Sunday, June 16, 2024

The freedom of the press still furnishes that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide – Chicago Tribune.

HomeIssue 25Rosenberg’s rose coloured view of Pine Gap

Rosenberg’s rose coloured view of Pine Gap



David Rosenberg, former National Security Agency employee at Pine Gap, uses several sleights of hand to make his argument, on this site yesterday, about the exemption of the base from any moral responsibility in the military operations to which it contributes intelligence.

Though not a specialised journalist in this subject area, I have spent much of the last two years writing a book that delves into the issues. (Published by UQP, it will be in bookshops in early August and I’ll write more about it closer to the date.)

So, I’m informed insofar as enquiring citizens can be and believe strongly that Australians should not allow the excessive secrecy around the base and its aura of high-tech impenetrability to shield us from the responsibility involved in hosting it on our soil.

Rosenberg suggests that its contribution of intel to military operations is based on “rumours”, which in turn have caused “journalists or conspiracy theorists to express concern over American and Australian culpability in this action”.

By linking “journalists” to “conspiracy theorists” he tries to undermine the credibility of journalists’ work in this area, when it has been done by people at the top of their game, such as Brian Toohey, Philip Dorling, Peter Cronau, to name some of the relevant Australian investigative journalists.

He then tries to limit concerns held about the issues to this impliedly disreputable group, whereas the concerns are shared by a much broader base – including research experts, medical doctors, public intellectuals, people of faith, the rare politician and military veteran – even if they struggle to build a majority view.

In the very next sentence, Rosenberg himself treats the “rumours” as fact: “Importantly, any intelligence from Pine Gap in these scenarios is not used in isolation.”

So, any responsibility for consequences, he is arguing, is mitigated by Pine Gap being part of a network; its intel is fused with intel from other sources.

And the base doesn’t press the button, he adds. It has neither that capacity nor responsibility, its role is merely passive.

Can we really take comfort from that?

This diffusion of responsibility – the distance between the person identifying the target and the person pressing the button, which goes via the intel collectors – is a characteristic of our increasingly technological ways of killing. It makes it much harder, for instance, to prosecute war crimes.

It shouldn’t make it harder to have the ethics of these scenarios vigorously debated in the public domain.

The blanket of secrecy over the base and the complete refusal by our political and military leaders to answer any questions about its role in military operations, both covert and conventional, stifles any such debate.

Rosenberg, who early in the piece says it is “important that Australians know more about Pine Gap: its purpose; what it does; what it does not do”, seems to promise some answers.

But really, what he offers is just gloss: Pine Gap’s intel contributions “in any military operation would minimise harm with the goal to eliminate the unnecessary deaths of non-combatants”.

This is a very anodyne way of describing the chain of actions in which Pine Gap is a critical link and which end on the ground in bombs and blood.

Let’s say it like it is – military operations kill people, injure them, terrorise them (behind every bomb is the threat of another), they destroy infrastructure, destroy livelihoods.

Rosenberg is also assuming here that there is a high level of certainty about the identity of targets, about who are considered combatants and who are considered non-combatants, and of when deaths may be necessary or not. All of these decisions –  in covert operations especially and even with the extraordinary technology of the Five Eyes network at their disposal – are fraught with difficulty.

This is not to mention the questionable ethics of such operations, essentially policing in the countries of other people, who we are not at war with, and applying only capital punishment, no questions asked.

As well, he is taking for granted that there is a high level of commitment to minimising harm, when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Maximising harm was, for instance, the overt initial strategy in the war in Iraq, in which Pine Gap and the Five Eyes network undoubtedly played a significant role; Rosenberg even laments this role in his book about the base.

He writes of the “dismal, expensive” legacy in Iraq of both Bush presidents, that it “impacted on our work in Operations throughout my time in Alice Springs.”

Now he appreciates that there may be disquiet about Donald Trump as US President. He certainly does not hold the man in high regard.

But his claim that Pine Gap has been “shielded from any fallout from the policies and action of the current, as well as previous administrations” is either laughable or a worry.

Laughable if, as we might assume, it operates within the chain of military command in the US, with the President as Commander-in-Chief; a worry, indeed, if it doesn’t, if it has become a power unto itself.

All the more reason for Australian citizens to demand accountability from our government, and for the Australian government to pursue a more independent agenda in relation to the base’s activities, and not hide in the wriggle room of the “Full Knowledge and Concurrence” policy.

Australia’s “concurrence’” was explained in the last Ministerial Statement about the base as meaning agreement to the purpose of its activities and understanding their outcomes, even if we don’t approve of them.

But there is no transparency whatsoever about these activities done in our name.

Harking back to American and Australia’s “historical kinship” and the fact that our armed forces “have fought and died alongside each other”, as Rosenberg does, is of no comfort on this fundamental challenge for a healthy democracy.


Note: The cover image for Peace Crimes is Kristian Laemmle-Ruff’s  Pine Gap (a photograph of the Centre of Australia), 2015.


  1. Sharp analysis from the new generation of journalists following these important issues.

    Cronau and Toohey continue to draw Pine Gap to our attention waiting for a strong movement to arise. We respect their service with yours and whistleblowers and activists, Assange and Snowden.

    Drone strikes by the US, with associated deaths of civilians, have continued to increase since our action at Pine Gap.

    But there is also the total and extraordinary destruction of cities by bombing. This is also the business of Pine Gap. And we are implicated.

    I pay my respect to the Arrente on whose land this monstrosity sits. A symbol of the gross militarisation of First Nations oppression. They resisted first.

  2. Thanks for such an insightful and important article Kieran.
    It is so critical that Australians have access to the truth about what goes on at Pine Gap, and the implications of intel provided through Pine Gap.

  3. I for one understand the strategic need for Pine Gap and similar places.
    It is usually those with the best intelligence that wins a war, and if it comes to it I would rather be on the winning side thanks very much.
    War is a very dirty business however we face enemies who don’t always play by the rules.
    To understand the role intelligence gathering read a book about the Mossad called Gideons Spies.
    The Chinese and other powers that may become direct threats to use must be rubbing their hands together with glee when they see our own citizens trying to tear down the defence network that has been built up over the years, given time and enough left wing protests to gradually chip away at what is necessary, they will be able to walk in one day and become our new masters with a lot less effort thanks to traitors who would have Pine Gap close its doors.
    Our allies may use drone strikes which may go astray from time to time, but remember our enemies are more than happy to use aeroplanes full of people to achieve the same result.
    The Americans who work for this vital asset are welcome and important to this town, and actively contribute to it whenever they can.
    The reason you don’t get told some of the stuff they uncover is that if you knew the threats that exist, you would awake all night in fear.
    Pine Gap is a line of defence between us and out nightmares that allow us to sleep at night. The threats are real, and the world is not unicorns and rainbows.

  4. Is that the Australia you want to live in, Ray? A country where if you have a dissenting view you are a traitor? That’s how dissenters are seen in China and now Hong Kong.
    Some more pertinent research for you on these issues might be to visit the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s coverage of America’s covert wars as a starting point. The deadly fallout from drone operations goes well beyond a few drones ‘going astray’.
    Australia has acquired its own weaponised drones. Very soon it won’t be a matter of turning a blind eye to the actions of ‘our allies’. Shouldn’t we be able to have an open public debate about the frameworks, ethical and legal, that will govern their use?
    I trust you will find my forthcoming book, Peace Crimes, offers a useful discussion of some of these questions.

  5. How does linking “journalists” to “conspiracy theorists” impact the credibility of the journalists’ work in this particular area? Can you elaborate on the accomplishments and reputation of Australian investigative journalists like Brian Toohey, Philip Dorling, and Peter Cronau, and explain why their work is relevant to the discussion?
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