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Content WindowJoint Committee on Treaties - 09/08/99 - Pine Gap
CHAIR —Firstly, I welcome two new members to the committee, indeed two new senators, Senator Brett Mason from the state of Queensland and Senator Tchen from the state of Victoria.
I now declare open the public hearing we are convening today in relation to the agreement between Australia and the United States of America on the joint defence facility at Pine Gap. Accordingly, I welcome Professor Des Ball who we have invited today as one of two witnesses to give evidence. Although we are not going to require you to give any evidence under oath, I should formally advise you that the hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and they warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House and the Senate. Hence, the giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament.
The committee prefers that all the evidence be presented in public. We are aware that some of the issues raised today will relate, of course, to sensitive matters. If you wish to provide any additional information in camera on particular matters that you believe are relevant to the inquiry, please bring this to the committee's attention. Before we proceed to questions, I invite you to make some introductory remarks.
Prof. Ball —Thank you very much for inviting me to appear before this committee. It is now a third of a century since the first Pine Gap agreement back on 9 December 1966, the progenitor of the one which you are currently considering. Over that third of a century Pine Gap has grown enormously. The first two antennas for controlling and communicating with satellites were constructed in 1966-67. By 1997, a decade later, there had already been a threefold expansion there with six satellite control antennae. There were eight in 1985. The tenth and eleventh went up in 1990-91. There are now about a dozen and a half there, making it one of the largest satellite ground control stations in the world.
The computer room at Pine Gap when it was first constructed back in 1966-67 was at that time also one of the biggest computer rooms in the world. It has approximately tripled in size also during the subsequent 30 years.
There has also been quite substantial growth in personnel at Pine Gap. Back in the 1970s, there were about 400 people at Pine Gap—the figure varied from year to year—of whom about half were Americans and half were Australians. In the 1980s, that figure grew into the 500s. By the beginning of the 1990s, there were more than 600 people there. Through the last decade that number has also increased. It is about 800 or 850 these days, with projections taking it, by the early part of the next century, to over 1,000. So you have seen an increase of a factor of about 2[half ] since it was built.
Notwithstanding this very significant expansion of the facility, it has only ever had one essential function, and that is to serve as the ground control and processing station for a series of satellites which are parked in geostationary orbits—in other words, in fixed orbits—above the equator and whose sole purpose is signals intelligence collection. In other words,
these satellites pick up electronic emissions of various sorts from the earth's surface and process and analyse the signals which are so monitored. Those satellites have had various names over the last 30 years. The original version were called Rhyolite satellites. Within the informed community, the classified community, they are still commonly known as Rhyolites even though, strictly speaking, only the ones launched in the 1970s were Rhyolites. There were subsequent satellites called Aquacade, Magnum and Orion.
These satellites have also grown very substantially in size. The principal intercept antenna on the satellites back in the 1970s was about 20 metres in diameter. The intercept antenna on the most recent satellites is of the order of 100 metres in diameter, or about 300 feet. In other words, they are large enough for you to go out at night and actually have a look at these satellites by the enormous parabolic dish which is sitting up there.
These satellites intercept signals in the very high frequency, VHF, ultra high frequency, UHF, and millimetre wave frequency bands. Within that frequency spectrum there are four principal categories of signals which are monitored by those satellites controlled from Pine Gap. The first category, which was its original rationale, concerns telemetry. Telemetry refers to the signals which are transmitted in the course of advanced weapons development, and most particularly the development of ballistic missiles. Originally, when the Soviet Union was developing its ballistic missiles in the 1960s and 1970s, those missiles which are test fired from within the heartland of the Soviet Union, now Russia, to splash down around Kamchatka in the Sea of Okhotsk and the northern Pacific, transmitted a lot of telemetry about their own performance back to Soviet Russian scientists on the ground about the vibrations, temperature and stage separations of those missiles which were used by Soviet missile technicians in their missile development programs. The first Rhyolites were wholly concerned with monitoring this telemetry.
This is really what the government is referring to when it talks about the arms control verification function of Pine Gap. It is the telemetry interception because, by intercepting that telemetry, it gives Western intelligence analysts—in this case, primarily US, but the intelligence is shared—a good picture of missile developments in, over the years, not just the former Soviet Union but also China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and elsewhere in an area that stretches from the Middle East across to the western Pacific.
The second category of signals which are monitored by those Pine Gap satellites are the signals which are emitted from large radars. They include the radars which are associated with anti-ballistic missile fields in Russia, air defence radars, radars on ships—a whole family of radars which are emitting signals—and those signals are being picked up by these satellites. Analysis of the radar emissions tells you a lot about the capabilities of those anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems in the various air defence fields—again, no longer in the former Soviet Union, but also through many other countries as well.
Thirdly, those satellites are able to intercept the communications of other satellite systems—in other words, communications which are going up from the ground to communication satellites which are also based up in geostationary orbits. As those signals are being sent up to the satellites which they are transmitting to, they are also being listened to by the listening satellites which are parked very close to the communications satellites.
Fourthly, these satellites monitor a wide range of other microwave emissions on the earth's surface. That includes a lot of the telecommunications such as long distance telephone calls which are transmitted via terrestrial microwave circuits around the ground around the earth enabling them to monitor military microwave circuits as well as the key microwave channels used by political and government agencies and even private communications if they wish.
When Pine Gap was first conceived back in the 1964-65 period, and when its first and pretty much sole mission for the first few satellites was telemetry interception, the focus was entirely on the former Soviet Union. As the number of listening satellites that were parked up at this altitude—about 36,000 kilometres—increased, the older of those satellites were taken off the telemetry monitoring function and used to monitor signals coming from China in the first instance and then Vietnam—the Vietnam War was still going on during this period—the Middle East, and the subcontinent, south Asia, India and Pakistan. The newer satellites as they went up were given the primary mission of monitoring the Soviet Union. The older ones were then taken over for the secondary missions.
With regard to some of the signals which have been collected by this satellite system, you have to remember that the signals intelligence systems which the United States and its allies deploy are very wide-ranging. They include ground stations, they include airborne systems, they include intercept systems which are on ships and submarines and things like that. Those which are on satellites only monitor one segment of this whole signals intelligence picture, but included in that segment that they monitor is some quite unique intelligence which cannot be picked up by ground stations or by aircraft or by ships operating around national borders. Because you can actually park a satellite over the interior of a country and intercept the microwave emissions coming out of the interior of that country, you are able to get a lot of intelligence which simply cannot be intercepted by any other means.
The best example of this unique intelligence is, indeed, the telemetry that I was referring to at the outset of describing these missions, because that telemetry, as I said before, really is quite critical for monitoring various arms control agreements. There simply is no other way of collecting that intelligence about particular weapons developments, including, today, intelligence about missiles such as the Agni which are being developed by India, and missiles such as the Taepodong being developed by North Korea. The only way you can follow those missile developments and work out how those missiles work is by telemetry interception using these satellites parked overhead.
I want to say a few words about Australian participation and control of activities at Pine Gap. Within the operational area, the central operations building, there are three areas. There is the Satellite Station Keeping Section, and the job of those people is to keep the satellite and its antenna focused on a particular source of signals that they want to intercept. That is the first operational job at Pine Gap: keeping the satellite in its appropriate station. In addition to that there is a Signals Processing Station. Essentially, that is the main computer room. Its job is to process the enormous volume of intercepted signals which are being sent down to Pine Gap from these listening satellites. Thirdly, there is the Signals Analysis Section, whose job it is to analyse, to actually extract the intelligence from these signals that are processed in the Signals Processing Station.
Up until 1980, Australians were excluded from the Signals Analysis Section. That is the genesis of a lot of claims that go back to the 1970s about Australians not having access to certain intelligence collected at Pine Gap and not being able to see, in particular, the voice intercepts which are coming down directly to that Signals Analysis Section. In 1980, Australians were allowed into that section. Since 1980, Australians have had full access to all areas at Pine Gap except for the National Cryptographic Room, which is the Americans' own coding room. We have a similar one, an Australian Cryptographic Room, where we do our own coding and from which Americans are officially excluded. In fact, as I understand it from people who have worked there over the years, the relationship at the working level is such that Australians do go into the Americans' National Cryptographic Room and Americans do come into our room. It is an informal arrangement but, officially, we are able to exclude them and they are able to exclude us from our respective cryptographic rooms if necessary.
In terms of control of the satellites—that is, determining what those satellites listen to, which is really the essential single function at Pine Gap—there is a group called the Joint Reconnaissance Schedule Committee. That committee meets each morning and decides what is going to be listened to in the ensuing 24 hours—in other words, what the big antennas on these listening satellites will be focused on. There are criteria which set out what that schedule should be, the sorts of things which should be listened to. For example, if there is other intelligence to the effect that the North Koreans are gearing up for a missile test, it is pretty clear that at the top of the day's listening for these listening satellites will be monitoring the launch facilities in North Korea so that they pick up the signals which are being generated by that launch; or if there is a political crisis in Jakarta, then it is a pretty good guess that those satellites are going to be focused on microwave communications within the Jakarta urban area; or if there is a crisis in Iran-Iraq relations, then they will be focused over there. Since 1980 Australian personnel at Pine Gap have chaired that Joint Reconnaissance Schedule Committee. In other words, Australians are not just right in there, but literally chairing the determination of the day's listening activities.
In the last several years, since the end of the Cold War, Pine Gap has probably grown even faster than it did during the seventies and eighties, which I sketched out for you at the outset of my presentation. That is pretty consonant with the general expansion of signals intelligence activities right around the world since the end of the Cold War. With the breakdown of the bipolar system and its replacement by some as yet undetermined multipolar system, each particular country that is involved in advanced signals intelligence collection, such as the United States and Australia but also other countries, has found that they need to collect intelligence on a greater number of countries and from a wider variety of perspectives. They are not just collecting strategic intelligence or intelligence about weapons systems; they are finding it necessary to collect more political intelligence and even more economic intelligence, and not just about the former Soviet Union, or Russia, but also about China and even about countries which are allies—in other words, political developments about countries such as Japan or India. So there is much greater volume of intelligence collection tasks.
The United States and Australia are not alone there. If you look at China, for example, you will see from satellite photos that there has been a large expansion in their signals intelligence capabilities. If you look at Japan, you will see that their signals intelligence
stations have increased from nine in the 1980s to 18 by the end of the 1990s—a doubling. That doubling is fairly characteristic of what has happened in terms of signals intelligence right around the Asia-Pacific region in the last decade. The expansion at Pine Gap over this last decade, and as far as one can project it over the next decade, is really quite consonant with that regional increase in signals intelligence operations.
In addition to that, there is a second reason why Pine Gap is going to grow at least to some extent over the next few years. That is because, for the first time in its 30-odd year existence, Pine Gap is now about to take on a second function. That comes about because of the closure of Nurrungar, which is another joint facility and which has been operating in the Woomera area of South Australia since 1970. Nurrungar has been the control station for a series of infra-red satellites whose job it is to pick up the heat emissions from missile launches and hence to provide the United States and its allies with the first warning of ballistic missile launches, whether for hostile purposes—in other words, a missile attack on some country—or for intelligence purposes: to monitor the development of ballistic missile technology, first of all in the former Soviet Union but now as ballistic missile technology is spreading through China, North Korea, South Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, et cetera.
The satellite system which Nurrungar has been working with for nearly 30 years is to be phased out next year. In fact, I think that it is unlikely that it will be phased out next year and it is more likely to be in 2001 or 2002. But the United States air force has given notice that Nurrungar will be closed some time in the next couple of years. At that point, with the phase out of these infra-red satellites and the closure of Nurrungar, the US air force is moving to a whole new generation of space based infra-red satellites, SBIR.
Instead of requiring a separate facility at Nurrungar, as has happened since 1970, the CIA, which is the controlling agency at Pine Gap, has agreed to allow the US air force to have a small fenced off section at Pine Gap which will have a couple of satellite control and readout terminals. So security around Pine Gap will also now encompass security for the US air force operation.
They will operate out of their own small compartmented area at the Pine Gap facility, but it will mean some expansion at Pine Gap. It will mean at least another two satellite communications antennas. It will mean more people. It will mean a little bit more housing in the Alice Springs township and surrounding area. As I said, that is scheduled to take place by the end of next year, but it is more likely to take place in 2001 and 2002.
The final point that I wish to make is that the agreement which you are considering is the public agreement, the antecedent to the one which I mentioned before which was the original one signed on 9 December 1966. But you have to remember, as is the case at Nurrungar and as is the case with many of these facilities, that there is also a classified agreement which goes along with that public agreement.
It is the classified agreement that sets out the command and control arrangements. It is the one which sets out the details of what is the authority of the Australian deputy at Pine Gap. It sets out the rules and regulations concerning the Joint Reconnaissance Schedule Committee, which is the key committee that I mentioned before. It sets out the criteria for scheduling what satellites are going to listen to what emissions. For example, if Australia
happens to want over the next 24 hours a satellite to monitor communications within Indonesia but the Americans are more interested in monitoring what Saddam Hussein is saying to his people in Iraq, it sets out the criteria for resolving that discrepancy.
It sets out the arrangements for dissemination of the intelligence. In other words, it sets out who gets to look at this stuff which is being intercepted and picked up, which particular agencies, which particular authorities, in Canberra and in Washington. It also sets out the role of the various contractors at Pine Gap because, unlike the Australian contingent, many of the Americans at Pine Gap work for private companies under subcontract to the CIA, and most especially for most of the past three decades a company called E-systems has had the primary operational role at Pine Gap.
It also sets out the conditions for security, not just the physical security of the Pine Gap facility but also security of the intelligence which is collected at Pine Gap. It sets out who in Australia is allowed to see that, and who at the various levels is allowed to visit the facility. And if they visit the facility it sets out whether they are allowed in the Signals Analysis Section as opposed to just the Satellite Station Keeping Section. It sets out what level of intelligence people are allowed to see, whether they are only allowed to see finished assessments or whether they are allowed to see actual raw intercepts and things like that.
I believe that in addition to the public agreement it is worth while this committee spending some time trying to learn what it can from the Department of Defence, if what it can amounts to anything about the classified agreement. Thanks, Mr Chairman.
CHAIR —Thanks kindly, Professor. I am going to ask a couple of questions and then we will figure out some order. Firstly, Professor Ball, you talked about the likely increase in the scope of intelligence collection using signals intelligence and you have described how it has grown from original telemetry through strategic intelligence to more political intelligence. What happens from here on with email and all this sort of thing? Where is it going to go from here?
Prof. Ball —This system involves the collection of signals from a satellite which is parked up in space and is listening to signals coming up from the earth's surface. In terms of monitoring emails, other electronic communications, data flows, transactions from banks—that sort of stuff—and fax traffic, that involves a ground station which is in fact listening to that electronic data transmission through satellite, and in the case of this country that is done at Geraldton. That is not done at Pine Gap at all. Pine Gap is a listening satellite system of which Pine Gap is the ground control station.
You really are going to be limited to microwave frequencies, terrestrial microwave, which carries some of that traffic. But the great bulk of electronic communications these days—and in some countries two-thirds of their whole traffic goes now via satellite—is listened to on the ground.
Senator SCHACHT —What agreement is that under?
Prof. Ball —Geraldton is an Australian station operated by DSD. It has been operating now for more than 10 years. It has half a dozen satellite dishes for monitoring particular
communications satellites parked in an arc between about the middle of the Indian Ocean and the middle of the Pacific Ocean about where Hawaii is.
Senator SCHACHT —They are American satellites?
Prof. Ball —No, these are other people's satellites.
Senator SCHACHT —So it is monitoring other people's satellites?
Prof. Ball —There is Intelsat, Chinese, Japanese and Indian satellites. They are monitoring the stuff which goes through those satellites to pick up terrorist communications or sloppy communications between, say, an Indian rocket scientist and the Ministry of Defence in New Delhi saying things which they really should not have said over the phone, things like that.
There are British people there because some of the British who had been based in Hong Kong monitoring Chinese satellites transferred over to Geraldton when Hong Kong was closed down. And there are American liaison people there, as indeed there are New Zealand liaison officers there too.
Senator SCHACHT —Are all of those people there by some signed agreement with the defence department?
Prof. Ball —They are there under the UKUSA agreement between the Defence Signals Directorate, the DSD, and its counterpart agencies in the US and the UK.
Senator SCHACHT —Pardon my ignorance, Professor Ball, but is that an agreement that comes before the parliament from time to time?
Prof. Ball —No, that agreement is a very highly classified agreement. It sits in a vault in Russell Hill.
Senator SCHACHT —But when it is actually signed—
Prof. Ball —It was formally signed in 1948 following the signature at various working levels through the course of 1947.
Senator SCHACHT —It has got no—
CHAIR —Chris, we have only got an hour and a half. I understand your curiosity and I am curious about it too, but I have just one more question. This committee that meets every morning, it literally meets at Pine Gap. The representatives are there. They must get their instructions from Washington and Canberra. What decisions can they make there that are not made, if you like, back here?
Prof. Ball —There is a layered or tiered structure for this purpose. There is a monthly document called the joint reconnaissance schedule prepared once a month which lays out the general framework for the next month.
During the course of that month, various liaison mechanisms in Canberra and Washington come into play to modify that or, as other intelligence comes in, certain activities of interest. Someone at Pine Gap has to be directly in charge of informing the station keeping section about how to manipulate and manoeuvre the satellite. The satellite appears to be stationary from the earth's surface. In relation to any particular point on the earth's surface it is stationary. You have to remember that it is travelling at many tens of thousands of kilometres an hour. These days it weighs the order of about 25,000 kilos. It is a large structure. It has this dish which is 300 feet in diameter.
It is no small feat to keep that antenna focused on a particular microwave station or something on the ground. Someone has to say to it that today we want to be focusing that on Baghdad or on a particular rocket launch site in North Korea. They take their general instructions and the criteria from Canberra and Washington in accordance with this joint reconnaissance schedule, but they are the people who sit down and say that satellite 1 is going to be doing this today, and satellite 2 is going to be doing this, then find that satellite 1 is out of action for the day because there has been a computer malfunction or something like that. It is only the guys on the ground that can literally get in there and say, `That satellite is out of action', or, `The downlink computer is out of action for the next six hours. We will go to the second satellite and give it the first priority.' So that morning meeting is a very critical meeting.
Mrs CROSIO —Professor Ball, I feel sure that next time you come before us you will have your information up to date. You said Australians were excluded before 1980 and after 1980 they were included. Would you please add, `but federal politicians are not'? Are you aware we are not permitted to go anywhere near that area?
Prof. Ball —I am talking about Australians who work at the facility.
Mrs CROSIO —I know. Professor Ball, could you tell us what would happen if Australia was not to sign this agreement? The secret agreement would still operate, would it?
Prof. Ball —I am not sure what would happen at the legal end of things. I would say that, in terms of Australian-American relations, it would be a disaster. I would say that, in terms of the ability of the intelligence community here to collect certain forms of intelligence which are for various purposes quite critical and otherwise simply cannot be collected, we would be suffering as well as the Americans.
Mrs CROSIO —So are you virtually saying to us as a committee that it is in Australia's best interests that this work continues there in the way it is being done?
Prof. Ball —Yes. I have been involved in following the operations of these facilities in Australia since the late 1960s. I have been involved more or less as a critic over the years and as a vehement critic of various other American facilities. I have been a critic of North West Cape, the one that was set up back in 1963 for communicating with American submarines, and Nurrungar. I have basically been opposed to all of those facilities, many of which are no longer here.
The one which I have had to force myself to come out in support of is Pine Gap, simply because I regard the intelligence which is collected there as critically important and collectable in no other way. I do not see any alternative other than to have Pine Gap here. That is whether one is concerned about monitoring, proliferation of ballistic missiles, nuclear proliferation or other advanced weapon systems in our region.
I think it is just fundamentally important that we be able to monitor those, let alone use those satellites for picking up things closer to home—in other words, political and other developments in our neighbourhood. I do not want to get more specific about that. People can work out which countries in our neighbourhood we want to listen to. I think that we need Pine Gap to do that. If the committee was to say that they were not going to go ahead with this agreement, then regardless of the legal situation, I think that strategically it would be a very unfortunate decision.
Mr HARDGRAVE —A lot of members of this committee, who may have seen the movie Enemy of the State , are a bit worried about whether all of this is more about maintaining the importance of the SIGINT community than the strategic value to the average Australian. As a member of parliament I, along with my colleagues, take my duty seriously. I am trying to work out how and why you can come here this morning and give us more basic understanding about what is going on than we even managed to get from our bureaucrats. I think I will get a couple of extra pages in my CIA file as a result of that statement! Do you have any suggestions about how we as a committee can find out what is going on there? How do you know what is going on there?
Mrs CROSIO —The others knew but did not want to tell us.
Mr HARDGRAVE —None of us want to know the gory details and the day-to-day stuff. I personally do not want to know what the morning meeting churns out, but we want to get a feel for what is going on there, to understand the importance of the place. Members of parliament have to account to their communities, and we cannot find out something that justifies this place existing. What do you suggest?
Prof. Ball —I have had a long-standing difference of view with colleagues within the defence department and, more specifically, with those concerned with signals intelligence—DSD and the users. It is a difference regarding where one draws the line about what is a genuine secret and what, on the other hand, can be made publicly available. The position of the Australian government for many years has been that anything to do with signals intelligence, and even Australia's collection of signals intelligence, is not to be talked about whatsoever. It was only in 1977 that the existence of DSD was officially acknowledged and that the government made a simple two-paragraph statement confirming that, in fact, Australia does intercept other people's signals.
The position of the government is that it will not go any further other than to say, `Yes we have an organisation, DSD, and yes, we do intercept other people's signals.' We will not say anything further about it because the more people know that their signals are going to be intercepted, the more they take counter measures. They send their signals by other means. In the case of telemetry, they use much lower power transmissions; they encrypt the signals; they spread the signals across a wider frequency band; and they break it up into little
packages—part of the signal is sent out on this frequency and part of it is sent out on that frequency—so that the job of anyone listening becomes much harder.
Senator COONAN —Wouldn't they assume that they are being intercepted everywhere?
Prof. Ball —People do know that they are being monitored but, unless it is sort of dished up to them with their morning bowl of cornflakes, they get very sloppy. They say things over the phone which they should not. They do not keep up with modern cryptographic coded systems, cipher systems—
Senator COONAN —I did not mean to interrupt you. It was just an opportune time to scratch your head about it.
Prof. Ball —People do, but it is at a different level. My view, though, goes in the direction of where your question was leading. Instead of drawing the line at saying we will not talk at all about signals intelligence, my view is that there is a large arena of signals intelligence activities which it is quite proper to talk about. Indeed, from the point of view of informed democratic policy making, it is necessary to talk about it, otherwise we simply do not know what is going on. One draws the line with regard to the technical operational secrets of how this intercept technology parked up in space actually works, and how some of the more sensitive intelligence collected through that technology works, but we do not talk about that. If you look carefully at my various writings, you will see where I draw the line and simply will not go any further, regardless of whether I know about it or not. It is a difference of position which I have had for many years with Defence on this.
Mr HARDGRAVE —This is my second question, Professor. Again, I am not a highbrow person and I am trying to keep this at a very basic level, and I appreciate your help in that regard. In that sort of spy-versus-spy cartoon kind of approach, the Enemy of the State sort of approach, you have an intelligence community that now no longer has a task called `the Cold War Inc.' In your evidence this morning and in regard to the chairman's questions, you said there was now growth into other areas. What I would like to find out from you are any thoughts on how we as a parliament can check that growth; how we, on behalf of the people of Australia, can monitor that growth. We do not want to get down to tin tacks on the detail of it, but we want to get an idea of the sorts of facilities that are there. Yes, we can monitor everything that happens in southern China, Vietnam, India, and Pakistan—and all of this is fine, because they are probably monitoring us, too—but how do we actually break through the community wall of those who are saying, `No, you can't know. It's on a need-to-know basis'? Who decides the need to know?
Prof. Ball —There is great difficulty in deciding that because there are principles, mechanisms and machinery in place specifically for limiting who has the need to know and who has access to this. It is a misplaced perception, though, to believe that, with the end of the Cold War, technical intelligence operations ceased to have justifiable functions. I agree with the argument of the intelligence community that things have become much more complex, that things have become much more uncertain since the end of the Cold War.
Instead of just monitoring the half-dozen families of ballistic missiles which the Soviet Union was developing in any one year, you are now trying to monitor the telemetry
associated with three or four new Chinese missiles, which are currently being tested during 1999; with three North Korean missiles—the Nodong, the Taepodong 1 and the Taepodong 2, which was tested on 31 August last year; with three or four new types of Indian missiles; and with three or four types of Pakistani missiles, which you could say we do not really need to know about. If we were grossly ignorant of what is going on with ballistic missile developments in China, North Korea, India, Pakistan and all around us, we would be the ones who would suffer in the long run. It means that there are many more things to be using technical collection systems against these days.
Mr HARDGRAVE —I must say it is a pity that it is the professor who has to tell us these things—although I agree with what he said—and not the departmental officials.
Senator TCHEN —Professor, when you were describing what information you believe can be released to the public, you said that you know where you can draw the line. Can you follow that up and perhaps make some suggestions as to what sort of information can be discussed with the committee and the parliament so that we have a better idea. Is there some sort of mechanism to ascertain where to draw the line?
Prof. Ball —You have to face the fact that, of all the various joint facilities which have existed in this country over the past several decades, Pine Gap is the most sensitive. Indeed, most of the others do not even exist anymore. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, and even back in the 1950s when the first of some of these facilities were being put in place, the government adopted a position in which it pretty much refused to talk about any of those facilities. However, in some particular cases, they could have put a lot more information on the public record. North West Cape is the best example of that, but even Nurrungar is an example. Through the course of the 1980s, they did move to put more information on record, and finally, in the late 1980s, they acknowledged what the purpose of Nurrungar was: the control of the infra-red satellites, which I described before.
We are now in a situation where virtually the last of these joint facilities standing is Pine Gap, but Pine Gap happens to be the most sensitive of them all because it is an intelligence collection facility and because of the signals intelligence which is collected. In a sense, therefore, I become rather sympathetic to the dilemma that the Department of Defence and the government are in. We now just have the one facility. It is almost impossible to say anything further about it because, from their point of view, they would be simply making the life of that facility and its operations more difficult.
From where I sit, I believe that one could have a statement that confirms that there are listening satellites in operation. Indeed, in the last three or four years now, the United States has officially admitted that it does have signals intercept satellites. I think you could say that Pine Gap is the ground station for those satellites and I think that one could canvass the type of signals which are interceptable by those satellites because, indeed, anyone who knows anything about signals propagation and antenna design and all the rest can work out what sort of signals are interceptable by a satellite with a dish of 300 feet at a altitude of 36,000 kilometres. I do not think it is giving too much away to talk about the types of signals and the various categories of things which can be intercepted.
It is when you get into specifics and start saying, `Is this facility monitoring a particular missile development?' that you start getting into trouble because the person or country who is developing that missile is going to very quickly change the way their telemetry is down-linked back to their own scientists.
Senator TCHEN —It seems to me—again, this is an amateur's look at it—that a lot of concern about the secrecy of an installation like this is the question of community safety, as opposed to security, for example when Pine Gap is a prime nuclear target. Would you say that, in fact, that is a realistic concern or not?
Prof. Ball —I think that at least during the Cold War we have to accept that there were certain situations under which it was quite likely that Pine Gap and, even more likely, North West Cape and Nurrungar would have been nuclear targets. There was concern within the Australian defence department about what that meant and whether one should have evacuation plans and civil defence plans in place for the people at Alice Springs. Indeed, there was quite substantial work on civil defence in that area.
I do not believe that that is reason for the secrecy. Making Pine Gap secret would not mean that the Soviet Union or its successors would not target the place. Indeed, even with the aura of mystery, they know that this place is extremely important. It is one of the largest satellite ground stations in the world. They can see that just from looking at their own photographic intelligence. They know it is extremely important because it has been visited on a regular basis by the heads of the CIA and chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff in Washington. Just because they do not know that is a SIGINT facility does not mean they not going to target it.
The real reason for secrecy, I believe, is the dilemma which is faced by the intelligence community over the nature of the technical collection operation which is controlled from that station.
Senator COONEY —Talking about the confidential secret agreement, do you get any impression that there might be part of that agreement which says that Australian parliamentarians are not to go to the station except under certain circumstances? The point behind that question, of course, is that it would be a worrying feature if there has been an agreement signed without the parliament knowing and excluding the parliament. That was the first question.
The second question is, `What is your impression as to how far this station is used for economic purposes?' If we have lost our lamb trade to America because of the signals coming through Pine Gap, I suppose that is something we ought to be a bit concerned about. They are the two issues.
Prof. Ball —On the first one, I do not believe that in the classified agreement—and I must say that I have never seen the classified agreement but I have talked to the majority of the people who have been involved in putting these classified agreements together over the years—there is any clause in there that excludes any group of people, whether they be parliamentarians or anyone else. Rather it is an agreement which delineates who is allowed to go there and what they are allowed at various levels to have access too. Whether or not
Australian parliamentarians are allowed to go there is not set out in the agreement. But it would be set out in various other working memos where people have taken the clauses which were in that agreement and tried to apply them to particular circumstances.
The fact that Australian members of parliament, or American congressmen or congresswomen, are not allowed to go there does not surprise me when you are talking about facilities of this really enormous sensitivity. There are other facilities similar to Pine Gap which have similarly sensitive access arrangements, but I do not know of any other facilities which are more sensitive than these types of places. So it is not surprising that parliamentarians are not allowed to go there.
I would ask the question: what is it that parliamentarians think that they would learn by going there? You would walk in the outer security gate or drive to the outer security gate. You would then go into the internal one. They would take you in and give you donuts and coffee. You would see at the moment about 18 satellite antennas sitting around the facility. You would see an enormously large computer room with a lot of guys sitting there with earphones and other things. But it is not going to tell you very much about what goes on there or whether you should support what goes on there. You can only do that through analytical means.
Senator COONEY —Can I answer your question? The one body that is directly elected by the people of Australia is parliament. The government is elected in a collegiate system. If you believe in a system of democracy, that parliament does sit above it all, if you believe in civil rule over military rule, if you believe all of those things, then surely parliament should be entitled to look at everything that is sensitive and which is of great significance to the people who elect them. If you believe that then that is the reason why there should be an ability for parliamentarians to go there.
I do not think there are too many people around this table who, as a matter of preference for the beaches of Anglesea and Lorne, would particularly want to go there. But it is my feeling that the people in this committee are most concerned that they, as parliamentarians elected by the people, are excluded by people who are not elected and who, if you like, take the Oliver North approach to things. That is the reason.
Prof. Ball —I accept what you are saying. I believe it follows from that that the government and the defence bureaucracy should be more forthcoming in what they tell parliamentarians and the Australian public about what goes on at Pine Gap. I believe that very strongly. But what I was addressing was a particular question about parliamentarians and others actually visiting Pine Gap. You might as well sit down and watch a video of the place. Indeed, the Department of Defence has prepared a video which shows the grounds, the antennas and the control room, and there is no reason why they should not allow you to see that video.
Mrs CROSIO —You are giving us more information than what we have been able to—
CHAIR —There was another question—
Senator COONEY —The economic one.
Prof. Ball —Yes. These are satellites and the antennas that are on them simply intercept whatever signals are in the particular frequency spectrum in the geographical area that they are pointed in. So, if they are pointed in a particular area which involves monitoring telecommunications, microwave traffic, then within that microwave traffic there could be quite a variety of different sorts of intelligence, and it is theoretically possible that that includes economic intelligence as well as the particular phone calls or fax transmissions that it is trying to actually intercept.
In my discussions with people who work there, I have been told that mechanisms are in place to make sure that if anything is intercepted relating to economic intelligence or political intelligence or personal communications of Australian citizens, that does not get any further than the Australian representatives on the ground at Pine Gap.
I have tended over the years to believe that. There are many other systems, stations and capabilities for monitoring other forms of communications which include economic intelligence for which I would not be so sure. But when it comes to that Pine Gap operation and its intercepted intelligence then I do believe the statements that there is no economic intelligence being collected there which is being used against Australia.
Senator COONAN —This really raises for this committee a fundamental issue about accountability and responsible government, to put it in its broadest. Obviously, as a committee we want to get to some acceptable balance between some parliamentary oversight of this agreement—at the moment there is nil—and the need to observe secrecy of operations.
Along those lines, could you give us some guidelines as to what inquiries you think we could fruitfully and responsibly pursue about the classified agreement? You said in your presentation that you thought this committee might fruitfully seek information about that line of country as opposed to railing against the fact that we have none, which is getting us nowhere. I am really interested to know if you have any constructive suggestions about how we might better inform ourselves about the consequential classified agreement.
Prof. Ball —I do not think one can be optimistic about how far you are really going to get in that direction. It really depends on the relationship which this committee has with people in the Department of Defence, the personal levels of connections which have been built up and the trust in the end which exists between members of this committee and the Department of Defence as to the extent to which they might be a little bit more forthcoming with you.
They are quite entitled—and the Americans would insist on it—to stick with their position as it exists at the moment, which is that the operations of this facility are very sensitive and very highly classified and the principal agreement governing those operations is also classified, and to say too much about what that agreement contains in it is simply going to disclose the nature of the operations of that facility. There really is a bit of a bind there about how far you can really press them on that.
Senator COONAN —Except I had understood that the Chairman of the American Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was briefed on a daily basis on these sorts of matters. It
seems that there certainly is not equal access of the two parliamentary bodies. Even if there was a delegated parliamentary overseer it would be a very different issue from the issue that we are currently facing.
Prof. Ball —That is correct. Various congressional committees in the United States have much more access in general to classified information then members of the parliament here do. In particular, a couple of the intelligence committees do get access to very high levels of intelligence.
But the American congressional system is very different from the Westminster system which pertains here in Australia. The notion that one could simply transplant to the Australian context all of the ways in which Congress operates, including access by certain congressional committees and individuals to classified information, is not a viable one.
Senator MASON —I have a quick question relating to a question asked by Senator Cooney before. If there is a joint facility and it is defence related, there seems to be an underlying assumption that the interests of those two countries operating that facility are congruent. With the increasing interception of economic intelligence, that assumption would also have to be made, wouldn't it?
Prof. Ball —Yes.
Senator MASON —That might not always be the case.
Prof. Ball —Yes, I think that is true. As the world becomes more multipower, more multipolar, as the types of intelligence which countries are interested in become more variegated, there is going to be more scope for conflicts of interest between various partners in intelligence collection operations. When one looks at the whole breadth of the cooperation which goes on between Australia and the United States, which includes a whole lot of other signals intelligence operations facilities that exist throughout Australia but also American facilities which exist all around the globe as well as a lot of cooperation in areas outside of SIGINT that involve our Australian Secret Intelligence Service and other agencies, then the potential for differences of interests becomes, I think, more significant. But in the specific case of Pine Gap, which is what we are talking about here, I do not know of any instance where that has happened. I would be looking elsewhere within the whole rubric of intelligence cooperation exchanges for instances of what you are talking about rather than at Pine Gap specifically.
Mr ADAMS —What is the difference between the parliament of Australia and this group of people being elected to a treaties committee—which is a new phenomenon to this parliament and the one before—to oversee the treaties we sign with other countries, and a committee of the Congress that has its duty to do to whatever its charter is? Our charter is to see if this treaty is in the interests of the Australian people and to meet certain obligations. I mean that is our charge now. That is a new thing but it is now what we have been charged with and we have not really been given very much information in seeking that. I make that statement to you.
Congress committees fly in and out of Pine Gap when they feel like it, it seems to us. We cannot get access to it or information on it. We do not want the detail; we do not want to get the stuff. We probably all accept that there is probably information that we would not want to see, but this holding us off from the United States people, I think, is a major issue for us. We are getting into situations of information gathered and whether it is worthwhile.
Are there any audits done by people to say, `Are they doing the right thing there? Are they collecting'? Or is it just a perpetuation of expansion for expansion sake because secrecy allows that to happen? Is there any vigour in the system that actually looks at these operations and says, `Yes, they are gathering information which is useful'?
Prof. Ball —There is machinery of various forms involving various processes and arrangements within the intelligence communities in the United States and Australia and in the liaison arrangements between them. For this sort of monitoring that you have talked about—in other words, an internal audit—it is true that the same people who are doing these audits and these various reviews are the people who are involved in providing the budgets, obtaining the budgets, and actually managing these sorts of facilities and, if the end point of your argument is that there should be more outside debate and more informed public awareness of these sorts of intelligence issues so that there can be, even if only indirectly, input from the public, from parliament and from other non-classified sources into that auditing process, then I would agree with you. I think that is a good thing but it does not mean that there is no auditing process at the moment. Indeed, the intelligence community has been subject to an inordinate number of internal reviews over the decade or so since the end of the Cold War trying to work out just what its priorities should be, what the appropriate budgets are, and what it should be collecting and listening to.
With regard to your initial comments about the role of this committee and comparisons with US Congress, I do not believe that US Congressmen do fly in and out of Pine Gap, or fly in to Alice Springs and go to Pine Gap on a regular basis. In fact, as you were talking, I was trying to think of any single instance when US Congressmen or Congresswomen have visited Pine Gap and I am not sure that I even know of a single instance. There are American officials who visit Pine Gap on a regular basis, as indeed there are Australian officials and Australian ministers and their ministerial staff, but I do not know of any congressional visits to Pine Gap.
Mrs CROSIO —The Department of Defence tell us they have.
Mr ADAMS —Along with the point that economic information is going to continue to be gathered I am also concerned about whether information is gathered about Australians other than for terrorist situations. That area is going to increase. I have got no way of knowing whether information is gathered about the economic situation of this country, or particular trade matters, or whatever, and not passed on to the United States.
We have got a few issues—lamb is one. I have got salmon issues from Tasmania. I have to justify my position on this committee and the work that I am doing here to my electorate and to the people that elect me. I have got no way of being able to tell. You are the first person to have given evidence to me that says that any information gathered on individuals is to stay there at Pine Gap, let alone information that may be of a trade nature sailing back
somewhere and being analysed and distributed to companies that may be to their advantage. There has to be some sort of mechanism, I believe, that can reassure us that that sort of thing is not happening.
Prof. Ball —Let me make two points in response to that. Firstly, we have to remember that this really is the leading edge of technical intelligence collection. These satellites are expensive, the most recent of them costing closer to $2 billion than $1 billion to design, build and put up there. You are only going to use these satellites for listening to things which you just simply cannot get in any other way. You are only going to be pointing this at a target which has immense and lucrative value from the intelligence collection point of view. You are going to be wanting to get missile telemetry—things that you really need to know about—or someone else's missile developments which you cannot get in any other way. That is why you are paying what amounts to the price of a small aircraft carrier, for example, to do this. The notion that someone is going to swing the satellite around to listen to some telephone calls of private individuals really is rather fanciful. You only use the Pine Gap satellites for really crucial stuff.
Secondly, there are procedures and machinery in place whereby Australians at Pine Gap have access to all of the material and can vet all the material and can ensure that none of that material being passed back to the US relates in any way to Australian interests or Australian individuals. We have to accept on trust that the Australians who are working there do have Australian interests in mind rather than the interests of their US allies.
Mr ADAMS —I have got a problem about that. I have not been told by our Department of Defence or anybody else that that is the case. You are the first person to give evidence before this committee that that would be the case.
CHAIR —That is something that we can make crystal clear in our report. Thank you, Professor. I must ask you to conclude there, and introduce the next witness. There is obviously still some residual curiosity about your evidence and I wonder whether you would be prepared to informally consult with members of the committee via phone or fax over the next few days. We would be very grateful. Thank you very kindly for a remarkable session.