Once considered a wasteland, the vast red desert in Central Australia is a global hub of spiritual tourism. Each day hordes of pilgrims arrive at Alice Springs, equip themselves with 4-wheel drives, swags, maps and emergency rations, then set off to seek renewal. On tracks to remote gorges, sometimes dotted with the detritus of failed cattle stations, tourists in hats with fly-nets file towards the sacred hot spots. During a trek on the rim of Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park, our path descended beside a string of pools shaded by ancient Cycad palms to an astonishing oasis known as the Garden of Eden. Spinifex pigeons darted and chirped. Elsewhere, as the Toyota bounces across dry riverbeds, rocks up on the bank near the gorge reveal carvings predating the times of Moses, providing survival tips for future generations (likelihood of game, location of sacred waterholes). Such messages are humbling. They re-connect us with antiquity and remind us that the quality of information can make the difference between life and death. Information is also at the heart of modern warfare.
On the flight from Sydney to Alice Springs the desert unfolds for hours beneath the window. On descent it is possible to glimpse a space age compound on the sand backed by the MacDonnell Ranges and distinguished by a clump of enormous white pop art "golf balls". This is Pine Gap, a US military base built on the traditional land of the indigenous Arrernte people, which started life in 1966. Australians were told the facility was to be a weather station. Later the official cover was a "Space Research Centre". Our citizens remained in the dark until 1975, when Prime Minister Whitlam revealed that Pine Gap's boss, Richard Stallings, was an agent of the CIA. Until then, the base was seen as "pretty harmless". CIA fears over the leaking of Pine Gaps' secret activities helped to trigger the murky events that toppled the Whitlam government. Pine Gap's first generation of satellites was designed to monitor Soviet missile developments and for espionage in South East Asia, especially Vietnam, and later to spy on China. Since then, both its mission and capabilities have expanded dramatically. The base is believed to have provided targeting information for Israel's 2006 bombing of Lebanon.
FRUIT AND CARDBOARD SOAKED IN BLOOD
There were over 50 Pine Gap directed strikes in the invasion phase. Of four investigated by Human Rights Watch, 42 civilians were killed and zero soldiers. This averages 13 casualties per strike, which, when multiplied by 50, totals 650 corpses. During this time the Australian media and star commentators were waxing lyrical about the Pentagon's "precision bombing".
Australian anti war campaigner, Donna Mulhearn, was in Baghdad in March 2003 when a missile struck the Al Shuala markets, killing over 60 civilians. Donna took a bus to the site and found "complete devastation with pieces of iron and tin mangled into grotesque shapes. Mashed pieces of fruit and cardboard were soaked in the blood and mud, along with pieces of human flesh". Hundreds were injured and the hospitals lacked anaesthetics.
THE MAN WHO MIGHT HAVE RULED IRAQ
When she found her way to a bus, her eyes stinging with tears, Donna noticed the bloodstains on her boots. "The sight was shocking and caused my body to shake, then go limp", she recalled. Her first instinct was to "find a corner somewhere in the outskirts of the world and curl up to weep forever", but that was not to be. She found another option - to stand up as a witness to war crimes. It was this decision that would later take Donna Mulhearn to Pine Gap.
Shortly after aerial massacre at Al Shuala, the Americans bombed the palatial dwelling of Mudher al-Kharbit, a construction magnate who had been secretly advising officials from the CIA on how to unite Iraq's tribal leaders to rise up against Saddam Hussein. "If that effort had succeeded", reported the New York Times in April this year, "Mr. Kharbit might have become the ruler of Iraq". Instead, the bomb killed more than a dozen of Kharbit's family. The intelligence that led to this air strike was almost certainly provided by Pine Gap, and it was not entirely baseless. For reasons related to tribal obligations, Saddam Hussein was hiding at the Kharbit compound that night, but in a separate villa, and emerged unscathed. As well as wiping out Kharbit's family, the bombing killed 21 other people, including children.
THE MEDIA ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL
According to the NY Times, "the fury it aroused has been widely believed to have helped kick-start the insurgency in western Iraq". Another question arises. If the intelligence was accurate about the presence of Saddam Hussein, it is likely the US military was aware of the presence of innocent civilians, including women and children. But who wants to think about that? Probably not the people who work at Pine Gap. If Australia wishes to regain its reputation as a fair minded nation, the government will need to take a closer look at this secretive installation, an integral part of the US National Missile Defense scheme, or Star Wars.
It aims to put satellite based weapons in space to shoot down any incoming missiles. New radomes (radar + dome) to accommodate the system have already been installed.
The majority of Pine Gap's 1000 staff are Americans drawn from branches of the US military, including the National Security Agency, Army and Navy Information Operations Command, US Navy and Combined Support Group, Air Intelligence Agency, US Air Force, 704th Military Intelligence Brigade, 743rd Military Intelligence Battalion, Marine Cryptologic Support Command, etc. The base is described as a "joint facility", although key areas are out of bounds to Australians. While visiting US lawmakers are taken on tours of Pine Gap, Federal MP's are denied entry. (Members of Congress have collectively invested up to $US196 million in companies with Defense Department contracts, earning millions since the onset of the Iraq invasion. Until May 2007, Hillary Clinton held holdings in Honeywell, Boeing and - yes - Raytheon).
In 2000, the Howard Government rejected calls by Parliament's Joint Committee on Treaties for a classified briefing on its operations. There is no public debate on the role of Pine Gap, despite its unbending support of all US military actions, regardless of legality or morality. As for the media, they're asleep at the wheel.
CRIMINALS ROAMING THE OUTBACK?
Pine Gap hosts the largest CIA facility outside America, so it is reasonable to assume that crimes against humanity, such the kidnap of suspects and their transport to torture zones, have been aided by the capacities of Pine Gap. Day after day, its intelligence kills people. If you regard this is an exaggeration, visit the US Airforce website and click the link marked "airpower summary", which reveals the number of daily missions conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these involve air strikes, around a 100 a day, or 36,500 a year, which explains why Pine Gap operates around the clock.
On a December midnight in 2005, after seeking the permission of a traditional custodian of the Arrernte land, four resolute Christians trudged across the central desert with bolt cutters. One of the party was Donna Mulhearn, whose visit to Baghdad led her to bone up on the activities of Pine Gap. The group cut through two fences, scrambled on a rooftop and unfurled their banner: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? YOUR BROTHER'S BLOOD CRIES OUT TO ME. Security guards surrounded them. One shouted, "Get on your knees"._