Pine Gap. Photo by Felicity Ruby.
Mr Rosenberg (pictured) is a retired National Security Agency (NSA) signals intelligence manager, and a former employee of Pine Gap, who wrote Pine Gap: The Inside Story Of The NSA In Australia. He spoke with the Alice Springs News for a report on July 17, 2011. He is the technical and creative consultant for the Netflix TV series, Pine Gap.
Perhaps no other signals intelligence relationship in history has been as controversial as the presence of the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap just outside Alice Springs.
Established by a treaty signed in 1966, it became operational 50 years ago on 19 June 1970 with the launch of its first satellite, codenamed Rhyolite.
It is the NSA’s most significant satellite intelligence collection facility, know as The Jewel In The Crown within the intelligence community.
With news of the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic and protests over racial inequality dominating headlines, the anniversary might have gone unrecognised within Australia.
Pine Gap has always been shrouded in secrecy, with misleading initial claims that it existed to conduct “upper atmospheric research” – a vague term that avoided disclosing its true mission: to collect signals intelligence related to missile and weapons development programs from the former Soviet Union.
Much has changed since then, particularly the main reason for that first satellite launch.
In addition to continuing to collect weapons related signals from Russia and other weapons producing countries, the Pine Gap satellite mission has evolved, with many more resources focusing on collecting communications intelligence in support of military operations and to identify terrorist networks.
Unsurprisingly, Pine Gap maintains a low profile, although it appears in news stories from time to time, most sensationally when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s domestic surveillance programme – a development that launched a worldwide debate about the legality of governments seeking to access individual personal and/or telecommunications information.
It is, therefore, important that Australians know more about Pine Gap: its purpose; what it does; what it does not do.
Many rumours have linked Pine Gap’s capabilities to offensive military action involving civilian casualties.
These rumours, in turn, have caused journalists or conspiracy theorists to express concern over American and Australian culpability in this action.
Importantly, any intelligence from Pine Gap in these scenarios is not used in isolation.
It is fused with other intelligence such as imagery or human intelligence on the ground (HUMINT) before a decision to act is initiated, yet Pine Gap has no capability or responsibility in making decisions to initiate offensive strikes.
Its role is to passively collect and report signals intelligence.
Information and intelligence contributed by Pine Gap in any military operation would minimise harm with the goal to eliminate the unnecessary deaths of non-combatants.
Australia has looked to the United States as a military ally since World War II, and Australians may well ask what their country gets from this intelligence alliance at Pine Gap.
How does it benefit and what is the cost?
Incredibly, the financial cost to Australia is low, last disclosed as about $14m in 2011-2012.
For that small amount, Australia’s security benefit is immense – Australia may task Pine Gap to collect information on anything it believes is necessary for its security.
Some information may be unique to Pine Gap, and so this relationship remains a crucial part of Australia’s defence strategy.
Since the first satellite launch 50 years ago, significant political changes in the United States has some Australians questioning the wisdom of continuing the close alliance with a country that was once looked at as the leader of the free world, but has initiated policies under Donald Trump that are more authoritarian and restrictive, less tolerant of freedom of expression and peaceful protests, and one that cannot be trusted to provide truthful and accurate information.
Pine Gap, however appears to have been shielded from any fallout from the policies and action of the current, as well as previous administrations.
This is good for both countries, as the strategic, economic and defence partnership have been mutually beneficial much longer than the 50 years since the launch of the first satellite.
We also share a historical kinship and have fought and died alongside each other.
It is the leadership of the United States and Australia that will determine the future direction of Pine Gap.
The current agreement permitting Pine Gap to remain operating now requires one country to give the other three-years’ notice to terminate operations at the joint facility.
Only once in its history has there been serious consideration by the Australian government of terminating the operations at Pine Gap – during the prime-ministership of Gough Whitlam in the early 1970s.
Polling has shown that the majority of Americans do not approve of the direction the leadership within the United States has chosen, and this may manifest itself in the upcoming election in November.
Fortunately, Pine Gap has always shown itself to be a presence that is greater than any single leader – it is a symbol of the ties that bind the United States and Australia.