Veil drawn around base's role By DUNCAN CAMPBELL Sunday 23 July 2000
Newspaper article in the Age in Australia.
R E L A T E D Secret web world of spy suspect Pine Gap becomes even more important US intelligence officials have won a secret battle to keep Australians from learning basic information about the purpose of the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap, according to a top secret document published in Washington.
The document - a September 1995 letter from the State Department to the then director of the National Security Agency, Vice-Admiral Mike McConnell - warns that were the US Government even to admit that it runs electronic eavesdropping satellites in space, there would be "undesirable repercussions" in host nations such as Australia.
The spy-satellite disclosure is made more controversial because of the recent revelation that Pine Gap has quietly been converted into a front-line base for the controversial US National Missile Defence system, which differs in name only from former President Reagan's Star Wars plan unveiled at the height of the Cold War. It has angered Russia and China and created fears of a new nuclear arms race.
The 1995 letter shows that US anxieties were then focused on America's three most secret intelligence stations abroad. These control and operate a constellation of high-tech listening satellites costing more than US$10billion. In the case of Australia, it appears that the State Department expected that "the government will be particularly sensitive to unfavorable speculation" about spy-satellite bases.
After high-level discussions between US intelligence agencies, the proposal to declassify "the fact of" overhead SIGINT (signals intelligence) collection was rejected. Since then, Canberra and Washington have continued to refuse to give MPs or the public information about what happens at Pine Gap. The State Department letter, marked "Top Secret" and "Handle Via Comint (Communications Intelligence) channels only", was obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive, an independent group based in Washington. Many parts of the letter were blanked out, including names of countries where the US did not wish to admit that it ran spy-satellite bases. But according to project director Dr Jeff Richelson "it is clear that the department was anxious about the impact in the foreign countries where the US operates ground stations for SIGINT satellites" - the UK (at Menwith Hill), Germany (at Bad Aibling) and Australia (at Pine Gap). The document enlarges fears loudly expressed last year by the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, which said that MPs were kept in the dark about information that was given to the US Congress or was publicly available. Members complained that although US Congress officials had visited Pine Gap and received classified briefings about its functions, the Treaties Committee was "entrusted with less information than can be found in a public library".
As a result, the committee was given only limited and unverified information by two professors from the Australian National University. One of them, Professor Des Ball, told the committee: "I believe that we could have a statement that confirms that there are listening satellites in operation. I think you could say that Pine Gap is the ground station for those satellites and I think that one could canvass the type of signals which are interceptable by those satellites. Anyone who knows anything about signals propagation and antennae design can work out what sort of signals are interceptable." Pine Gap, which has been operated by US intelligence since 1968, was the ground-control centre for the first CIA eavesdropping satellite, code-named RHYOLITE.
Controversy over Pine Gap began 25 years ago and was linked to the downfall of the Whitlam government. Its precise functions remained secret until the arrest of a US spy revealed that it was a CIA intelligence base, code-named MERINO.
Although details of the plans for the expansion of Pine Gap into missile defence have been available in Washington for years, it was only a week ago that Australians were told that, since October 1999, Pine Gap had been "very much" involved in NMD. Even this admission, in an interview with US Secretary of Defence William Cohen on Channel Nine, is less than the full truth. Pine Gap will be the front line of the planned tracking and missile defence network. The new system, called SBIRS (Space-Based Infra-Red System) is planned to be operational by 2004. In a third development, an aviation magazine has revealed that Australia and the US have agreed not only to help run the controversial space battle system, but to build a new test range in Western Australia. The new range, north of Broome, would be allocated land extending 100 kilometres inland. According to Flight International, the new range would allow the US Navy to stake a larger claim in the "Star Wars" plan by testing ship-based anti-missile systems. Simulated ballistic missiles would be launched from Australia, and -if the tests succeeded - quickly be shot down by the US Navy.