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Australia's own Area 51: Pine Gap

The top secret Central Australian spy base of Pine Gap has taken on greater intelligence gathering capacities, a recent report by several well-known experts in the intelligence field has announced. For decades the United States-Australia Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap was utilised by Australian and American intelligence agencies to serve as the ground control station for CIA-developed signals intelligence satellites that intercept ballistic missile test telemetry and microwave telecommunications. The expansion of the Pine Gap site into a “multi-purpose mega-intelligence centre” further indicates the importance of Australian intelligence networks and assets in the global collection of satellite and electronic communications. ‘Australia’s Area 51’

Pine Gap, 19 kilometres southwest of Alice Springs in Central Australia, has long been the subject of intrigue and misinformation christened with the moniker of ‘Australia’s Area 51’, complete with tales of espionage and UFO sightings. Completed in 1970 after multiple controversies during land procurement and construction, the role and scope of the Pine Gap facility has undergone several mutations to become a key component of domestic and foreign satellite collection as part of the “Five Eyes” (FEVY) alliance. The “Five Eyes” intelligence network that includes Australia, as well as the United States, Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand, enables joint information sharing between member states. Documents released under the Snowden leaks revealed that members collected information on their own citizens and then shared the data with fellow FEVY members, ostensibly to circumvent domestic reforms designed to protect citizens from indiscriminate government surveillance. The joint Australian-British-Canadian report, titled "Expanded Communications Satellite Surveillance and Intelligence Activities Utilising Multi-beam Antenna Systems", authored by Desmond Ball, Duncan Campbell, Bill Robinson and Richard Tanter, expresses concern with the “fundamental transformation” of the Pine Gap facility which, they claim, has received “no public reassessment”. The Pine Gap facility, though jointly operated, is managed by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office and houses internet servers operated by the National Security Agency (NSA). The data that resides on these NSA servers is considered property of that agency and is thus subject to US legislation, such as the Patriot Act. The co-operation between facilities such as Pine Gap, the ‘dragnet’ collection of online communications and the intelligence sharing alliance “Five Eyes” is both explicit and concerning. In 2013, the then Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull pointed to the PRISM program and “extensive surveillance and interception of foreign citizens' data without a court order” as being particularly worrisome for the public and for cloud-companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google. Pine Gap: “CIA’s most important technical intelligence collection station in the world”

The expansion of Pine Gap from a “highly specialised mission” to a ““multi-purpose mega-intelligence centre” without official acknowledgement by the Australian government, should be of concern to the public and to Australian policy makers. The highly secretive site in the sparsely populated area southwest of Alice Springs is skirted by large signs declaring a “COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA PROHIBITED AREA - NO TRESPASSING, NO PHOTOGRAPHY, NO FIREARMS” with the threat of seven years imprisonment for individuals who breach the area adjacent to the secure facility. The report by Ball, Campbell, Robinson and Tanter uses publicly available information and details released by Snowden and visual observations, accompanied by images and graphs, to explain the surge in size and capacity of the Pine Gap site. The report is littered with imprecise words and phrases such as “this was probably”, “appears to have”, “are probably associated with”. These approximations are not due to poor research methods or blatant generalisations but accurately reflect the information vacuum that surrounds the facility and the operations undertaken there. As with all top secret facilities, installations and operations there will be a degree of confidentiality and enforced security but the extent to which the Australian public, and even elected Australian officials, are kept in the dark is increasingly concerning. As the United States-Australian Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap continues to deviate from its former highly specialised functions, greater scrutiny should be given to the outcomes and consequences that inevitably occur. In 2013 it was revealed that data collected by the Pine Gap facility is used for geo-location and targeting purposes for drone use by the US military in sovereign states such as Yemen and Pakistan. Though ostensibly used as tools in the fight against terrorists, these US drone strikes have caused multiple civilian casualties and led the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism to reprimand US military drone use as “hurdles to transparency” and urged the US to “further clarify its position on the legal and factual issues...declassify... information relevant to its lethal extraterritorial counter-terrorism operations; and to release its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft…”. Affecting change a world away

Data collected by the installations at the Pine Gap facility enables questionable drone usage, mass data retention and satellite communication collection, all without the checks and balances provided by courts, sovereign governments, journalists and the wider Australian public. The report handed down by Ball et al. highlights the increased importance placed on Pine Gap as the centrepiece for US intelligence operations over a vast swathe of the world, from Eastern Russia to the Middle East and East Africa through the adoption of multi-operational capabilities. Though the Australian government has a long-standing policy of not commenting on operational intelligence matters, former Defence Minister Stephen Smith said that Pine Gap operated with the ''full knowledge and concurrence'' of the Australian government, with concurrence meaning that the Australian government approves the presence of a capability or function in Australia but "does not mean that Australia approves every activity or tasking undertaken''.

The future of Pine Gap remains, like much of its existence, a mystery. In the meantime, the secretive facility at the heart of Australia will continue to be used in operations far from the eyes of the Australian public and affecting change far from Australia’s shores.

William Read the International Affairs Cyber Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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Image Credit: Supplied (via

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