). There are also about 80 Australian military and contractor personnel, bringing the total Pine Gap workforce up to around 800 (the exact figures are unavailable).

The US employees of Pine Gap, along with their military counterparts, do not pay tax in Australia (or the US) or pass through customs. Under the Australian-US Status of Forces Agreement, they cannot be held accountable for breaches of Australian law. As Arrernte elder Chris Tomlin put it, “It’s not only Black Australia that has a sovereignty issue”.

These commercial operators run everything from the kitchens to the actual satellites. They’re there for one reason only: to make a profit. Nobody in the Australian or US governments or military establishments seem to have any problem with the moral hazard at the heart of this set-up: companies that profit from war collect and analyse the data that aer used to trigger conflict.

And profiting they are. Raytheon CEO Tom Kennedy recently told a Credit Suisse conference that the company is “seeing a significant uptick for defence solutions across the board in multiple countries in the Middle East”.

Lockheed Martin VP Bruce Tanner told the same conference that recent developments would provide “an intangible lift because of the dynamics of that environment and our products in theatre”. He highlighted the need for the company’s new F22 and F35 jets.

A look at these companies’ share price rises immediately following the Paris attacks highlights the profits they make even from the expectation of war.

Shut it down

The Australian left has always opposed the existence of Pine Gap, particularly after US whistleblower Christopher Boyce exposed the fact that one of the reasons behind the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government in 1975 was its desire to close the facility. Since that time, many protests have taken place at its gates, starting with the Women’s Peace Camp in 1983 and then every decade or so until the most recent in 2003, in response to its role in the invasion of Iraq.

Chris Tomlins wrote this week from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra:

“The Arrernte people have been the custodians and peaceful protectors of their country for thousands of years. Our sovereignty is contained in our songlines, stories and dances, which have been handed down over thousands of years.

“As the lawful custodians we are responsible for what occurs on our land and the harm it brings to the rest of the world. The activity of the facility at Pine Gap has implicated us in criminal military actions, which threatens the dignity of all people, implicates us in war crimes and generates instability and conflict around the globe as a consequence of US imperialism.”

To extend Tomlin’s admission: as Australians we are all implicated. While Pine Gap is undoubtedly a United States military base in all but name, the Australian government claims to be involved in all aspects of its operation. Whether this is true or not is a moot point. The fact is that we are a part of a globalised military industrial capitalist system, and the Australian government is every bit as culpable in Pine Gap’s operations as its US counterpart.

The Australian peace movement, alongside Arrernte elders, has called another mass convergence at the gates of Pine Gap from 25 September 2016 to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the original Pine Gap Agreement.