‘Pine Gap, part of the United States war machine, should not be a non-issue in Australia’, Honest History, 9 September 2019
In his 1980 book A Suitable Piece of Real Estate, Des Ball exposed the secrecy, evasion and deception of both the United States and Australian governments in establishing Pine Gap. It was officially presented to the Australian public as a joint research facility and its war-fighting capabilities were hidden from view. Ball was regarded at the time by ASIO and the Department of Defence as subversive, anti-American or worse. But his book was not pulled from the shelves, his undoubted expertise was recognised as he brought out more publications, and he was made an Officer in the Order of Australia before his death in 2016.
In 2019, Tom Gilling has published Project Rainfall, which covers much the same early ground as Ball, but brings the story up to date. It provides much needed additional information
Spying on military communications was a crude business during World War II, but it paid enormous dividends when codes were broken. At the start of the Cold War, it involved American U-2 aircraft secretly flying over Soviet territory at 60 000 feet to avoid MiG fighters, while photographing military installations. After pilot Gary Powers was shot down by a Soviet missile in 1960, U-2s were replaced by enormously fast Lockheed SR 71 spy planes.
Both types of aircraft were made obsolete by the advent of satellites. At first, both Soviet and American satellites flew around the earth, leaving only a brief window to take photos over any target. But these gave way to geosynchronous satellites which, hovering at 36 000 feet following the equator from west to east at earth’s orbital speed, remained in a fixed position above the earth.
Temple Bar, a grazing station in the centre of Australia and far from the prying electronic eyes of the Soviets or any other enemy, was chosen by the CIA as an ideal place to establish a communications base linked to geostationary satellites that could record and download data on Chinese and Soviet missile launches and their flight characteristics. The deal was sealed with the Australian government by US Secretary of State Dean Rusk during a SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) meeting in June 1966.
From the start, ‘Rainfall’, or ‘Pine Gap’ as it became known, was publicly presented by a succession of Australian ministers solely as a ‘research’ facility, run jointly by Australia and the United States, its research available equally both to Australia and America. But, as Gilling records, the base was run solely by the CIA; its ‘research’ involved military spying. Far from it being a ‘joint facility’, Americans controlled the technology while Australians engaged in menial tasks such as painting the walls, sweeping the floors and baking the bread. The situation gradually changed, but only grudgingly. Des Ball estimated that, in 1978, the base employed 226 Australians, of whom only 16 were involved in technological tasks.
The depressing fact was that, from the beginning, Australian Ministers relinquished their duty (on behalf of their constituents) to know who ran the base, why they ran it, and the consequences of doing so. They clung to the script American officials had given them that it was a research base. They were not informed about its technical capacities, which expanded to include monitoring of Soviet ICBM launches and military communications in India, Pakistan and Vietnam, nor that Pine Gap was invigilating microwave radio and long-distance telecommunications traffic. Nor were they informed of its post-9/11 functions to direct drones on assassination missions in the Middle East.
Gilling digresses into an account of Australian nuclear weapons ambitions under Prime Minister John Gorton in the late 1960s: the Prime Minister’s strong advocacy for an Australian bomb, his distrust of US assurances of protection, his reluctance to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Gorton was prompted (with good reason) by China’s acquisition of the bomb and his doubts about the reliability of the so-called ANZUS ‘nuclear umbrella’.
Gilling also describes several factors that led to an uneasy relationship between Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and President Richard Nixon during the early 1970s. One was Whitlam’s advice to Nixon that both North Vietnam and the United States should engage in serious peace negotiations. Nixon was outraged at the ‘moral equivalence’ implied in Whitlam’s letter. A second factor was the leftist tendencies of some of Whitlam’s cabinet, notably Jim Cairns. A third factor was Whitlam’s disclosure of what was already semi-public knowledge – that Pine Gap was run by the CIA, not the Department of Defence as previously claimed.
In July 1974, Nixon commissioned NSSM 204, a top secret study of the state of US-Australian relations. The study seriously questioned whether the US should pull its bases from Australia, but decided against doing so on the grounds that Australians were still favourably disposed towards America, but wanted a greater say in how its bases operated. Meanwhile, Australian ministers continued to lie about the bases, as even Whitlam did in October 1974 when he stated that ‘My government knows what the US is doing in Australia, and we know that nothing the US does will be done except with our full knowledge and our full concurrence’.
Gilling records that, during the Cold War, Pine Gap (and its sister bases at Nurrungar near Woomera and North West Cape in Western Australia) were primary targets for nuclear decapitation strikes by the Soviet Union and China. Top secret assessments by the Office of National Assessments (ONA) predicted only limited damage from nuclear attacks to local communities adjacent to the bases, but these claims were strongly contested by Medical Association for Prevention of War and Scientists against Nuclear Arms. Both groups warned of enduring blast and radiation damage as far away as Port Augusta, Port Pirie, Whyalla and Adelaide. Paul Dibb, a former defence intelligence official, suggested that Soviet paranoia might lead them to target other major Australian cities.
Throughout the Cold War, the US bases in Australia became magnets for civil protest marches and demonstrations. These achieved nothing except the venting of public anxiety and the ratcheting up of deception by governments.
Pine Gap (Wikipedia/Skyring)
Gilling notes that the capabilities of Pine Gap mirror the massive expansion in communications through computers and cell phones since the turn of the century. Echelon was a secret system developed during the Cold War to monitor military and diplomatic communications from the Soviet bloc. It is now a global system to intercept private and commercial communications – mass surveillance and industrial sabotage. Not only that: Pine Gap is also involved in America’s ‘War on Terror’, a euphemism for dirty wars around the globe.
Gilling quotes comments Des Ball made on the ABC in 2014 that, having for most of his life supported Pine Gap’s presence on Australian soil, he had ‘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’. Pine Gap, Ball concluded, was part of the Pentagon’s war machine, a machine doing things that Ball found ‘very, very difficult as an Australian to justify’.
Meanwhile in the Australian parliament, Pine Gap has become a non-issue, rarely mentioned except to evoke a spirit of bipartisan agreement.
* Richard Broinowski AO is a former Australian diplomat, having been Ambassador to South Korea, Vietnam and Mexico. He has written for Honest History: review of Brendan Taylor, The Four Flashpoints; How Asia goes to War; review of Elizabeth Tynan, Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story; reflection on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. He also recently reviewed Hugh White’s How to Defend Australia and Brian Toohey’s Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State. For other material on related subjects, use our Honest History Search engine with search terms ‘defence’ and ‘foreign policy’ or go to the tagged list ‘Getting on with the world’.