Liberals and Labor: Tweedledum and Tweedledee on Pine Gap


p2615 Pine Gap Felicity Ruby 660

Above: Pine Gap’s main compound, operations buildings, and Torus multi beam antenna at the rear. Photograph taken by Felicity Ruby in January 2016. The Torus is capable of monitoring 35 or more satellites at a time, part of the Five Eyes network’s automated mass surveillance around the globe. 

There is no difference between the Liberals and Labor on Pine Gap, the American military base 19kms southwest of Alice Springs and employing some 800 people, about half of them Australian.
No news in that except to say that nothing has changed after the Defence Minister Christopher Pyne spent 16 minutes of the Parliament’s time last Wednesday making a Ministerial Statement on the so-called joint defence facilities in Australia of which Pine Gap is the biggest, and Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles, not quite as long in ingratiating reply.
“On this occasion, perhaps the most important point I can make in response is that, happily, Labor supports every word the minister has said today,” said Mr Marles. As he declined to even acknowledge receipt of questions put to him by the Alice Springs News Online, we can leave his contribution there.
Except for one point. In closing Mr Marles quoted former Labor Defence Minister Kim Beazley, “writing on the 50th anniversary of Pine Gap, referring to a phrase used by the late Des Ball, who said, in respect of the joint facilities, that they represent ‘the strategic essence of the alliance’, which is between Australia and America. That statement is absolutely true now.”
It may be true but, given everything that had come before in his speech in glowing endorsement of the base, it was a misrepresentation of the position eventually held by Professor Ball.
In 2014 he told the ABC:  “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.”
Although Australian sovereignty had always been a prime issue for Professor Ball and he was critical of the unwarranted secrecy surrounding the base, in earlier decades he had supported it, on balance, for its necessary role in arms control agreement verification.
This is the role of the base that Australian governments of whatever stripe are happy to emphasise while skating over the rest.
But the US drone program – extensive targeted killings in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in countries with which neither Australia nor the US is at war, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen – and Pine Gap’s role in it had profoundly challenged Professor Ball’s previously held position.
The strikes are guided by signals intelligence collected by the Five Eyes global surveillance network of which Pine Gap is a critical part. The signals are analysed and, where relevant, passed on to the CIA or military command.
Strikes can be authorised against individuals whose identity is unknown but whose behaviour suggests association with terrorist organisations. Only “near certainty” of the target is required.
The strikes are essentially extrajudicial assassinations, and Australia, through Pine Gap, is complicit.
Former Liberal Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, found this indefensible. In his book, Dangerous Allies, Mr Fraser described the American legal justification for its drone program – its reliance on the post 9/11 Authorisation for the Use of Military Force  – as “tenuous at best”. He couldn’t see that the authorisation would stand up in the International Criminal Court.
Not that the US would allow that to be tested: it has never ratified the Rome Statute establishing the court. But Australia has. Australian personnel involved in drone killings, in Mr Fraser’s view, have even less to fall back on than the Americans: “Australians operating at Pine Gap are doing so without any authority and could be equally liable,” he wrote.
p2367-pine-gap-kristain-l-rThere has been a huge amount of work by researchers, notably Professor Ball and Professor Richard Tanter, as well as by investigative journalists to bring the evidence of all this to light. (See some suggestions for further reading below.)
Right: The main compound and its brightly lit perimeter. Photograph by Kristian Laemmle-Ruff. 
The picture they had already largely pieced together about the base’s capabilities and huge technological expansion, matched with the increased militarisation of its personnel (traced through things like their surprisingly unguarded LinkedIn profiles), was confirmed by the documents leaked by former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden and published by the ABC.
Among them was the text of the unclassified mission statement for the base, the almost meaningless account that we hear our politicians trot out: it’s there “to support the national security of both the US and Australia”. This text was accompanied by the explicit instruction to “avoid any implication that this statement is only a sanitised portion of a larger classified effort”.
Australian governments have bent over themselves to comply and Mr Pyne’s Ministerial Statement is but the latest example. (The last Ministerial Statement on the “joint facilities” was made in 2013 by Labor’s Defence Minister Stephen Smith.)
The Alice Springs News Online did not really think that he would break with tradition and actually answer any questions arising from the statement but we gave him the opportunity.
In the statement he made a point of emphasising that Australians hold key decision-making positions at Pine Gap and have direct involvement in operations and tasking. He also said that the government has full oversight of activities undertaken there and that they are in accordance with Australian and international law.
We asked him then if he could explain how the provision of targeting data by Pine Gap for lethal drone strikes by the United States in countries with which Australia is not at war conforms with Australia’s obligations under international law?
Specifically, what are the international law principles and rules that authorise and govern this kind of operation?
We noted the UN Special Rapporteur’s recommendation on this issue: States should publicly identify the rules of international law they consider to provide a basis for any targeted killings they undertake.
We asked what is the Australian law that authorises Australian personnel at Pine Gap to be involved in this kind of operation?
Has the government sought specific legal advice on the liability of Australians involved in this kind of operation?
If so, what is that legal advice?
Mr Pyne said in the statement that “the intelligence we produce together has saved lives”.
p2615 Pyne & MarlesGiven that that intelligence has undoubtedly also caused lives to be lost in countries with which Australia is not at war, including the lives of civilians, we asked what the Minister had to say about the accountability and responsibility of Australia towards those people who have lost their lives, towards their families and communities and nations?
Left: A compilation on Mr Pyne’s Twitter account @cpyne today, showing him in the company of Mr Marles, in the grey suit, and pilot Wing Commander Darren Clare. 
Mr Pyne described the policy of “full knowledge and concurrence” that has underpinned, since the Hawke government, Australia’s agreement to host the US base on its soil.
“‘Full knowledge’ equates,” he said in the statement, “to Australia having a full and detailed understanding of any capability or activity with a presence on Australian territory or making use of Australian assets.
“‘Concurrence’ means that Australia approves the presence of a capability or function in Australia, in support of mutually-agreed goals.
“It doesn’t mean that Australia approves each and every activity or tasking undertaken; rather, it means that Australia agrees to the purpose of activities conducted in Australia and also understands the outcomes of those activities.
“But I can assure the Parliament and the Australian public, we maintain appropriate levels of oversight for the activities undertaken.
“Importantly, concurrence also means that Australia can withdraw agreement if the government considers that necessary.”
We asked Mr Pyne then if the Australian Government approves of lethal drone strikes carried out by the United States, on the basis of intelligence provided by Pine Gap or contributed to by Pine Gap, in countries with which Australia is not at war?
We asked, does the Australian Government allow activities to take place at Pine Gap of which it does not approve?
If no is the answer, what action has it taken / will it take?
Does the Australian Government accept responsibility for the outcomes of all operations in which Pine Gap has been involved, irrespective of any direct involvement of Australian personnel?
We waited three working days for a reply. Mr Pyne’s media advisor told us she was “working to get [us] something as soon as possible”.
That “something” was this, attributable to the Department of Defence: “Consistent with longstanding practice, the Government does not comment on intelligence matters.”
The News notes that our questions were about matters of policy and law. If the use of force is going to be resorted to in our name – and under international law that is supposed to be an action of last resort – are Australians not entitled to hear about it? Should Australians not have the opportunity to debate it?
On this site:
Pine Gap’s new role as a war fighting command centre
Pine Gap’s nuclear role and the alternative
Pine Gap: protection or threat?
For detailed research about Pine Gap by Professor Des Ball and Professor Richard Tanter and colleagues, see the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability. Many of their papers can also be found in hard copy in the Alice Springs Public Library.
On the USA’s drone wars, as a starting point, see the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.


  1. My position is that the base does FAR more good than bad in the world, and if that makes it a nuclear target then that is the price of freedom. I don’t speak idly either, but with skin in the game. I live 10k closer to it than anyone North of the Gap. If you would prefer Russia or China as the world policeman remember the old adage, “be careful what you wish for”.

  2. Pine Gap certainly has done a lot for our security over many years, but the rise of drone warfare raises new issues.
    Watch the film Eye in the Sky with Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman if you are unsure about this. Good article Kieran, thanks.

  3. With the current state of international affairs, laced as they are with loose bluster and rattle, including irresponsible nuclear chatter, the bullseye on Pine Gap becomes a thing of concern.
    Let’s just hope if “they” do take it out, “they” use one of those low-yield, precision smart numbers and drop it on one of those golf balls.
    But don’t knock Pine Gap. Ever wonder why Alice has, and will always have, a long strong airport runway?


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