Snowden leak reaffirms Australia's four spy installations

Australia's role in a surveillance network spanning five nations or more has been reconfirmed with PRISM leaker Edward Snowden releasing information to the media showing the country's involvement.
Written by Michael Lee, Contributor

Documents leaked to the media by Edward Snowden have again confirmed Australia's involvement in sharing intelligence information with the surveillance network of the United States.

The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald revealed that a number of slides allegedly leaked by Edward Snowden to Brazilian newspaper O Globo show Australia's connection with US signals intelligence operations.

The slides themselves indicate four signals intelligence collection points in Australia, and although they aren't named, Fairfax has made the claim that these facilities are the Pine Gap, Northern Territory, US/Australian Joint Defence Facility; the Shoal Bay, NT, Receiving Station; the Geraldton, Western Australia, Australian Defence Satellite Communications Facility; and the Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, naval communications station HMAS Harman.

These facilities have long been suspected of being used for signals interception and intelligence purposes, but the new document further builds confirmation of existing surveillance networks that have existed for years.

In 1999, a joint committee on treaties examined the need to continue the operation of the Pine Gap facility. The committee was advised by Australian National University professor Desmond Ball, who has an intimate understanding of the facility and its history.

Following Ball's testimony, the committee's report (PDF) noted that the facility was "not only of critical importance to the United States, but also to the Australian government and its defence and intelligence agencies".

According to Ball, Pine Gap's main focus in the 1990s was on gathering military intelligence for missile systems and other weapons that might bring harm to Australia and the US. However, he said that in the future, the facility would need to grow to have increased functions.

"They need to collect intelligence on a greater number of countries and from a wider variety of perspectives. They are not just collecting strategic intelligence about weapons systems: They are finding it necessary to collect more political intelligence and even more economic intelligence," he said.

While referring to Pine Gap, Ball later revealed in his testimony that this was already being done at the Geraldton station.

"In terms of monitoring emails, other electronic communications, data flows, transactions from banks — that sort of stuff — and fax traffic, that involves a ground station, which is in fact listening to that electronic data transmission through satellite, and in the case of this country, that is done at Geraldton."

According to Ball, Geraldton at the time used half a dozen satellite dishes to intercept signals sent and received by satellites between the middle of the Indian Ocean and the middle of the Pacific Ocean, roughly above Hawaii.

"There is Intelsat, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian satellites. They are monitoring the stuff which goes through those satellites to pick up terrorist communications or sloppy communications between, say, an Indian rocket scientist and the Ministry of Defence in New Delhi saying things which they really should not have said over the phone, things like that."

This information is shared under the well-known UKUSA Agreement, and since its inception has grown include the sharing of signals intelligence between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It is also commonly known as the AUSCANNZUKUS, Five Eyes, and the ECHELON network.

The facilities at Geraldton and Pine Gap have been known to the public for some time, and especially to European nations. In 2001, the European Parliament held a temporary committee (PDF), concerned about the existence of a possible ECHELON Interception System.

The report from the committee identified Geraldton and Pine Gap as likely interception stations for eight intelligence satellites over the Indian Ocean and seven others over the Pacific Ocean.

The Shoal Bay station is also mentioned in the European report, but is believed to focus on Indonesian satellites. The report noted that it is unclear whether this station shares its information in an ECHELON network, and anecdotal reports have also suggested that intercepts are not shared with the US and the UK.

HMAS Harmon appears relatively few times in the history of known spying networks, but in 2007, the Department of Defence opened an expression of interest for the development of an AU$50 million extension that would see the construction of a "collocated but stand-alone communication/data-room facility".

The actual awarded value of contracts, however, showed that the cost of the facility had blown out to over AU$150 million. The Department of Defence told Fairfax media last year that the facility would still be completed on time, even though the expected completion date was originally in 2010.

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