Richard Tanter: Answers needed on Pine Gap complicity in Gaza genocide

April 6, 2024
Pine Gap
Although officially a 'joint facility', Pine Gap is essentially a United States military base. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Richard Tanter, a senior research associate at the Nautilus Institute, formally complained to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) about possible Australian complicity in what the International Court of Justice (ICJ) regards as “plausible claims of genocide in Gaza”.

Tanter asked the IGIS on March 27 to investigate.

His argument is that as Australia is a signatory to the 1949 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, it “has an obligation to prevent genocide” (Article I) and it has “an obligation not to be complicit in genocide” (Article III).

Tanter believes the IGIS has a responsibility to inquire into “recent and current activities of the Australian Signals Directorate in relation to Israel and [the] situation in the Gaza Strip” to ensure Australia is not complicit in acts of genocide in Israel, including those identified by the ICJ.

The Nautilus Institute aims to “improve” global problem-solving and cooperative engagement “focusing on reducing the danger of nuclear war”.

Tanter, an Honorary Professor of International Relations at the University of Melbourne, has long opposed the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap.

He argues Australia must scrutinise its “direct” and “indirect” relationships with Israel, to ensure that nothing it has done or is doing in any way “vitiates our obligations”.

Unless the direct and indirect military relationship to Israeli activities in the Gaza Strip specified in the ICJ Order are “closely reviewed”, Tanter said it is not possible for the government to assure parliament and the public that Australia is not complicit in “plausible acts of genocide”.

He said five elements need to be scrutinised.

First, the capabilities and roles of United States low inclination (“geosynchronous signals”) intelligence satellites, that are controlled through Pine Gap and which cover the Gaza Strip.

The US controls four such satellites from Pine Gap; these 6-tonne satellites sit, more or less stationary, some 36,000 kilometres above the equator, above particular locations.

They contribute to US space-based signals intelligence gathering and have the capability to intercept very faint signals. They are powerful enough to intercept other satellite systems; microwave transmissions, including telecommunications towers through which many cell phone and internet connections are transmitted; air defence systems, radars and radio communications systems; and machine communications from computers and missile communications performance.

Tanter cites David Rosenberg, a senior contractor for the US National Security Agency (NSA) at Pine Gap, who wrote in his book Inside Pine Gap: The Spy Who Came in from the Desert: “Eventually, anything transmitting in the electronic spectrum became fair game for collection...”

According to Tanter: “Such space- and ground-based capabilities to intercept cell phone, satellite phone and very small aperture terminal internet communication in the Gaza Strip, as well as a variety of forms of very high frequency and ultra high frequency radio communication, can be readily imagined.”

Tanter also wants the IGIS to inspect the US signals intelligence satellites records, controlled through Pine Gap, provided to the NSA and Israeli Defense Forces.

He said the signals intelligence cooperation agreements between the US and Israel also needs scrutinising. He said the absence of Australian restrictions on intelligence flows to the NSA, or by the US to IDF intelligence units, following the ICJ Order on Gaza, needs to be investigated.

A US facility

While Pine Gap, operational for more than 50 years, is officially a “joint facility”, Tanter said it “remains a United States facility”.

Policy direction, command arrangements and operational priorities of Pine Gap all confirm it is “a US facility in the operation of which Australia participates closely”.

“Those fundamental asymmetrical characteristics of the ‘joint facility’ are confirmed by the funding arrangements,” Tanter said.

Senior management is “an entirely American affair”, leaving “questions of the degree of actual Australian control of key operational policy decisions questionable”.

Tanter outlined how Pine Gap has historically collected signals intelligence on the Middle East.

During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, in which Israel came under fire by Egypt and Syria for its occupation of the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, the US supplied Pine Gap-derived intelligence on Egyptian military forces’ positions in the Sinai to Israel.

Tanter cited Rosenberg’s examples of signals intelligence satellites contributing to US and Western military operations during the Gulf War and the Iraq War, as well as to a range of “counter-terrorism” operations in Somalia and Afghanistan.

Rosenberg told Peter Cronau at Declassified Australia last November that “Pine Gap facility is monitoring the Gaza Strip and surrounding areas with all its resources, and gathering intelligence assessed to be useful to Israel”.

Since the mid-1950s, Australia has been part of the secretive UKUSA signals intelligence agreements, now known as “Five Eyes”.

According to US intelligence analyst Jeffrey Richelson, the CIA and FBI supplied Israel with top secret intelligence. This arrangement remained secret until it was no longer tenable and required formalising, and the “Israel — US 1999 Agreement” was signed.

Tanter said “signals intelligence was at the heart of the new suite of institutions and procedures”.

A Memorandum of Understanding, signed in 2009 between the NSACSS and the Israeli Sigint National Unit, formalised protection for US citizens caught up in raw US signals intelligence.

This, Tanter said, indicates the extent to which Israel had been given privileged access to raw data from the NSA.

While acknowledging the difficulties to convey in summary form the “intimate intelligence relationship between the two countries”, Tanter said “the salience to the issue of possible complicity with activities discussed by the ICJ Order of 26 January is clear” and he provides that evidence (page 17).

“All US signals intelligence facilities that can possibly be brought to bear will have elevated tasking schedules focusing on Gaza.”

Whether Australia is complicit in genocide could be validated, or not, by Australia placing restrictions on Pine Gap-derived Gaza-related intelligence sharing with the NSA until the ICJ makes a judgment. The US could do the same, Tanter said.

But neither government has announced “such a precautionary approach, following the ICJ Order”.

Tanter said domestic and international law requires Australia to “investigate in good faith” its possible complicity in genocide through its provision of intelligence to Israel.

Having signed 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, Australia has an obligation to “prevent and punish” plausible or demonstrated cases of genocide.

Attorney General Mark Dreyfus must investigate and report to both Cabinet and the parliament.

“A review by the IGIS should ensure that nothing Australia has done or is doing in any way amounts to complicity in the activities set out by the ICJ order.”

Answers needed

The government’s position not to comment on the Pine Gap activities is selective, Tanter said.

Defence minister Robert Ray in November 1991 told parliament about the role the joint defence facility, Nurrungar, played in the Gulf War as part of Desert Storm.

Tanter pointed out that at least “the functions of a major joint facility in a time of international conflict and the policies of the Australian government … could be publicly addressed”.

Today, he and others want the IGIS to answer the following: “Does anything the [Australian Signals Directorate] has done or is doing amount to complicity in the activities set out by the Order from the International Court of Justice?

“Does Pine Gap-derived intelligence forwarded to the National Security Agency do so? In such a case, does the government concur with such a policy?

“And, if the government does concur in such a policy, is not a veto, at least while until final judgment by the International Court of Justice, not the appropriate response?

“If not for a plausible and urgent claim of genocide, subject to a case before the world’s highest court that raises the possibility of Australian complicity, then for what would Australia ever exercise its sovereign right to veto what happens on Australian soil?”

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