OPINION: Central Australia's Pine Gap spy base has taken on a new electronic surveillance role, making it a "multi-purpose mega-intelligence centre," as Australia and our allies massively increase interception of global satellite communications, a new report by leading espionage experts has revealed.
The United States–Australia Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap is now engaged in foreign satellite intelligence collection as part of the "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance's "collect-it-all" surveillance of global internet and telecommunications traffic.
The new report by Australian National University emeritus professor Des Ball, British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, Canadian intelligence researcher Bill Robinson and Melbourne University professor and Nautilus Institute researcher Richard Tanter, an independent policy think tank, draws upon secret intelligence documents leaked by former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden and a wide range of publicly available information.
The authors, all with decades experience in researching intelligence activities, reveal a massive expansion of satellite communications surveillance capabilities by the US National Security Agency and its other Five Eyes partners, the Australian Signals Directorate, the United Kingdom's Government Communications Headquarters, Canada's Communications Security Establishment and New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau.
The report shows the expansion of satellite communications interception has involved growth in the number of antennas located at Five Eyes intelligence facilities and the deployment of "multiple advanced quasi-parabolic multi-beam antennas, known as Torus, each of which can intercept up to 35 satellite communications beams."
"There are about 232 antennas available at identified current Five Eyes FORNSAT/COMSAT [foreign satellite/communications satellite interception] sites, about 100 more antennas than in 2000," the report states. "We conclude that development work at the observed Five Eyes FORNSAT/ COMSAT sites since 2000 has more than doubled coverage, and that adding Torus has more than trebled potential coverage of global commercial satellites."
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.
The report also reveals that communications satellite interception is now being conducted from the top secret Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs.
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.
As revealed by Fairfax Media in 2013, the facility 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.
Professor Ball and his colleagues show that 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 facility. A Torus multi-beam antenna was installed at Pine Gap in 2008.
Few details of the actual targeting of foreign satellite communications have been disclosed. However a 2012 National Security Agency document leaked by Mr Snowden revealed that the Australian Signals Directorate has accessed bulk call data from Indosat, Indonesia's domestic satellite telecommunications network including data on Indonesian officials in various government ministries.
Professor Ball 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.
He pointed out there have been no official statements about the expansion of Pine Gap's capabilities and called for "an informed public re-assessment" of the facility's roles.
"Each of these need to be re-evaluated, publicly justified," Professor Ball said.
Successive Defence Ministers have assured Parliament that Pine Gap operates with the "full knowledge and concurrence" of the Australian government.
In 2013 then Defence Minister Stephen Smith said 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".
He added 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".
The Australian government has repeatedly refused to comment on specific disclosures from documents leaked by Mr Snowden. Last year Prime Minister Tony Abbott insisted that Australia would not use intelligence "to the detriment of other countries".
Philip Dorling is a visiting fellow at UNSW Canberra.
This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.