pine gap

Central Australia's Pine Gap
Central Australia's Pine Gap spy base has played a key role in the United States' controversial drone strikes involving the ''targeted killing'' of al-Qaeda and Taliban chiefs, Fairfax Media can reveal.

Former personnel at the Australian-American base have described the facility's success in locating and tracking al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders - and other insurgent activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan - as ''outstanding''.

A Fairfax Media investigation has confirmed that a primary function of the top-secret signals intelligence base near Alice Springs is to track the precise ''geolocation'' of radio signals, including hand-held radios and mobile phones, in the eastern hemisphere, from the Middle East across Asia to China, North Korea and the Russian far east.

This information has been used to identify the location of terrorist suspects, which then feeds into the United States drone strike program and other military operations. The drone program, which has involved more than 370 attacks in Pakistan since 2004, is reported to have killed between 2500 and 3500 al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, including many top commanders.

But hundreds of civilians have also been killed, causing anti-American protests in Pakistan, diplomatic tensions between Washington and Islamabad and accusations the ''drone war'' has amounted to a program of ''targeted killing'' outside of a battlefield. Earlier this year, the Obama administration acknowledged four American citizens had been killed by strikes in Pakistan and Yemen since 2009.

''The [Taliban] know we're listening, but they still have to use radios and phones to conduct their operations, they can't avoid that,'' one former Pine Gap operator told Fairfax Media. ''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.''

The Australian-American base's direct support for US military operations is much greater than admitted by Defence Minister Stephen Smith and previous Australian governments, new disclosures by former Pine Gap personnel and little-noticed public statements by US government officials have shown.

Australian Defence intelligence sources have confirmed that finding targets is critically dependent on intelligence gathered and processed through the Pine Gap facility, which has seen ''a massive quantitative and qualitative transformation'' over the past decade, and especially the past three years.

''The US will never fight another war in the eastern hemisphere without the direct involvement of Pine Gap,'' one official said.

Secret documents leaked by US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate that Pine Gap also contributes to a broad US National Security Agency collection program code-named ''X-Keyscore''.

pine gap cartoon
© Matt Golding
Pine Gap controls a set of geostationary satellites positioned above the Indian Ocean and Indonesia. These orbit the Earth at a fixed point above the equator and are able to locate the origin of radio signals to within as little as 10 metres. Pine Gap processes the data and can provide targeting information to US and allied military units within minutes.

Former US National Security Agency personnel who served at Pine Gap in the past two years have described their duties in unguarded career summaries and employment records as including ''signals intelligence collection, geolocation ... and reporting of high-priority target signals'' including ''real-time tracking''. US Army personnel working at Pine Gap use systems code-named ''Whami, SSEXTANT, and other geolocation tools'' to provide targeting information, warnings about the location of radio-triggered improvised explosive devices, and for combat and non-combat search and rescue missions.

Pine Gap's operations often involve sifting through vast quantities of ''noise'' to find elusive and infrequent signals. One former US Army signals intelligence analyst at Pine Gap describes the ''collection and geolocation of an extremely hard-to-find target'' as a task that included ''manually sifting through hundreds of hours of collection''.

Last month, Defence Minister Smith assured the Australian Parliament that Pine Gap operated with the ''full knowledge and concurrence'' of the Australian government.

He provided no details other than to say that the facility ''delivers information on intelligence priorities such as terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and military and weapons developments'' and that it ''contributes to the verification of arms control and disarmament agreements''.

Mr Smith told Parliament that "concurrence" means that the Australian government approves the presence of a capability or function in Australia but "does not mean that Australia approves every activity or tasking undertaken''.

Following consultation with the US embassy in Canberra, the Defence Department provided Fairfax Media with some basic factual information about Pine Gap, including the number of personnel employed there - approximately 800. However, consistent with a long-standing policy of not commenting on operational intelligence matters, the department did not respond to questions about the facility's support for US military operations including drone strikes.

Desert secrets

Since 1970, the US and Australia have eavesdropped on the rest of the world from Pine Gap. Philip Dorling looks at what goes on in the most secretive place in Australia.

It is a piece of America. At least that's the vibe in the large cafeteria at the top-secret Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs. Half of the intelligence base's personnel are Australians, but American tastes dominate the menu, according to those who have dined there - burgers, hot dogs, doughnuts, pork ribs, french fries and milk shakes.

''You'd really have to watch your cholesterol levels,'' one member of Parliament observed after spending a day at the facility.

There is also a souvenir and gift shop, arguably Australia's most exclusive, since one effectively needs a top-secret clearance to visit. For American visitors there are the standard Australiana items: marsupial soft toys, boomerangs, pictures of Uluru. There are also mementoes of the facility: coffee and beer mugs, shot glasses, wall plaques, T-shirts and baseball caps bearing Pine Gap's motif of satellite orbits over Australia and motto ''unitas est fortitas'' (unity is strength).

Australia and the US are certainly united at Pine Gap. It is the crux of an electronic espionage alliance that is nearly five decades old. It is also the most secret place in Australia.

In a rare statement about Pine Gap to Parliament last month, Defence Minister Stephen Smith declared the Joint Defence Facility to be ''a central element of Australia's security and intelligence relationship with the US''.

Pine Gap is certainly impressive. The high-security facility is one of the largest satellite ground stations in the world. It controls and receives data from geostationary satellites that eavesdrop on a range of radio, radar and microwave signals. It also supports early-warning satellites that detect ballistic missile launches.

There are no fewer than 33 satellite antennas at Pine Gap, 18 covered by distinctive white domes. The number of domes and dishes has grown over the past decade and there has been a major program under way over the past three years to refurbish and expand what is referred to as the ''antenna farm''.

About 800 people work at this intelligence factory. Thanks to technological change and automation, this number is down from the more than 870 a decade ago, but it is still twice the number employed at Pine Gap two decades before that.

While details of the US presence at Pine Gap remain classified, it is a matter of public record that the highly secretive National Reconnaissance Office (responsible for the design, construction and operation of US spy satellites) is present. Also represented at Pine Gap are the National Security Agency (the US signals intelligence organisation recently made notorious by the leaks of whistleblower Edward Snowden), the Central Intelligence Agency and America's National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which provides imagery and geospatial intelligence to the US government. All arms of the US armed services also have personnel working at Pine Gap, and uniforms are common at the facility's annual ball.

The chief of the facility is an American officer and the posting is a step towards promotion into the most senior ranks of the US intelligence community. One recent chief of facility, Frank Calvelli, is now serving as the principal deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office, responsible for the procurement and operation of satellite systems worth billions of dollars.

The most senior Australian officer serves as deputy chief of facility. One recent Australian deputy chief, Cameron Ashe, went on to become a deputy director of Australia's Defence Intelligence Organisation. At present, the senior Australian Defence Department officer, Dr Nicholas Post, is serving as the acting chief.

The primary contractor companies engaged at Pine Gap are the US aerospace systems and defence suppliers Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, and the computer systems supplier Hewlett-Packard. About 70 per cent of the workforce are contractor personnel. Northrop Grumman is responsible for operating satellites controlled from Pine Gap.

Data from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (which regulates radio frequency use) and the International Telecommunications Union shows that Pine Gap communicates with at least six geostationary satellites - four designated DEF-R-SAT (apparently an abbreviation for defence research satellite) and two designated USCSID.

The four DEF-R-SATs, positioned along the line of the equator above the Indian Ocean and Indonesia, appear to be signals intelligence satellites. The other two satellites are likely to be missile launch warning systems controlled remotely through the Space Based Infra-red System Relay Ground Station, which is collocated at Pine Gap.

Australian governments have long emphasised Pine Gap's role in providing intelligence relevant to monitoring arms control and non-proliferation agreements. A decade ago, Howard government defence minister Robert Hill said: ''The work done at the joint facility indicates how countries are complying with agreements not to proliferate weapons systems and capabilities, or showing when they are working against such agreements.''

Similarly, Smith last month emphasised that ''intelligence collected at Pine Gap contributes to the verification of arms control and disarmament agreements''.

''As a nation that prides itself on playing an active role in the counter-proliferation of nuclear weapons, the value of the data obtained from Pine Gap cannot be underestimated. Australia's hosting of this capability supports the government's long-standing and comprehensive policy supporting counter-proliferation.''

While this is true, such activity is only part of Pine Gap's role. A candid assessment would put much greater emphasis on what former minister Hill coyly referred to as ''collection of intelligence on military developments of interest to Australia and the US''.

Forty years ago, Soviet missile telemetry was the priority target for the first generation of signals intelligence satellites controlled by Pine Gap. The facility certainly contributed to an environment of transparency in which nuclear arms control agreements could be negotiated. From the outset, however, Pine Gap was also involved in the general interception of radio and radar signals, especially ''spillage'' from ''long-haul'' Soviet microwave communication systems. The signal collection programs supported by the facility provided an intelligence bonanza on Soviet and Chinese military activity, including critical information for the targeting of US nuclear weapons.

The end of the Cold War did not diminish Pine Gap's importance. On the contrary, the facility's military role has grown with every decade.

During the 1991 Gulf War, satellites controlled by Pine Gap intercepted Iraqi communications and radar signals. According to Professor Des Ball of the ANU, these satellites monitored some of the most critical communications channels within Iraq - radio and microwave communication links, including those used by the Iraqi military high command.

Pine Gap's ability to acquire tactical military information was also expanding. In a rare disclosure, former Coalition opposition leader John Hewson recalled in a 2005 newspaper column that he visited Pine Gap during the first Gulf War: ''By manipulating the satellite, I could listen to the conversations of individual Iraqi tank commanders. I was told that virtually every conversation could be monitored by satellite, and that was 15 years ago. Who knows how good the technology is today?''

In 2011, former Pine Gap employee David Rosenberg was permitted to publish a memoir that in guarded terms described Pine Gap's role in intercepting Iraqi communications and how by monitoring the emissions of ''End Tray'' radars, co-located with mobile Scud ballistic missiles, the facility enabled Scuds to be targeted by US and allied fighter bombers.

Subsequent US military doctrine has placed great importance on space-based intelligence collection, signals intelligence and imagery, as a key force-multiplier for military operations.

This was clearly spelt out in congressional testimony in 1998 by the then director of the National Reconnaissance Office, Keith Hall: ''In the future, US forces will rely upon space systems for global awareness of threats, swift orchestration of military operations, and precision use of smart weapons. Our goal is to detect, track and target anything of significance worldwide and to get the right information to the right people at the right time.'' The aim was to enable US military forces to deliver ''precise military firepower anywhere in the world, day or night, in all weather''.

An accumulation of disclosures - some unauthorised and others through further US congressional testimony from the National Reconnaissance Office - reveal this objective has to a very considerable degree now been achieved.

Former Pine Gap personnel say the geolocation accuracies provided by signal intelligence satellites are ''more than 10 times better'' than the 450 metres claimed by commercial providers of radio interference geolocation services and are ''in the order of the accuracies provided by GPS [global positioning system]''.

Pine Gap is indeed a vital element in a US military intelligence collection and targeting complex that can locate the origin of radio signals to within as little as 10 metres, immediately integrate that information with other data including satellite imagery, and relay targeting information to US and allied military units within minutes.

Pine Gap's role in minute-by-minute tactical intelligence collection is confirmed by numerous references to ''real-time tracking and geolocation'' and provision of ''extremely valuable intelligence'' to support operations to ''capture or kill high-value targets''.

Interviews and congressional testimony by former National Reconnaissance Office director Bruce Carlson particularly highlighted a system called ''Red Dot'' that ''tells people in Humvees or MRAPs [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles] where there is a possible [improvised explosive device] ahead. And that takes an incredible amount of integration of signals and imaging and all-source inputs in order to put - literally - a red dot on a computer display in a vehicle that says, 'Look around the next corner', or, 'Avoid this area'.''

Former signals intelligence analysts at Pine Gap confirm that the facility supports the ''Red Dot'' system through the satellite detection and location detection of radio signals linked to improvised explosive devices.

Other capabilities supported by Pine Gap include signals collection for search-and-rescue missions and special clandestine satellite radio links for special forces and remote intelligence collection devices.

Personnel sitting in airconditioned offices in central Australia are directly linked, on a minute-by-minute basis, to US and allied military operations in Afghanistan and, indeed, anywhere else across the eastern hemisphere.

Australian personnel have helped target drone strikes in Pakistan. In the future, we may be providing targeting information on the Korean peninsula or in the Taiwan Strait.

Australian defence intelligence sources also say the massive expansion of mobile phone networks in Asia presented huge opportunities for Pine Gap's intelligence collection.

''The development of North Korea's mobile network has provided a window into a political system and society that otherwise would remain closed to us,'' another intelligence officer says. ''Even when governments such as China, North Korea and Iran are highly security-conscious, the intelligence take is still enormous.''

Secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden indicated that Pine Gap contributes to a broad US National Security Agency collection program code named ''X-Keyscore''.

One would not get much of a sense of this, however, from any public statement from the Australian government. Like his defence minister predecessors, Smith says Pine Gap operates with the ''full knowledge and concurrence'' of the Australian government. There is little reason to doubt this, especially given the full integration of Australian personnel in operations. However, it is of note that his definition of concurrence ''does not mean that Australia approves every activity or tasking undertaken''.

It is also true that, as Smith argued, Pine Gap delivers intelligence that would be ''unavailable from any other means and is unique in our region''. And by providing ''a suitable piece of real estate'', Australia gets this data on the cheap - according to the Defence Department, Australia's contribution to Pine Gap's running costs in 2011-12 was a mere $14 million.

Perhaps the bigger question, however, is whether Pine Gap's deep and growing engagement with US military operations is something that has foreclosed Australia's diplomatic and military options in relation to future crises and conflicts.

Pine Gap's capabilities are now deeply and inextricably entwined with US military operations, down to the tactical level, across half the world.

Arguably, technological change has now given full expression to the desire of Harold Holt, the Australian prime minister who originally approved the Pine Gap project, to go ''all the way'' with the USA.