Deep in the silence of Australia’s Outback desert an imposing US spy post set up at the height of the Cold War is now turning its attention to Asia’s growing armies and arsenals.
Officially designated US territory and manned by agents from some of the US’ most sensitive intelligence agencies, the Pine Gap satellite station has been involved in some of the biggest conflicts in modern times.
However, its role in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, and in the hunt for former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, had been little recognized until one of its most senior spies broke ranks to pen a tell-all account.
Intelligence analyst David Rosenberg spent 18 years at the base, 20km south of Alice Springs, working with top-secret clearance for the US National Security Agency (NSA), home to the US’ code-cracking elite.
Formally known as the “Joint Defense Space Research Facility,” Pine Gap is one of Washington’s biggest intelligence-collection posts, intercepting weapons and communications signals via a series of satellites orbiting Earth.
Australia has had joint leadership at the post and access to all intercepted material since 1980, but the base’s history is not without controversy.
Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam was sensationally fired by the British monarchy — allegedly at US urging — not long after he threatened to close Pine Gap in 1975, although other domestic political issues were also involved in his removal.
Its futuristic domes were originally built as a weapon in the US’ spy war with Russia, officially starting operations in 1970, but Rosenberg says it is now targeting the US-led “war on terror” and Asia’s military boom.
“There’s a large segment of the world that are weapons-producing countries who have programs that the United States and Australia are interested in, and obviously a lot of Asia encompasses that area,” Rosenberg said.
The career spy is under a lifetime secrecy agreement with the NSA, meaning he cannot reveal classified information and is limited in what he can say about his time at Pine Gap, but said North Korea and China were among its targets.
“I think any country that has a large military, is a large weapons producer, is always going to be a focus for the intelligence community and China of course is growing and it’s growing rapidly,” he said. “There are developments there that we are looking at.”
India and Pakistan were also “very much of a concern,” he added, with a surprise nuclear test by New Delhi in 1998 catching Pine Gap’s analysts “blind.”
The latter half of his time at the mysterious station known to locals as the “Space Base” was dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an intense focus on al-Qaeda following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Rosenberg recalls that day as his most somber in the job.
He said analysts scoured the region for clues on what was going to happen next, knew instantly that al-Qaeda was responsible and feared they would strike again.
“While these attacks were happening, we of course were thinking how many other simultaneous or near-simultaneous actions are going to happen,” he said. “We didn’t know how many other attacks had been planned that day.”
It was also a huge wake-up call to the fragmented spy community, he said, who soon realized all the signs had been there of an impending attack, but they had failed to piece them together to perhaps prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.