• Tuesday, September 30, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: Parliament Tightens Protest Ban at Secretive Spy Base

    By Stephen de Tarczynski
    MELBOURNE, Apr 14 (IPS) Despite ongoing community concerns over the highly
    secretive Pine Gap spy station in central Australia, the nation’s
    parliament has moved to effectively ban protest at the joint
    Australia-United States base.

    &com;The right to protest is a political act which is directly linked
    to freedom of association and freedom of expression. It allows citizens to
    take democratic action without the threat of sanctions,&com; said Dr
    Hannah Middleton of the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition in a
    submission to a senate inquiry into changes in legislation related to Pine
    Gap.

    Despite concerns expressed by Middleton and other Australian citizens, in
    addition to a dissenting report submitted to the senate committee by the
    Australian Greens Party, the defence legislation (miscellaneous
    amendments) bill 2008 was passed by parliament in mid-March.

    It amends a 1952 defence act by defining the Joint Defence Facility Pine
    Gap – the spy station’s official title – located 20 km south of the
    central Australian town of Alice Springs as a &com;special defence
    undertaking&com; and a &com;prohibited area&com; necessary for
    Australia’s defence.

    This effectively closes a loophole in the legislation which was exploited
    by a group of four Christian peace activists in successfully appealing
    their convictions over a protest at Pine Gap in 2005.

    The so-called Pine Gap Four had been facing up to seven years imprisonment
    for what they called a &com;citizens’ inspection&com; of the
    secretive base – the four had evaded security patrols to enter the
    facility and take photographs before being arrested – but were acquitted
    in 2008 after an appeals court ruled that a &com;miscarriage of
    justice&com; had occurred.

    The four had been prevented from presenting evidence regarding the
    operations conducted at Pine Gap in a ruling prior to their 2007 trial.
    The appeals court upheld the group’s claim that they should have
    been entitled to challenge whether the area designated as
    &com;prohibited&com; was necessary for the defence of Australia.

    One of the Pine Gap Four, Donna Mulhearn, says that the recently-enacted
    legislation is aimed at silencing further criticism of the facility.

    &com;Now that the loophole has been closed it is a concern that any
    activist who decides to go to Pine Gap to make a protest may face court
    and seven years in prison without having the opportunity to put their case
    thoroughly and in its entirety,&com; says Mulhearn, a former
    journalist and political adviser who volunteered as a &com;human
    shield&com; during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

    The controversial facility was established with the signing of the 1967
    Pine Gap Treaty between the U.S. and Australia. Along with a similar site
    at the United Kingdom’s Menwith Hill air force base, Pine Gap is
    believed to play a key role in gathering signals intelligence for the
    United States, Britain and other allied nations.

    But while Pine Gap’s eight radomes – the large, ball-like domes that
    protect the facility’s radar antennae – may be instantly
    recognisable to many Australians, the functions of the base remain highly
    secretive.

    &com;Pine Gap is a ground receiving station for space-based
    intelligence gathering,&com; said Greens senator Scott Ludlam just
    days before the legislation was passed.

    &com;Its monitoring of radar, cell phone, radio and long-distance
    telecommunication enables it to provide targeting information for U.S. air
    and ground forces,&com; added Ludlam.

    But with official information regarding the spy station’s activities
    in short supply, Ludlam and others have relied heavily on accounts
    provided by professors Des Ball and Paul Dibb, renowned experts in
    Australian strategic and defence issues, to a 1999 parliamentary committee
    established to consider a further extension of the Pine Gap Treaty.

    Although the base was built during the Cold War, it is believed to have
    played pivotal roles in targeted missile strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and
    elsewhere. According to Ludlam, information collected at Pine Gap enables
    U.S. forces to identify, monitor and attack targets.

    &com;Many thousands of civilians continue to be killed as collateral
    damage in these campaigns,&com; alleged the senator.

    And while the facility is also suspected of being part of the United
    States’ proposed missile defence shield, very little of what goes on
    at Pine Gap has been confirmed by either of the two governments
    controlling its operations.

    The 1999 parliamentary committee was not even allowed to visit the base,
    with several requests to tour the facility being rejected.

    &com;Such access is tightly controlled for both U.S. and Australian
    citizens and limited strictly to personnel with a ‘need to
    know’,&com; said then-defence minister Ian McLachlan in 1998.

    To Donna Mulhearn, protests stem from the &com;need to act by our
    conscience.&com; &com;We need to reveal the truth and draw a
    spotlight to what’s going on at Pine Gap&com;, Mulhearn told
    IPS. She regards the protests staged at the facility, which has been
    widely reported in the media, as part of a &com;very long
    tradition&com;. &com;Symbolic, non-violent actions have always
    been very powerful,&com; she says.

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