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Australia’s role in drone strikes – connecting the dots

Australia's role in drone strikes - connecting the dots

Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, or “the base” as its known by locals of the surrounding township of Alice Springs in central Australia, was established in the late 1960s as a key site for US intelligence gathering. The largest part of its operations is to serve as a signals intelligence ground station for satellites in orbit over the Pacific and Indian oceans, sucking up huge amounts of data from air, land and sea transmissions of missile tests, military radar and microwave transmissions.

The presence of the site has proven to be politically contentious. In the mid-1970s, former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam told then US ambassador Walter Rice that there was no advantage of hosting the spy bases in Australia. Some believe this led to his dismissal, assisted by the CIA.

Another Prime Minister was convinced that in heady times of nuclear proliferation, the associated security risk was viewed as a necessary measure for arms control verification. Bob Hawke stood by the mantra “No Pine Gap, no arms control”. He believed that only the technical capabilities of the Pine Gap installation could monitor Soviet missile data and ensure the other side wasn’t cheating.

As the global geopolitical landscape re-orientated away from a bipolar structure, so to did the personnel makeup and functions of the Pine Gap facility. The military presence emerged in September 1990 during the first Gulf War. Former NSA sub-contractor David Rosenberg remarked, “the military at Pine Gap played an important role in providing the US forces with advanced intelligence about Iraq’s military posture. They had a different perspective from the civilian [employees], as they were trained in warfare.” This development signaled the expanding nature of operations at the site from a mere surveillance viewpoint to include more military-based activities.

With the increased military presence at the surveillance-gathering facility progressing since the 90s, and the first known targeted killing by an unmanned drone taking place in February 2002, one can being to connect the clandestine dots.

Assumptions can be made that a US surveillance site based on Australian soil has assisted in drone strikes. These assumptions were confirmed in August by a telling joint report by the Intercept and the Australian ABC, with information largely gathered from documents leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. These documents confirm, for instance, that Pine Gap gathers the geolocation of cell phones from the Pacific to the edge of Africa, and can provide a person’s location in real time – crucial information for drone strikes.

Lethal drones are used by the US military for strikes in conflict areas – countries such as Afghanistan and Syria. They are also used by the CIA in places where the US is not officially at war, including Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been between 7,200-10,500 deaths, with between 700-1500 civilians and 240-330 children killed. Due the clandestine nature of operations, its difficult to determine the exact numbers. Another difficulty that arises when aiming to record casualties is the fact that the US government only acknowledges a fifth of its legal strikes.

With all this in mind, it begs the question – could the Australian government, and personnel involved at the facility, be charged with war crimes? Emily Howie from the Human Rights Law Centre of Australia believes so. She remarked, “there may very well be violations of the law of armed conflict, or war crimes as its called colloquially…unlawful killing using drones is not only a violation of international law, its a violation of Australian as well.” Howie adds, “War crimes are a crime under the Australian criminal code, and there is therefore the ability of Australian authorities to investigate.”

If this were the case, how come there hasn’t been an investigation into the facility’s culpability in extrajudicial strikes? One only has to look at the response to Snowden’s actions to see that releasing sensitive information detailing US security operations is a risky decision to make. While in some circles he has been referred to as a hero and a patriot, in others he has been called a traitor and a dissident – sentiments that would cause whistleblowers with even the strongest of resolve to think twice.

Additionally, such an integrated security and intelligence gathering network with Australia, the US and others, means its difficult to pin responsibility on any one country. Cian Westmoreland, who worked for four years as a US Air Force signals relay technician for lethal drones in Afghanistan, believes “It’s pretty much a global affair…It’s collaborative and it’s really hard to say, ‘The Australians are responsible for this,’ or, ‘The British are responsible for that.’” If individuals are too afraid to give evidence and states are unsure where the lines of responsibility lie, its no surprise this issue remains unaddressed in the political and social spectrum.

There’s also the overarching feeling that its more important than anything to maintain the status quo. The head of defence orientated thinktank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings, has estimated that without a credible US alliance, Australia would need to double its defence spending from 2 percent a year to 4 percent. This would mean an increase of $32 billion to Australia’s fiscal bill. “We would need to make ourselves look much tougher as an opponent,” claims Jennings, the former head of strategy at the Australian Department of Defence.

Discourse on the Pine Gap facility and its accountability when it comes to assisting in US drone strikes has been non-existent. But when one considers the private nature of its operations, and its significance to Australia/US foreign relations, should it come as any surprise?



Fred Johnston

With previous studies in politics and international relations, Fred is a social commentator who covers the social injustices carried out by those who have misplaced their moral compass – usually politicians and big business.
A Central Australian who works as a schoolteacher in Bogota, Colombia by day and aspiring social commentator by night, Fred´s work has been featured in a number of blogs including Centrethought, Young Diplomats Society and the Big Smoke.
He hopes his efforts to address the ails of society will lead to a career in diplomacy or social commentary.