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Issue #1689      June 17, 2015

Snowden leaks reveal

Massive Pine Gap expansion

The United States Pine Gap satellite tracking station, 19 kilometres south-west of Alice Springs, was built in 1966 and came on line soon after. A new report * by leading espionage experts has revealed that there has been a massive expansion of satellite communications surveillance capabilities by the US National Security Agency and its Five Eyes partners – the Australian Signals Directorate, the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters, Canada’s Communications Security Establishment and New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau.

Pine Gap is the CIA’s most important technical intelligence collection station in the world.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden described Five Eyes as a “supranational intelligence organisation that doesn’t answer to the known laws of its own countries”.

Professor Desmond Ball, of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, said there has been “a fundamental transformation” in the role of the Pine Gap facility from “a highly specialised mission” to a “multi-agency, multi-purpose mega-intelligence centre.

“Pine Gap is engaged in ‘collect-it-all’ surveillance, military as well as civilian, linked directly to military operations, including drone strikes,” he said.

The original Five Eyes satellite monitoring project – ECHELON – became widely known after European Parliament enquiries into satellite monitoring from 1999 to 2001.

Mass surveillance of satellite communications has grown. There are now 232 antennas available at the sites identified, almost double the capacity before 2001.

What is Torus?

“We conclude that development work at the observed sites since 2000 has more than doubled coverage, and that adding Torus has more than trebled potential coverage of global commercial satellites,” the report says.

Torus is a new kind of satellite espionage, capable of soaking up calls and messages and data from 35 satellites at once. A Torus dish can monitor 70 degrees of the sky, without moving. It collects all the different facets of modern communications, from Facebook to fax.

Between 2007 and 2013, western spy agencies built six new Torus antennas in the UK, Cyprus, Oman, Australia and New Zealand.

The Torus interception network complements well-established satellite interception facilities including those operated by the Australian Signals Directorate at Kojarena, near Geraldton in Western Australia, and Shoal Bay, near Darwin.

Pine Gap

Pine Gap is now engaged in foreign satellite intelligence collection as part of the Five Eyes “collect-it-all” surveillance of global internet and telecommunications traffic.

Pine Gap’s secret role in satellite communications interception probably began in the early 2000s and has been supported by the deployment of US Air Force intelligence detachments to the base. A Torus multi-beam antenna was installed at Pine Gap in 2008.

Pine Gap is managed by the US National Reconnaissance Office and is the CIA’s most important technical intelligence collection station in the world.

Pine Gap’s original and still most important function is to serve as the ground control station for US National Reconnaissance Office signals intelligence satellites that intercept ballistic missile test telemetry and microwave telecommunications. In addition Pine Gap relays data from US missile launch detection/early warning satellites – the Space-Based Infrared System.

The base also intercepts a very wide range of radio and mobile telephone communications to provide tactical intelligence support for US military operations across the Eastern hemisphere, including drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

Government secrecy

There have been no official statements about Pine Gap’s new role.

In 2013, then Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the Australian government approves the presence of a capability or function in Australia but this “does not mean that Australia approves every activity or tasking undertaken”.

The Australian government has repeatedly refused to comment on specific disclosures from documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Last year Prime Minister Tony Abbott insisted that Australia would not use intelligence “to the detriment of other countries”.

A detachment of the US Army’s 743rd Military Intelligence Battalion, a detachment of the US Air Force’s Air Intelligence Agency’s Intelligence Operations Group, and a sub-unit of the US Marines’ Cryptologic Support Battalion were posted to Pine Gap in the late 1990s.

Detachment 2 of the US Air Force’s Air Intelligence Agency’s 544th Intelligence Operations Group, previously located in Puerto Rico, was transferred to Pine Gap in the early 2000s, signifying that Pine Gap had become a new Foreign Satellite site.

The detachment comprised 28 personnel and included a Geospatial Metadata Analysis unit which “optimises information flow to the warfighter” and especially Special Operations Forces teams.

Public enquiry

Pine Gap’s new functions – from its role with drones to the assault on privacy contained within the “collect-it-all” strategy – must be exposed.

The peace movement has been calling for Pine Gap to be closed down for many years.

Hidden by government secrecy and its isolated location, most Australians know little of its spying and war fighting functions. Many do not even know it exists.

In response there has been a long campaign for a public enquiry into Pine Gap’s functions.

Now the need for an informed, transparent public re-assessment of Pine Gap’s roles is more important and more urgent than ever.

*Expanded Communications Satellite Surveillance and Intelligence Activities utilising Multi-beam Antenna Systems, by Australian National University emeritus professor Desmond Ball, British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, Canadian intelligence researcher Bill Robinson and Melbourne University professor Richard Tanteris published by the Nautilus Institute of Berkeley, NAPSNet Special Report, 28 May 2015.

Next article – Editorial – Secrecy meets inhumanity

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