This year marks the 50th anniversary of an agreement reached between the governments of the United States and Australia to establish the Pine Gap spy base. Officially called the ‘Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap’, the base is located approximately 18 kilometres outside of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.
Pine Gap is a satellite ground station responsible for the control of US spy satellites and for eavesdropping on other satellites. It contains infrastructure including 38 satellite dishes, and it covers much of the eastern hemisphere’s sky. Satellites orbiting the Earth need to have a line of sight to a ground station to exchange signals. This drove the US need for a station on our side of the world, to avoid a gap in their coverage.
Since it was established, the facility has expanded its capabilities immensely. Originally it was planned to intercept and collect information on Soviet communications and missile testing. Now it plays an integral role in the US’s global spy network, including feeding targeting information for their drone program of extrajudicial killings in places like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
Formally, the base is jointly controlled by the United States and Australia, but the US is clearly the dominant power. US agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) all have a significant presence at the facility and former Pine Gap employees have reported that the base is essentially run by the CIA.
As well as facilitating a murderous drone war that has killed many innocent people, Pine Gap expands the surveillance of ordinary people. The base is a critical component in the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ spy program. Five Eyes is a multilateral security agreement that includes the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
Five Eyes is widely believed to facilitate spying on the general public, monitoring billions of personal communications via the internet and mobile phone use. The whistleblower Edward Snowden claimed that Five Eyes is a “supra-national intelligence organisation that doesn’t answer to the known laws of its own countries”.
Effectively, states spy on one another’s citizens and share data to circumvent laws regulating intelligence organisations. Richard Tanter, a University of Melbourne researcher, photographed a recently installed ‘Torus’ satellite dish at Pine Gap. These dishes are designed to eavesdrop on many satellites at once, and are thought to play a crucial role in this intrusion into the private lives of ordinary people.
Snowden’s leaks showed that every conceivable piece of electronic data is the target of collection and analysis by state intelligence agencies. This surveillance will undoubtedly be used to target activists, as has happened in the past.
Since its inception there has been opposition to the presence of Pine Gap in Australia. Many protests against the facility, and against militarism more generally, have been organised. Peace groups, students, trade unions, women’s organisations and indigenous people have all participated in protests at the site and in Australia’s major cities.
There is no doubt that the facility plays a key role in furthering the aims of US imperialism and capitalism. It is telling that alongside military personnel hundreds of staff from arms corporations are based at Pine Gap. The interests of these war mongers are at odds with the bulk of the ordinary people.
Socialists demand that Pine Gap is closed and that the billions wasted on wars for profit are instead invested in socially useful infrastructure. This however will not be done by any Australian government tied to US capitalist interests. This behaviour is not just a policy mistake, or the actions of a defence establishment out of control. These kinds of powers are necessary for a government that rules in the interest of big business and has a stake in imperialist wars.
Exposures such as Edward Snowden’s revelations show the paranoid lengths the state will go to in monitoring ordinary people. But only a mass movement can challenge it. Under class society, these techniques are important to governments that rule in the interests of a tiny minority. The fight to close Pine Gap is intrinsically linked to the fight to replace profit-driven capitalism with democratic socialism.
By Dane Letcher