On February 15, PM John Howard's government announced that it had agreed to the construction of a new US spy-satellite ground station at the Kojarena intelligence base 30 kilometres east of Geraldton. The new facility will transmit data to and from two US geostationary spy satellites focused on the Middle East and Asia.
Dr Michael McKinley, senior lecturer in international relations at the Australian National University, told the February 16 West Australian that as the new facility would co-ordinate US military operations in the Middle East and Asia, building it would tie Australia even closer to US foreign policy. Once the facility was built "the Australian government will not be able to withdraw its support for a US military operation, even if it disagrees with it".
The new facility has been opposed by the Greens. WA Greens Senator Rachel Siewert issued a statement on February 14 saying: "Australians are now even more deeply enmeshed in United States military endeavours, whether we agree with them or not. It is a classic John Howard capitulation to US military interests."
The ALP has supported the agreement to build the new facility, with shadow defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon telling journalists on February 14 that, "As a matter of principle, as a matter of national security, Labor supports this proposal". He said that Labor "recognised the importance of the joint facilities to the [US-Australia] alliance and to the defence of Australia".
In May 1999, Martin Brady, then director of the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) in Canberra, revealed to Channel Nine's Sunday program that the Kojarena communications base was Australia's main contribution to the Echelon global spy system operated by the spy agencies of the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The May 26, 1999 Melbourne Age reported that Brady revealed that under Echelon "millions of messages are automatically intercepted every hour, and checked according to criteria supplied by intelligence agencies and governments in all five UKUSA countries. The intercepted signals are passed through a computer system called the Dictionary, which checks each new message or call against thousands of 'collection' requirements. The Dictionaries then send the messages into the spy agencies' equivalent of the internet, making them accessible all over the world.
"Australia's main contribution to this system is an ultra-modern intelligence base at Kojarena, near Geraldton in Western Australia. The station was built in the early 1990s. At Kojarena, four satellite tracking dishes intercept Indian and Pacific Ocean communications satellites. The exact target of each dish is concealed by placing them inside golfball like 'radomes'.
"About 80% of the messages intercepted at Kojarena are sent automatically from its Dictionary computer to the CIA or the NSA [National Security Agency], without ever being seen or read in Australia. Although it is under Australian command, the station — like its controversial counterpart at Pine Gap — employs American and British staff in key posts."
The February 12, 2002, Sydney Daily Telegraph reported that the DSD had used the Kojarena spy base to intercept private phone calls to the MV Tampa the previous September.
"A government source was reported as saying transcripts of phone conversations were used by the Howard government to formulate a political response after the ship rescued 438 boat people near Christmas Island", the Telegraph reported. "The phone conversations between the International Transport Federation, Maritime Union of Australia and the crew of the Tampa were alleged to have been intercepted after the ship was boarded by Special Air Service troops."