Back to All News

US bases through the prism of PRISM - what do we really know?

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 27 Jun 2013

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (15:35): by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

My motion is for the Senate to take note of the document presented by Minister Jacinta Collins has presented on behalf of former Defence Minister Smith and I acknowledge his comments in the other place, as he has chosen not to recontest at the next election.

This is a remarkably timed document from the former defence minister on our apparent full knowledge and concurrence about United States military and intelligence bases in this country. I say it is incredibly timed given that it comes in the wake of the PRISM scandal, which, with some degree of success I think, both of the old parties have managed to avoid treating as a scandal, as it is in every other world capital, by simply not making eye contact and pretending that it will all go away. Of course, it will not, but nonetheless.

In this statement we have the Australian government declaring that it has full knowledge of what is going on in the United States bases on our territory. When several members of the United States congress and even a member of the homeland security committee have very recently expressed dismay that they had no idea how invasive and vast their own NSA surveillance activities are. So, how remarkable that Australian policy makers and the defence minister and staff have been brought into the loop that not even United States senior congressional representatives have been given.

Intelligence officials have told Fairfax reporters in off-the-record statements-or more in these off-the-record statements than parliamentarians have been able to extract than ministers in this place-about the PRISM system. We learnt for example that the new data centre under construction not too far from Canberra will be used to store material that has been extracted from PRISM by colleagues in the United States of the ASD and ASIO.

We found that out in the Fairfax press because, when we put a motion up in here to have the Attorney-General make a statement to this parliament, both of the old parties refused to support it. Senator Xenophon and I have asked questions on and without notice, which have been entirely fobbed off, about how much the Australian government knows about the massive surveillance overreach of citizens and whether the privacy of Australians has been breached. We know that it has. Do not treat us like children. We know what is occurring here. I think it would have been helpful for some transparency around the scope of the surveillance overreach, rather than just going into some kind of denial lockdown.

It is just as well that Fairfax journalist Phil Dorling is on the case, as there are so few good national security journalists in this country. There are a number, and Mr Dorling is certainly one of them. Without this small handful of people who track these issues closely, Australians would not know anything about how our government and intelligence officials have these huge volumes of immensely valuable information derived from PRISM and other US signals intelligence collection programs. The government says it has full knowledge and concurrence regarding US bases in Australia. Maybe that was intended to be comforting; I do not find it so. We are told in the statement around the basing of United States Marines in Darwin, an announcement that took the Australian people, and probably also the foreign minister at the time, completely by surprise. This is foreign policy conducted by press release after the key decisions have been made behind closed doors. Being presented with a decision after it has been made is not the same as full knowledge and concurrence, actually.

What knowledge do the Australian people or parliamentarians have about the rights, the roles and the responsibility of US forces while they are here on Australian soil? In November 2012, another Fairfax journalist at the time, Dylan Welch, who is now in Afghanistan, revealed that there was a secret two-page statement of principles relating to Australia and the US military collaboration. It is known as the Australia-United States Force Posture Review Working Group Statement of Principles. Mr Welch put in a freedom of information application about that process, and he was told that a letter from the defence department in the form of a statement of principles relating to Australian and US military collaboration existed. The DOD was obliged to consult with the US government, which, of course, told them not to release the document to Mr Welch. So the Australian people still do not have any knowledge of the underpinnings of a significant expansion of the US military presence into Australia.

The minister mentions North West Cape in his statement. That is in Western Australia. That is a facility that continues to facilitate, enable and support the passage and deployment of nuclear armed submarines. These are offensive attack weapons platforms. Ballistic missile submarines exist for no other purpose than Armageddon one day. They are not tactical weapons. They are not battlefield scale. They contain ballistic missiles with the intention of destroying cities and ending particular civilisations. That is what they are for. This base at North West Cape conducts communications with those vessels. Full knowledge and concurrence? Right.

Australia thereby legitimises the retention and deployment of nuclear weapons. Former and current Prime Minister-it is getting a little bit confusing-and former foreign minister Rudd worked quite hard as a middle power with a bit of diplomatic clout to bring forward the debate around nonproliferation and disarmament, through the commission that we co-chaired with the former foreign minister of Japan. At the same time as that process is trying to get consensus around nonproliferation and disarmament, we are writing into two successive defence white papers that we support the deployment of nuclear weapons in Australia's name. That is on paper. On the ground, the existence of facilities like the North West Cape base are around enabling nuclear weapons deployment, not just in our name but on our soil.

Pine Gap, a nuclear weapons target and a key part of the US missile defence program, is, of course, a major incentive for other nuclear weapons states to keep their arsenals. We learn in the statement that that plays a great role in counterproliferation of nuclear weapons. Do not get me wrong: the extraordinarily sophisticated monitoring network that Australia supports is in our budget and is conducted with our international partners around detecting things like clandestine nuclear detonations, weapons tests and so on. I strongly support that, and we are told that the value of the data obtained on this issue from Pine Gap cannot be underestimated. So Pine Gap has somehow gone from being a secret intelligence facility to an anti-nuclear weapons establishment, which is remarkable. We are told that through this joint facility Australia is able to access intelligence. As we know, Pine Gap monitors radar, cell phones, radio and long-distance telecommunications, allowing it to provide targeting information for US air and ground forces, including drones and UAVs. It is extremely valuable because it is in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Australian people do not know who the facility spies on or who is targeted. In 1999 the government refused to provide information about Pine Gap to this parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. Nothing has changed since then. Although US congressional officials have visited Pine Gap and received classified briefings about its functions, elected representatives and senators are entrusted with less information than can be found online or in a public library.

The Greens support the principle of this government providing statements of explanation such as this. The statement, however, is 90 per cent platitudes and 10 per cent information already in the public domain. Rather noticeably absent is the kind of material that a small handful of national security journalists are making available to the Australian people. It is time that the Australian government actually came clean so that the idea of full knowledge and concurrence does not become some sort of ironic afterthought once material is put into the public domain by a future generation of brave whistleblowers.

Back to All News