Back in October 2002, five or six hundred people converged in a dusty camp a few hundred metres off the Stuart Highway not far from Alice Springs, unfurled banners painted in all corners of the country and made our way toward the police line set up at the gates of Pine Gap.
Helicopters swung overhead and spotters watched from camouflaged hides in the range of low hills that shields the base from the approach road.
Up in arms
Everywhere around the world, millions of people were mobilising against the invasion of Iraq, hoping that some combination of public pressure, diplomacy or respect for international law would hold the US Government back from a course set years earlier. We didn’t know at the time that the anti-war movement would grow into the largest civil society mobilisation that the world had ever seen. Nor did we know that President Bush and his obedient lieutenants would launch the invasion regardless, toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime within three short, violent weeks.
By May 2003 the US President was on the flight-deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln posing under a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner in a scene resembling an out-take from Top Gun.
For the Iraqi people, the nightmare was only just beginning. Having torn the regime apart through force of arms, the strongly held delusion that the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ could bomb democracy into the Middle East began to evaporate. Dormant sectarian fault lines opened into a murderous civil war, the crucible in which Islamic State took root before spreading into Syria and into global mass-consciousness. All of it utterly avoidable if the Governments of the United States, Great Britain and Australia had listened to the people who marched to close Pine Gap, and the tens of millions like us who mobilised over the following months.
None of the leaders who plunged the region into this catastrophe have ever been held to account.
Worse: we are still led by people who believe that violent escalation is the only salvation for the consequences of the previous round of violent escalation.
As I write this, peace activists are again blocking the road into Pine Gap, arrests have begun and over the weekend hundreds more will arrive to show their opposition to the doctrine of endless war. What has changed since the last time we were there? Quite a lot, and nothing at all.
You are being watched
In 2002 this ground station gave the US military ‘eyes on’ to the horror that it would shortly inflict on a country which posed it no security risk whatsoever. Fourteen years later it tracks the grim fallout from this invasion on behalf of thousands of US personnel coordinating airstrikes across the region. It helps guide a covert drone assassination programme in at least six countries. It collates billions of civilian telecommunications records, Facebook profiles, phonecalls and realtime GPS locations of ordinary people, vacuumed up by huge spy satellites parked over our hemisphere. Documents sourced by Edward Snowden identified Pine Gap as a key node in the domestic collection network; each Torus antenna can harvest up to 35 communications satellite beams at a time, in addition to an acronym soup of other poorly understood capabilities. This torrent of intercepted traffic is merged with social media feeds accessed through PRISM and then queried through programmes like X-Keyscore, in which the privacy of hundreds of millions of people are casually violated for no security benefit whatsoever.
Some things haven’t changed.
The base still plays its Jekyll and Hyde role in global nuclear weapons brinkmanship, as it has for decades.
On the one hand it is a key station in the global network listening for nuclear weapons tests and hostile ballistic missile launches, and on the other hand it will almost certainly play a part in the event of a US nuclear strike in our hemisphere. Despite growing global momentum for a nuclear weapons ban treaty, the use of nuclear weapons, which could kill more people in an hour than died in the Second World War, is still endorsed in Australian defence doctrine. The dry words you’ll find in successive Defence White Papers are deliberately phrased in the abstract, but if you want to know what the daily effect of this policy looks like, you only have to visualise a field of surreal white golf-ball spheres nestled within the rocky folds and valleys of Arrente country.
Time to act
Somehow, against this escalation of violence, mass surveillance and unthinkable strategic incompetence, we are meant to just accept that this is all in order to keep us safe, to win the war on terror, and to promote global security and democracy. Global defence spending is higher than at almost any time in human history, and yet the application of ever-increasing doses of high-technology, long-distance violence has — surprise — made the world a more fearful and insecure place. Maybe it is time we tried a different tack.
Closing the road into Pine Gap, cutting fences and dropping banners within sight of the radomes presents only a temporary inconvenience to base authorities. The real target here is the political leadership that still claims this place, and others like it around the world, keep anyone safe. It is time to pull the plug on this place and on the shattered legitimacy of those who shouted from the headlines in 2003 to give war a chance.
Expect another update from Senator Ludlam on this issue in coming weeks.