I WAS WITH friends, high up on a range looking west and down through a long and beautiful valley just south of Alice Springs, mountains in the far distance gauzy in the late light. A few cars came and went, windows lit up in scattered houses. It was warm but we made a small fire for company. We’d brought food and wine, music and reading. The best of times, yet as the sun sank, I felt a deep melancholy. It can come at that hour, quietly, but that evening, in that place, it rushed in like a wave. I wondered why, and as I did my mind’s eye lifted like a bird over the range, across a narrow valley and into the next, to the military base known as Pine Gap. You can see its white domes against the red earth, like a cluster of giant golf balls or spider eggs, when you fly into Alice Springs. From elsewhere, it is out of sight – and out of mind for most of us most of the time, here in Alice as in the rest of the country. But it has moved to the forefront for me, ever since I followed the 2017 Supreme Court trials of six peace activists who dared to trespass into this prohibited domain.
The base had three radomes when operations began in 1970, housing antennas, the purpose of which was to collect signals intelligence from satellites; as of February 2016 there were nineteen. There are also fourteen uncovered systems, including the powerful Torus multi-beam antenna installed in 2008, capable of monitoring thirty-five or more satellites at a time. Five of its kind, all US-controlled, are installed in ground stations around the world: in the UK, Cyprus, Oman and NZ, providing automated mass surveillance around the globe – of friends and foes, civil and military. The Australian Government likes to emphasise the base’s early warning and arms-control verification capabilities. There is no transparency around its provision of intelligence to military operations, whether conventional or covert.
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