Minding the Gap, by Felicity Ruby

‘Pine Gap is an espionage operation. Euphemisms should not be allowed to obscure this essential point.’ 

Desmond Ball, 1988

Pine Gap is visible from commercial flights in and out of Alice Springs—travellers are occasionally warned that taking photos of the facility is illegal. Climbing the steep ridges of the MacDonell Ranges or hiring a helicopter offer ways of seeing the thirty-three antennas, nineteen covered by white radomes, which Desmond Ball and colleagues described in 2016 as ‘significant elements in Australian political culture…an iconic place in the Australian imaginary that vies with Uluru for primacy as the symbolic centre of the country’. Another way of seeing what Richard Tanter calls ‘a landscape of secret power’ is to climb the fence and walk in, as six Christian ‘Peace Pilgrim’ protesters did on 29 September 2016, risking penalties, made harsher by the Rudd government in 2009, to ‘deter mischief makers and those with more sinister intent’.

Months after their case was thrown out of an Alice Springs court, in January 2017 Attorney-General Brandis authorised prosecution of Paul Christie, Franz Dowling, Jim Dowling, Andy Paine, Margaret Pestorius and Tim Webb on charges of ‘unlawful entry’ under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952, a law that came into being to protect areas being used for British nuclear testing from intrusion. Now facing up to seven years in jail, these activists will represent themselves at a jury trial predicted to take place in November 2017. It will be only the second time the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act has been used, as the hundreds of people previously arrested at Pine Gap were charged with trespass under section 89(1) of the Commonwealth Crimes Act.

Protesting Pine Gap—a brief history

Since the Pine Gap Agreement was signed by Australia and the United States on 9 December 1966 and the facility became operational on 19 June 1970, the silence surrounding this secret surveillance base has been interrupted only occasionally by parliamentary debate, press exposé and public protest.

In the aftermath of publicity about Pine Gap during the events of the Whitlam dismissal, Philip Nitschke described providing tours when working as a ranger in 1976–77 to ‘an almost continuous stream of people’ wishing to view the base that ‘grew into a sort of informal monitoring of the place’. Concerned Citizens of Alice Springs, formed by Nitschke and friends, provided ongoing updates to researchers, put out a newsletter and began communicating with national peace, anti-war, church and union groups, culminating in a conference in Alice Springs over Easter 1981.

The largest ever protest at Pine Gap was held two years later, in November 1983, when the nuclear Doomsday Clock was at three minutes to midnight. Inspired by the actions of women camped outside a US base at Greenham Common to protest against nuclear weapons and war, the Women for Survival coalition organised the largest action of 1980s Australian feminism: 800 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women protesting in the searing desert heat. Centred on political issues specific to neither gender nor race, the gathering was timed to coincide with Remembrance Day, the arrival of Pershing missiles at Greenham and the death of anti-nuclear campaigner Karen Silkwood, whose name was given to police by the 111 women arrested for breaking into the base.

The novelty of a women’s-only event captured media and the nation’s attention, as did the ‘funny, tearful, entertaining, clever and beautifully musical’ creativity and ‘humorous performance-based articulation of the protest’s political agenda’, as Meg Kelham put it in Hecate, that became the benchmark that subsequent Pine Gap actions have sought to repeat ever since in making claims about surveillance, nuclear dangers, war, the derogation of Australia’s sovereignty and democracy, and the theft of Aboriginal land that Pine Gap symbolises to protesters.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, having garnered a great deal of national and international media coverage, organisers felt they had succeeded in ‘putting Pine Gap on the map’. However, given the secrecy surrounding the base, every protest at Pine Gap during and since the Cold War has had the first and last challenge of establishing the very fact of its existence—to render visible what Trevor Paglen calls a ‘blank space on the map…erased from the public record’.

The women’s camp was followed in 1985 by actions that saw four cyclists on the Alice Springs airport runway disrupting the landing of the USAF Galaxy plane bringing in supplies and construction equipment to upgrade Pine Gap to better serve the controversial Star Wars program. In 1987, several thousand people attended a conference focused on opposing renewal of the Pine Gap lease, with delegates from the Philippines, New Zealand, East Timor and Kanaky. The actions that followed resulted in approximately 200 arrests. In October 2002, another 400 people congregated at Pine Gap under the banner ‘Expose Pine Gap’, focused on the looming war against Iraq.

In 2005, four members of Christians Against All Terrorism took a small but significant Citizens Weapons Inspections action at Pine Gap, for which they provided prior warning to authorities. Two of the team entered the base undetected and took photos of themselves on the roof of a building before being arrested, while the others wandered around the base for another hour before being caught cutting through an inner fence. After shutting the base down for six hours, they became the first-ever Australians to be arrested under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act.

The federal (then Howard) government sought heavy sentences under the Act, applying significant resources and large legal teams. However, the judge awarded only minor fines for trespass, which the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions appealed. The Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal quashed the convictions of the Christian pacifists, finding that citizens had the right to challenge whether the prohibited area was necessary for the purpose of the defence of Australia. The (Rudd) government then introduced the Defence Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, to ensure that that challenge would not be legally valid in the future. Despite opposition from Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, who triggered a Senate inquiry into the changes, the new definition of Pine Gap as a prohibited area required for the defence of Australia became law in 2009, with bipartisan support. Anyone entering Pine Gap or photographing the site now faces arrest and imprisonment for up to seven years.

 Pine Gap protests in 2016

In September 2016, around 200 people converged on Alice Springs to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Pine Gap Agreement. Aware of the changes to the legislation that rendered symbolic and non-violent trespass of the facility a much more dangerous prospect, protesters established two campsites, gathered daily at the gates for speeches, music and street theatre, and organised road blockades forcing busloads of Pine Gap workers to enter the facility via back roads. A group of locals organised a bike ride from Alice Springs to the gates, followed by a picnic; an art exhibition featured photos of Pine Gap; there were two weeks of radio programming on local station 8CCC featuring interviews, vox populi and peace-themed music; and Alice Springs residents were heavily involved in organising a standing-room-only public meeting and conference featuring speeches by local Aboriginal elders, federal senators, academic experts and activists from Guam and Okinawa in the name of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN).

Humorous and colourful street-theatre actions replaced the mass-trespass actions of yesteryear. Quaker grannies in bonnets set up information booths in Alice Springs and served croissants to workers at the Pine Gap gate. There was a large and colourful presence both inside and outside court when protesters made appearances there. A life-size nuclear weapon was dismantled with angle grinders and an Alice Springs street was renamed. At a joint US–Australian Alice Springs research station, protesters in white medical coats declared it a zone infected with Pentagonnorhea. Five large balloons on three-metre-high stilts represented the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance between the United States, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand watching over protesters at the closing ceremony at the Pine Gap gates.

In 2016 protesters observed a stark difference in police treatment compared to that in previous actions, with the phrase or sentiment ‘killed us with kindness’ featuring in the majority of twenty-seven interviews undertaken subsequently for my dissertation research on resistance to surveillance. Police used negotiation, communication and liaison approaches. Some protesters believed that these were a strategy to make protests less newsworthy, while others held that extensive surveillance before and after protests was used as a form of incapacitation to preempt their efforts. Expecting to be arrested at least when shutting down the local Raytheon facility for a day by locking their necks to all entrances, protesters were instead visited by police for friendly chats about respecting their right to demonstrate.

While this was novel, and certainly a less threatening experience, one protestor reported feeling disturbed when a Federal Police officer greeted him by his first name, given that they had never met before; I shared this feeling when police addressed me by my twitter handle to thank me for helping them better understand protester viewpoints. On the whole, protesters reciprocated the friendliness, objecting only slightly when patted down to access the main gate protest area, sometimes smiling while being filmed and photographed by police and shrugging when images of car-registration plates were captured, yet again. While organisers did confront uninvited, unregistered and unticketed plainclothes police discovered at the IPAN conference, dismissing police claims of their being there to protect the conference from protesters, they did not ask police to leave, nor was their presence announced. The six Peace Pilgrims, whose ages span nineteen to seventy-three, reported courteous treatment by police from the point of arrest at dawn inside the facility and while being transported to the holding cells until release. After their case was temporarily dismissed they even thanked police for their treatment.

However, trouble was brewing. Before the Pilgrims’ case commenced, judge Daynor Trigg expressed irritation at the throng of protesters invading his court, threatening the removal of those wearing hats and making noise. Tension increased when he declared a ten-minute recess to read and review the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act, returning to ask twice whether the police prosecution was indeed commencing prosecution. The judge laboured this point because the consent of the attorney-general is required to commence prosecution under the legislation. When it was not produced, the judge offered another recess for police to acquire consent and expressed surprise that, given prior warning of the protest, the attorney-general had not provided consent for prosecution in advance. Brought up two by two, the defendants were told they were free to go because the prosecution had been improperly conducted. The judge also described the legislation as badly drafted and ‘a bit of nonsense’, while warning that the attorney-general could decide to issue consent at a later date.

While the Alice Springs courthouse was a scene of celebration after the verdict was handed down, the Peace Pilgrims expected the summonses that arrived four months later. They now intend to plead not guilty and to use their time in court to ‘put Pine Gap on trial’, insisting at their May 2017 court mention that, ‘the real danger comes from an overseas war-making facility on Australian soil that can drop bombs, with virtually no accountability, on people on the other side of the world. A military base that is an integral part of a nuclear apparatus puts the safety of us all in the volatile hands of Donald Trump’.

Putting Pine Gap on trial will prove difficult for the Pilgrims, given the decline in networked peace movements and the extent to which defences that might be used in court have been legislatively removed, as well as the potential under the Act for prosecutions to be held in camera and for records of hearings to be destroyed. As Flinders University Law Professor Mary Heath has observed, if these provisions raised concerns in 1952 when the bill was first debated, ‘we should share them now’, particularly given that dissenters are the only people to be prosecuted under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act.

Felicity Ruby

What Pine Gap Is Doing Right Now

Details of the military and intelligence technology and methodologies used at Pine Gap to process signals intelligence from geosynchronous or geostationary satellites in space cannot be covered here (for details, see the Nautilus Institute’s Pine Gap Project <http://nautilus.org>). However, it is important to know something of Pine Gap’s history and function to understand why protesters converge there.

  • A total of 800 government and military contractors Contractors work shifts around the clock at the sixty-hectare Pine Gap site. A 2015 study revealed that half work for US (National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Reconnaissance Office) and Australian (Australian Signals Directorate, Australian Federal Police) government agencies. The other half are private contractors working for Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics, as well as tech firms such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard.
  • Military intelligence gathering Pine Gap’s initial mission when it was established by the CIA is ongoing: monitoring, maintaining and controlling space-based satellites from the ground in order to collect intelligence about the military capabilities and weapons systems, particularly missiles, of the Soviet Union and other nations. (Desmond Ball, Pine Gap, 1988)
  • Nuclear war fighting While its listening and watching capacity is applied to verification of compliance with arms-control-treaty obligations, Pine Gap plays a vital role in US nuclear war planning through its capacity to seek, locate and jam Soviet and other air-defence radars to ensure US nuclear weapons hit their targets.
  • Surveillance Former Pine Gap worker and NSA analyst David Rosenberg confirmed the ongoing collection of a ‘wide spectrum of telemetry signals, military, diplomatic and other communications and radar emissions and beaming them back down to the ground control station at Pine Gap’ (Inside Pine Gap, 2011). Edward Snowden revealed that Pine Gap is part of the XKeyscore program that gathers and analyses global internet data (‘XKeyscore Presentation for 2008’, Guardian, 2013), and provided documents that feature the word ‘Torus’, an advanced quasi-parabolic multi-beam antenna that can pick up material from thirty-five satellites due to its shape. One was installed at Pine Gap in 2008. (Duncan Campbell, ‘Torus’, Wired, 2015).
  • Real-time battlefield support Newer battlefield functions of Pine Gap include supporting communications and targeting of military operations and troop movements in battlefields such as in the Balkans, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. As well, this evolving technology has the ability to identify the location of individuals holding mobile phones and hand-held radios.
  • Drone targeting Sources speaking to investigative journalist Philip Dorling explained the role of Pine Gap in drone strikes: ‘We track them, we combine the signals intelligence with imagery, and once we’ve passed the geolocation intell[igence] on, our job is done. When drones do their job we don’t need to track that target any more’. (Dorling, ‘Pine Gap Drives US Drone Kills’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2013)
  • Rapidly increasing capacity Combining decades of historical and new insights provided by Snowden, Desmond Ball and colleagues estimated that that the electronic surveillance capacity of Five Eyes’ combined sites has doubled since 2000; adding the Torus antenna at Pine Gap has trebled its coverage of global commercial satellites. (Ball et al, Expanded Communications Satellite Surveillance and Intelligence Activities Using Multi-beam Antenna Systems, 2015)
  • Mission creep In media coverage following their Torus report, Ball described a fundamental transformation of Pine Gap from its initial ‘highly specialised mission’ to a ‘multi-agency, multi-purpose mega-intelligence centre’. (Dorling, ‘Pine Gap’s new spy role revealed, Sydney Morning Herald, 2015)

Compiled by Felicity Ruby

About the author

Felicity Ruby

Felicity Ruby is a PhD candidate at Sydney University and co-editor of a A Secret Australia Revealed by the WikiLeaks Exposés (2020).

More articles by Felicity Ruby

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I see from Hansard that there was minimal debate in 1952 on the Defence (Special Undertakings) Bill and it was passed into law without opposition. Only one speaker, Dr Evatt, alluded to possible p[roblems when he stated “the bill contains very important provisions which extend beyond that particular project. They may be open to some criticism on analysis but, after consideration, the Opposition believes that the bill should be passed.”
Given the bipartisan haste of the process of the bill, he did not go into any detail. Could Brandis have exceeded his authority in using this Act?

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