By ERWIN CHLANDA
“It certainly isn’t a WikiLeaks type of story,” concedes David Rosenberg, author of Inside Pine Gap.
Despite the titillating sub-title “The spy who came in from the desert” the book reads more like the official story.
“It was well and truly vetted. I certainly did get approval from the various review boards,” Mr Rosenberg told the Alice Springs News.
There were four of them, in fact, including the Pre-Publication Review Board of the National Security Agency, for which Mr Rosenberg work for 23 years, bigger and more secretive than even the CIA.
But while there isn’t much in the book which people like the Australian National University’s Des Ball hadn’t already told us, it’s now more than well-informed speculation, because it has Mr Rosenberg’s certification, so to speak.
“It is an expose of what happens at Pine Gap. After being there for 18 years I was in a credible position to be able to relate what goes on, particularly because I worked in operations the entire time,” says Mr Rosenberg.
“There is quite a lot of information in the public domain … but not at a level of detail that I was able to provide. I don’t think anybody has ever written about [Pine Gap’s role in] the searches for downed pilots. Or collecting signals that are sent by various weapons systems.”
One thing the book clarified for me was why the base is near Alice Springs, in the middle of the country. The author explains that the down signals from the satellites it communicates with are quite broad. If the base were near the ocean then spy ships from hostile nations could more easily pick up the transmissions. But it would be pretty hard for the KGB to set up listening posts in Papunya or Finke.
For a long time Australia had been outdoing the US in hushing up details about The Base. A turning point came when Prime Minister Bob Hawke, quoted by Mr Rosenberg, in 1988 spoke openly about its functions “to collect intelligence data which supports the national security of both [US and Australia] and contributes importantly to the verification of arms control and disarmament agreements”.
The “space base” had been in the news in 1975 when Gough Whitlam – as claimed in one of Australia’s enduring conspiracy theories – was sacked as Prime Minister because he was going to shut down the facility.
In 1974 Victor Marchetti, author and ex-CIA officer, described the base as a “vacuum cleaner” sucking up signals. Mr Rosenberg confirms this: “Anything that transmits electromagnetic signals into the atmosphere is fair game for really anything out there to pick up. I do talk about the Pine Gap satellites picking up information that is transmitted, any kind of electromagnetic signal. You certainly have heard reports about conversations being picked up by the media when they do their eavesdropping.”
NEWS: Except when we do it we get into trouble. Just ask Rupert Murdoch.
ROSENBERG: We are under a tasking constraint as to what we can look at.
NEWS: Nevertheless, the book makes it clear that, for example, all telephone and email communications that go, at least part of the way, by transmission can be picked up by Pine Gap equipment.
ROSENBERG: That is certainly a possibility. Anything that is transmitted is basically fair game.
NEWS: Would you agree that Pine Gap is the United States’ most important military base on foreign soil?
ROSENBERG: That’s a subjective opinion depending on who uses the data.
NEWS: To what degree are people in Alice Springs subjected to Pine Gap style electronic surveillance? It’s no secret when the space base convoys of busses are traveling every day on the South Stuart Highway, and planting a roadside Improvised Explosive Device, as they are used in Afghanistan and Iraq, wouldn’t be any big deal. Would you not wish to have the jump on that?
ROSENBERG: I can certainly say Australians and Americans are not targeted by Pine Gap. It is not involved in that sort of surveillance whatsoever.
NEWS: You are making a strong point that the Aussies and the Americans are sharing the information gathered. Do the Aussies get all the information which, for example, you send to the headquarters of your organisation? Do the Aussies automatically get a copy?
ROSENBERG: There are distributions that are put on each message. The Australians do have access to those reports that come into and are transmitted by Pine Gap.
NEWS: What percentage of reports would be transmitted to Australian secret services?
ROSENBERG: They have access to all of them. Reports that are of interest to people within the Australian government – they have access to all of the reports.
NEWS: Do they need to know that a certain report exists so they can ask for it, or do they get a list of what’s available?
ROSENBERG: You can set up a filter to allow you to receive reports, maybe key words or subjects that you are interested in, or reports on anything that is of interest to Australians. The extent of the partnership, the extent of sharing that goes on within Pine Gap, that was speculative, but in my book I was able to confirm that everything in operations is shared equally between the Australians and the Americans.
NEWS: Each country, so it is rumored, has a cypher room to which the other country does not have access. Is that right?
ROSENBERG: I didn’t have anything to do with that end of it. I never went into the cypher rooms. It wasn’t part of my job. Cryptological capabilities are proprietary to each country.
The book, apart from being a glowing tribute to the beauty of Central Australia and its friendly community, has its light moments. Whilst being vetted prior to getting the spy job Mr Rosenberg flunked two lie detector tests – over smoking pot.
He confessed to have puffed the magic dragon 20 times. When he was interviewed by the FBI the officially acceptable number was 10.
“I kind of wondered what they would have said if I only smoked pot nine times,” he says.
On the other hand, rigorous examinations as to whether he is homosexual (a no-no amongst spooks at the time) he passed with flying colours. He’s now on his third marriage, all to women, including his
current “very happy” one to an Australian singer and quite obviously a major reason for leaving Pine Gap and becoming an Aussie.
Early in his 18 year stint in The Alice, equipped with one of the highest security ratings, with the cold war in full swing, The Base was considered a prime nuclear target. Opponents, in a sustained campaign, saw it as the kind of place to be zapped in tit-for-tat scenarios of an escalating conflict, each superpower taking out a foreign base. It would have shown they meant business without – at that point – attacking the mother country itself.
Says Mr Rosenberg: “The world was a different place in the ’70s and the ’80s. Since that time basically terrorism has become a concern of many governments.”
NEWS: Wasn’t this a plausible scenario during all of the cold war?
ROSENBERG: That was a reasonable and probable scenario put forward by the leadership, yes.
NEWS: Do you agree with it?
ROSENBERG: That was certainly before my time. I was actually still in high school in the 1970s. People at the time considered this something of a possibility if somewhat very, very remote.
NEWS: That scenario was touted as a possibility right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
ROSENBERG: They had a big nuclear arsenal but ever since the end of WWII those military crises, if you will, have been able to be resolved diplomatically, without taking the nuclear option.
NEWS: How come you missed 9/11? You first heard about it on CNN, then on the bus, going to the base.
ROSENBERG: That’s right. It caught us all by surprise. I talk in the book about the intelligence community being basically fractured at that time. There were basically walls between the various agencies. Sharing your information with other agencies wasn’t done very easily. A lot of the information that could have been used and put together simply wasn’t. That certainly had a major impact on why the attacks on 9/11 were successful.
NEWS: And that flowed over to the supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, didn’t it?
ROSENBERG: I don’t think so. The reason for that wasn’t that there wasn’t any communication. We in the intelligence community were certainly looking for evidence on WMDs and as I say in the book, nothing really came across my desk, or I never read anything over 10 years of reading reports about Iraq, that they had WMDs. We just didn’t have the conclusive evidence, at least not at Pine Gap.
But I’ll also say the White House has access to a lot more intelligence information than we did at Pine Gap.
NEWS: Did the NSA, which is apparently even more important than the CIA, make the point to the government that they had nothing solid on WMDs in Iraq?
ROSENBERG: I don’t know what the leadership at the time was saying to the White House, but from the frontline I can certainly say there was nothing available to us, and nothing from our level was passed to the White House that, yes, Iraq does have WMDs. If it had been I’m sure many of us in the intelligence community would have been aware of any conclusive evidence out there. We thought other sources may have passed evidence to the White House but in the end this wasn’t the case.
Mr Rosenberg says his book’s objective is partly to debunk claims made by anti-base protesters.
NEWS: What kind of claims?
ROSENBERG: That we are killing civilians.
NEWS: Isn’t that what you are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan almost every day?
ROSENBERG: All of that happens on the ground. The information we pass back is simply in response to intelligence gathering. We get tasked to find this information and we pass that back whenever we can. Pine Gap has not, and would never target civilians.
NEWS: It’s part of the war effort, surely?
ROSENBERG: Providing intelligence is always part of the war effort, yes.
NEWS: So the war in Iraq, for example, couldn’t be conducted without you guys.
ROSENBERG: It could certainly be conducted but the intelligence community is quite broad. You have naval assets, you have ground assets, other facilities similar to Pine Gap, but the amount of intelligence wouldn’t be at the same level without places like Pine Gap.
NEWS: If you can, as you explain in the book, give information about launching of Scud missiles, and their location and readiness, then that is a pretty intense involvement in the war effort, is it not? You would have passed on information about insurgent groups?
ROSENBERG: I do talk quite a bit about the role of Pine Gap in that effort. We certainly look for anything that is of interest to the military that we are tasked to do. One of the most important issues is to be able to locale road mobile missiles. That effort is shared among the intelligence community which have their own assets such as aircraft and drones.
NEWS: You are one of the world’s most highly skilled spies, have one of the United States’ highest security clearances, you became an Aussie. You offered your services to the Australian Defence Signals Directory, to ASIO and ASIS and they said, “no, thanks”?
ROSENBERG: It was surprising. The problem was getting an Australian security clearance. When I left Pine Gap in 2009 it was the year I became an Australian citizen, so I would have needed a citizenship waver to receive the Australian security clearance. In the end it was too problematic and appeared they didn’t know the exact procedure of what I had to do to get that waver. I was quite disappointed in the end. I thought my 23 years with the NSA would have been quite valuable for the Australian Government.
NEWS: Are you saying to me that the creme de la creme of the Australian spooks couldn’t work out whom to see about what bureaucratic process to follow for them to give you a job?
ROSENBERG: That’s correct. It was only one of these organizations that I’d gone through but I did apply to the other agencies but they didn’t show any interest.
NEWS: A final question: Was I one of the individuals about whom new arrivals at Pine Gap were warned in their induction briefings?
ROSENBERG: I can say no to that. I think that you are one of the trusted individuals in Alice Springs, from what I know.
NEWS: Here goes my carefully cultivated bad reputation.