Response to issues raised in ‘Sub-Imperial State, Australian Dirty Work’

Clinton Fernandes’ review of Brian Toohey’s book Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State published in Arena (no. 2, 2020) is uncritically enthusiastic, sometimes wrong, and fails to detect major errors in those parts of Secret on which he concentrates.

Toohey’s range is so broad that few reviewers could match his breadth of field and properly assess Toohey’s writing on all these topics. This has left most reviewers in the understandable but not helpful position of repeating a selection of Toohey’s many startling stories of appalling Australian government behaviour.

Toohey’s best work has usually come from leaks, and documents off the back off a truck, and for that many of us remain in his debt. He has the skill to cut through government deceit and technical complexity to give the reader an accessible account of the multiple threatening aspects of what he rightly calls the Australian national security state. 

In his review Fernandes concentrates on Toohey’s approach to the US-Australian bases at North West Cape and at Pine Gap. However, the review contains an important error of fact and problems of interpretation. 

First, when introducing Toohey’s account of the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap outside Alice Springs, Fernandes says, ‘the base also serves as a site for a US space-surveillance radar and an advanced space-surveillance telescope’. While it is indeed true that the United States built such a space-surveillance radar and space-surveillance telescope, these two new important facilities linking Australia to US plans for space war are not located at Alice Springs but at North West Cape in Western Australia. 

More seriously, Fernandes appears not to be aware of any difficulties with Toohey’s treatment of Pine Gap, which he reproduces, drawing principally from Toohey’s chapters ‘The men who spread the fairytale about arms control’ and the ‘The men seduced by the secrets’. 

Toohey’s main target in both chapters is Desmond Ball, who over four decades told us in authoritative detailed research and collaboration with journalists and activists about Pine Gap and the other US bases that he saw as so dangerous to both the Australian national interest and the global human interest. 

By selective quotation and ignoring context, Toohey presents Ball as a useful idiot seduced by the allure of access to secrets into facilitating US and Australian deceptions about Pine Gap.1

Since it always takes longer to correct cherry-picked quotations taken out of context than to write them, and Pine Gap is complicated to begin with, the note to this sentence summarises my extended account of the problems and misrepresentations in Toohey’s treatment of both Pine Gap and Ball, which is available online, together with Toohey’s response, at nautilus.org.2

The key background to Toohey’s attack on Ball is that for many years Ball argued that while Pine Gap was at least as dangerous as Nurrungar and North West Cape, and just as assuredly a Soviet nuclear target, he reluctantly accepted that Pine Gap had the potential to supply the means of verification of certain arms-control agreements. 

At the height of the New Cold War of the Reagan years, with no politically plausible nuclear-abolition movement in sight, the only restraints on nuclear next use were US-Soviet agreements to limit the numbers of certain types of weapons. But US Senate approval of such agreements depended on assurances that the US had reliable means of detecting cheating by the Soviet Union, including, in certain cases, US signals intelligence capacity, and Pine Gap in particular. Ball was well aware that the US and Australian governments seized on his reluctant acceptance of Pine Gap to blunt the impact of the 1980s peace movement. 

In fact, those of us working closely on campaigns to close Pine Gap in those years received considerable help from Ball, who documented its dangers more than anyone else. Unprecedented mass anti-nuclear campaigns built on Ball’s studies and his accessible and popular accounts, such as his American Bases in Australia, written for the Victorian Association of Peace Studies in 1982. For the first time, campaigners had confidence they were equipped with reliable information for a comprehensive understanding of issues that were otherwise a matter of government secretive silence or shallow journalism.  

By the early 2000s, Ball had begun to change his mind about his position on Pine Gap and arms control, as the vastly expanded role of Pine Gap in US global military operations, nuclear and conventional, became clear, and as serious arms-control initiatives became an endangered species. In August 2014, as Ball, Bill Robinson and I were about to release a flood of new research on Pine Gap, Ball told The 7.30 Report’s Dylan Welch of the shift in his views about Pine Gap: 

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.3 

I will point to four main problems with Toohey’s account. 

1. Toohey opens his chapter on the ‘arms control fairytale’ by saying ‘The biggest secret about Pine Gap is that it is essentially irrelevant to verifying compliance with arms control agreements’. He cites two sources as his foundations for this claim. The first is a 2010 quotation from US Defense Secretary Robert Gates testifying to Congress about the New START treaty: 

The US does not need telemetry from Russian missile flights to verify Russian compliance with the New START treaty.4

The problem is that Gates’ statement, repeated later in the chapter, simply does not support the claim Toohey wants to make. In fact, depending on the weapons systems to be regulated by any given agreement, signals intelligence, such as Pine Gap may supply, may—or may not—be necessary or even useful for verification purposes. In the case of the New START treaty there was a fairly simple reason that Gates dismissed the relevance of missile telemetry. As the State Department wrote concisely in support of Gates’ remarks, the objects of arms reduction in New START differed from those of earlier treaties such as the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), which did require test missile telemetry for verification of compliance:  

The obligations in the New START Treaty are different from those in START. None of the new Treaty’s specific obligations, prohibitions, or limitations requires analysis of telemetric information to verify a Party’s compliance.5

On this occasion, the State Department was right, and Toohey’s opening claim about ‘the biggest secret about Pine Gap’ is wrong.

2. Toohey’s problems with selective quotation and historical inaccuracy to buttress his case against Ball continues in the ‘fairytale’ chapter. Fernandes reports: ‘Toohey shows that “the central figure for arms control agreements” is the total number of missiles and warheads, which is verified by photographic images from low-orbiting satellites’.

Toohey supports this claim using a single source, a 1979 article by Herbert Scoville, a former CIA deputy director for research. Scoville was making a public case for Senate ratification of SALT II, which after years of negotiation had been signed by Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev on the same day that Scoville’s article appeared. The Iranian Revolution earlier that year had led to the closure of two CIA listening stations in Iran.

Scoville was aiming to assuage congressional fears that the loss of the CIA’s Iran listening posts would undermine the ability of the United States to verify Soviet missile-limitation commitments in the new treaty. America’s overhead photographic reconnaissance satellites would do the job even in the absence of the Iranian stations, Scoville wrote, together with the infrared sensors on the early-warning satellites (for which Nurrungar was a ground station). Nowhere did Scoville discuss space-based signals intelligence in general or the satellites that served Pine Gap. 

There are two problems with Toohey’s SALT II account based on Scoville. The first is that until 1996 the US government formally regarded the simple fact of collection of signals intelligence from space as top secret, until the Clinton administration declassified ‘the fact of’ overhead signals intelligence satellites. Scoville knew a great deal about CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) signals but was severely constrained in what he could say in public. And as Toohey rightly notes elsewhere, informed official sources had no compunction about misdirection in public statements. Scoville was leading senators well away from any embarrassing questions that might have led to public admission of the capabilities of the RHYOLITE satellites and Pine Gap.

The second problem with Toohey’s account is that in the case of SALT II, which he chooses to buttress his case of Ball’s ‘fairytale’, Toohey gets the historical facts wrong. The reality is that the NSA, the largest US intelligence organisation, and one of the main US intelligence agencies tasked with ensuring verification of the Soviet treaty, saw the SALT II verification requirements quite differently from Toohey’s account. The NSA’s secret official history described SALT II as ‘one of the most complex [arms control] treaties the U.S. had ever signed, and many of its clauses required verification’. According to the NSA, SALT II was ‘a nightmare for the intelligence agencies expected to verify its terms’. It dismissed in some detail the comforting idea that overhead imagery alone could do the job for SALT II’s complex verification requirements.6 

3. Toohey is dismissive of Ball’s claim that one reason Pine Gap was originally located in the centre of Australia derived from a need to prevent Soviet interception of the signals it was downlinking. Toohey writes:

A quick glance at a map rebuts Ball’s claim that Pine Gap’s isolation in the middle of Australia was essential to preventing adversaries getting close enough to eavesdrop on its satellite down links: the US-UK signals intelligence base at Menwith Hill has links to geo-synchronous satellites similar to Pine Gap’s, yet it is in North Yorkshire in a particularly narrow part of the British Isles that is readily accessible to hostile eavesdroppers onshore and offshore. 

In fact, a quick glance at an actual map shows that Toohey is wrong. A circle 160 kilometres in diameter centred on RAF Menwith Hill almost entirely covers terra firma, except for a few mudflats and shoals well within UK territorial waters. MI5 would have had no trouble finding the big antennas required for interception at that time in the countryside of Yorkshire or in cities like Leeds and Manchester. Soviet spy trawlers just outside territorial waters would worry a ground station on US military colonies like Diego Garcia or Guam, but neither Menwith Hill nor Pine Gap.7 

4. Toohey constructs a straw man in his discussion of Australian cities as nuclear targets. 

Toohey: 

Ball told the parliamentary committee in 1981 he had no doubt whatsoever that the Soviet Union would target Pine Gap, Nurrungar, and North West Cape, and told the committee he didn’t like the idea of nuclear bombs falling on Australia, but that ‘I cannot imagine any scenarios involving nuclear bombs falling on Australian cities’. Ball didn’t mention that the Soviet warheads were far more powerful than the bombs the British had tested in Australia. Yet the radioactive fallout from the British tests spread across large areas of Australia. Unlike Ball, senior intelligence analyst Bob Mathams told the same committee that the JIO considered the Soviets able to target Sydney with a nuclear missile.

Toohey is cherry-picking to prove a nonsense. Who could have denied that in the 1970s or the 1980s the Soviet Union could accurately target a city the size of Sydney? What the probabilities were of the Soviet Union doing so was entirely another matter in 1981, as it remains today regarding Russia and China. 

The real issue was the assessment of the likelihood and priority of direct targeting of Australian cities by the Soviet Union. Ball and Mathams (who worked closely together on related issues) both thought that targeting Australian cities would be a low priority for the Soviet Union. Both testified about the high-priority status of Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape as Soviet nuclear targets. In their original context, both Ball and Mathams clearly assert, in Mathams’ words, that ‘in a descending order of probability’, cities are the least likely targets after the bases and other defence facilities. Both gave clear strategic reasons for their shared ordering of likely Soviet priorities. Some might have wanted to argue against that order of probability, but contrary to Toohey’s construction of opposition, Ball and Mathams were in agreement on the issue of Australia as a target. 

‘All journalism simplifies’ goes the old saying, ‘but which story gets simplified remains the key issue’. Some things about Pine Gap are straightforward, and others are much more complicated. Why would we expect the analysis of the largest US intelligence base outside the United States, built and maintained by it at fabulous cost over more than half a century, a critical element in its nuclear domination of the rest of the world from its beginning, dependent on the collusion—willing when it is not suborned—of the Australian government, to be readily amenable to short-form explanation? Most journalism about the base understandably struggles with complexity. But we could have expected more from Toohey.

In the end the more serious consequence is that Toohey—and, by uncritical reviewing, Fernandes as well—has further muddied the always murky waters of Pine Gap media commentary, making the government project of mystification of the base a little easier. 

At a time when it is more important than ever to think carefully about Pine Gap, both in relation to US nuclear next use in planning for a war with China, and support for US military operations worldwide, we need informed clarity about arguments for wholesale reform or closure of Pine Gap.8 

1 Full disclosure here: Des Ball and I worked together over many years, intensively from 1999 onwards until his death, on Australian defence policy, Indonesian terror in East Timor, Pine Gap, and Japanese electronic intelligence. Des, Bill Robinson and I worked for over a decade on Pine Gap, publishing eight major papers through the Nautilus Institute on the extraordinary expansion in size, function and capacity of the base in the years before Ball’s death in 2016. The papers are collected online as The Pine Gap Project at https://nautilus.org/briefing-books/australian-defence-facilities/pine-gap/the-pine-gap-project/. Further papers are underway. Ball and I collaborated for over a decade on a second, parallel but related project on Japanese electronic intelligence and US signals intelligence in Japan, collected together as The Japan SIGINT Project at https://nautilus.org/uncategorized/the-japan-sigint-project/. Readers interested can look at Pine Gap papers relevant to these discussions at the project website, especially The Higher Management of Pine Gap and The SIGINT Satellites of Pine Gap,and Australia’s participation in the Pine Gap enterprise, as well as Richard Tanter, The ‘Joint Facilities’ revisited—Desmond Ball, democratic debate on security, and the human interest, Special Report, Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, 12 December 2012, at http://nautilus.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/The-_Joint-Facilities_-revisited-1000-8-December-2012-2.pdf, an edited version of which appeared in Arena Journal 2012/2013.)

2 Richard Tanter, ‘Mystifying Pine Gap, Distorting Des Ball: Notes on Brian Toohey’s Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State’, Nautilus Institute, NAPSNet Policy Forum Online, 11 January 2021 [with a response by Brian Toohey], at https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/mystifying-pine-gap-distorting-des-ball-notes-on-brian-tooheys-secret-the-making-of-australias-security-state/.

3 Dylan Welch, ‘Top intelligence analyst slams Pine Gap’s role in American drone strikes’, 7.30 Report, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 13 August 2014, at https://www.abc.net.au/7.30/top-intelligence-analyst-slams-pine-gaps-role-in/5669322.

4 Toohey gives his source as Amy F. Woolf, The New START Treaty: Central Limits and Key Provisions, Congressional Research Service, R41219, 13 April 2016. Woolf, an excellent researcher on these matters, does talk about the telemetry issue, but not in regard to Gates, and he does not give this particular quotation. 

5 Dylan Welch, ‘Top intelligence analyst slams Pine Gap’s role in American drone strikes’, 7.30 Report, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 13 August 2014, at https://www.abc.net.au/7.30/top-intelligence-analyst-slams-pine-gaps-role-in/5669322.

6 Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology during the Cold War, 1945–1989. Book III: Retrenchment and Reform, 1972-1980, Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 1995, pp. 410–11.

7 Bill Robinson reminds me that Menwith Hill was not a SIGINT satellite ground station until 1978, when the Chalet/Vortex generation started going into space. The first generation of Canyon satellites was operated from Bad Aibling, in West Germany, which was more than 160 kilometres from the Czech border.

8 For my own views on some aspects of these issues, see Richard Tanter, ‘Our poisoned heart: the transformation of Pine Gap’Arena Magazine, No. 144, October 2016; Hiding from the light: The establishment of the Joint Australia-United States Relay Ground Station at Pine Gap, Special Report, Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, 2 November 2019; ‘An Australian pathway through Pine Gap to the nuclear ban treaty’, Pearls & Irritations, 5 August 2019; Alice Springs News, 6 August 2019; [extended and footnoted version here]; and Hope Becomes Law: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in the Asia Pacific Region, Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, Special Report, 13 December 2020.

Sub-Imperial State: Australian Dirty Work

Clinton Fernandes, Jul 2020

The instruments of statecraft, as exposed by Brian Toohey and Bernard Collaery, are wielded in the interests of those with real power: elite elements in the private sector and the US national-security state, which defends a global order protective of its interests.

About the author

Richard Tanter

Richard Tanter works with the Nautilus Institute and in international relations at Melbourne University. His political work focuses on nuclear-weapons abolition and Australian defence policy: http://nautilus.org/network/associates/richard-tanter/publications/.

More articles by Richard Tanter

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