A short drive south of Alice Springs, the second largest population center in Australia’s Northern Territory, there is a high-security compound, codenamed “RAINFALL.” The remote base, in the heart of the country’s barren outback, is one of the most important covert surveillance sites in the eastern hemisphere.
Hundreds of Australian and American employees come and go every day from Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, as the base is formally known. The official “cover story,” as outlined in a secret U.S. intelligence document, is to “support the national security of both the U.S. and Australia. The [facility] contributes to verifying arms control and disarmament agreements and monitoring military developments.” But, at best, that is an economical version of the truth. Pine Gap has a far broader mission — and more powerful capabilities — than the Australian or American governments have ever publicly acknowledged.
An investigation, published Saturday by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in collaboration with The Intercept, punctures the wall of secrecy surrounding Pine Gap, revealing for the first time a wide range of details about its function. The base is an important ground station from which U.S. spy satellites are controlled and communications are monitored across several continents, according to classified documents obtained by The Intercept from the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Together with the NSA’s Menwith Hill base in England, Pine Gap has in recent years been used as a command post for two missions. The first, named M7600, involved at least two spy satellites and was said in a secret 2005 document to provide “continuous coverage of the majority of the Eurasian landmass and Africa.” This initiative was later upgraded as part of a second mission, named M8300, which involved “a four satellite constellation” and covered the former Soviet Union, China, South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and territories in the Atlantic Ocean.
The satellites are described as being “geosynchronous,” which means they are likely positioned high in orbit at more than 20,000 miles above the earth’s surface. They are equipped with powerful surveillance technology used to monitor wireless communications on the ground, such as those sent and received by cellphones, radios, and satellite uplinks. They gather “strategic and tactical military, scientific, political, and economic communications signals,” according to the documents, and also keep tabs on missile or weapons tests in targeted countries, sweep up intelligence from foreign military data systems, and provide surveillance support to U.S. forces.
Outside Pine Gap, there are some 38 radar dishes pointing skyward, many of them concealed underneath golfball-like shells. The facility itself is isolated, located beyond a security checkpoint on a road marked with “prohibited area” signs, about a 10-minute drive from Alice Springs, which has a population of about 25,000 people. There is a large cohort of U.S. spy agency personnel stationed at the site, including employees of the NSA, the CIA, and the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that manages the spy satellites. Intelligence employees are joined by compatriots from the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Pine Gap “plays a significant role in supporting both intelligence activities and military operations,” according to a top-secret NSA report dated from April 2013. One of its key functions is to gather geolocational intelligence, which can be used to help pinpoint airstrikes. The Australian base has a special section known as the “geopit” for this function; it is equipped with “a number of tools available for performing geolocations, providing a broad range of geolocation capabilities … in conjunction with other overhead, tactical, fixed site systems,” notes an Aug. 2012 NSA “site profile” of the facility.
Richard Tanter, a professor at the University of Melbourne, has studied Pine Gap for years. He has co-authored, with Bill Robinson and the late Desmond Ball, several detailed reports about the base’s activities for California-based security think tank Nautilus Institute. He reviewed the documents obtained by The Intercept, and said that they showed there had been a “huge transformation” in Pine Gap’s function in recent history.
The documents “provide authoritative confirmation that Pine Gap is involved, for example, in the geolocation of cellphones used by people throughout the world, from the Pacific to the edge of Africa,” Tanter said. “It shows us that Pine Gap knows the geolocations — it derives the phone numbers, it often derives the content of any communications, it provides the ability for the American military to identify and place in real-time the location of targets of interest.”
The documents “provide authoritative confirmation that Pine Gap is involved in the geolocation of cellphones used by people throughout the world.”
The base, which was built in the late 1960s, was once focused only on monitoring missile tests and other military-related activities in countries such as Russia, China, Pakistan, Japan, Korea, and India. But it is now doing “a great deal more,” said Tanter. It has shifted from “a national level of strategic intelligence, primarily to providing intelligence — actionable, time-sensitive intelligence — for American operations in [the] battlefield.”
In 2013, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Pine Gap played a key role in controversial U.S. drone strikes. Over the past decade, drone attacks have killed a number of top Al Qaeda, Islamic State, and Taliban militants. But the strikes – often taking place outside of declared war zones, in places such as Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan – have also resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, and in some cases are considered by human rights advocates to constitute potential war crimes and violations of international law.
The U.S. and its allies regularly use surveillance of communications as a tactic to track down and identify suspected militants. The NSA often locates drone targets by analyzing the activity of a cellphone’s SIM card, rather than the content of the calls – an imprecise method than can lead to the wrong people being killed, as The Intercept has previously revealed. “It’s really like we’re targeting a cellphone,” a former drone operator told us in 2014. “We’re not going after people – we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.”
Concerns about such tactics are amplified in the era of President Donald Trump. Since his inauguration earlier this year, Trump has dramatically increased drone strikes and special operations raids, while simultaneously loosening battlefield rules and seeking to scrap constraints intended to prevent civilian deaths in such attacks. According to analysis from the group Airwars, which monitors U.S. airstrikes, civilian casualties in the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State are on track to double under Trump’s administration.