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Mind the Gap : home to spies, UFO watchers

21 December 2019 200 views No Comment


Project Rainfall: The Secret History of Pine Gap

Tom Gilling

Allen&Unwin, 306pp, $32.99


Pine Gap just outside Alice Springs, arguably Australia’s most secret place.
Pine Gap just outside Alice Springs, arguably Australia’s most secret place.

At the height of the Cold War in 1966, at a remote site in central Australia, three operatives from the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology met the head of the Scientific Intelligence Group of Australia’s Joint Intelligence Bureau. This meeting celebrated the beginnings of a top-secret ­project known in US intelligence ­circles as Rainfall.

Pine Gap is the commonly used name for the pivotal US satellite surveillance station 18km southwest of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Although it officially was called the Joint Defence Space Research Facility, it had absolutely nothing to do with research and, as the Americans ran and controlled it, Pine Gap was joint in name only.

More specifically, it was a CIA project and it was the CIA that decided how the $US200m ­installation operated.

Pine Gap recently has come into public consciousness through the Australian television series that was released on Netflix and broadcast on the ABC last year. However, much more informative and revealing is Tim Gilling’s new book, ­Project Rainfall: The Secret History of Pine Gap.

Project Rainfall: The secret history of Pine Gap by Tom Gilling.
Project Rainfall: The secret history of Pine Gap by Tom Gilling.

In its early years, the satellite surveillance station’s main mission was spying on Soviet missiles. Unsurprisingly, committed peace protesters throughout the nation “regularly made the trip to central Australia to demonstrate at the base, with activists leading police and security guards a merry dance behind the wire after breaking in with wire-cutters”. It is important to realise that both the US and Australian governments were aware that, as Gilling puts it, “if nuclear war ever broke out between the superpowers, Pine Gap was certain to be a target”.

The scholar who knew most about what happened at Pine Gap from its beginnings up to its covert activities in the 21st century was Des Ball, who died in 2016. This was a few months­before Gilling began researching this deeply revealing, utterly uncensored account of what remains Australia’s most secret spy facility.

‘Project Rainfall’ relies heavily on the detailed technical analysis conducted by Ball and his colleagues at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, based at the Australian National University in Canberra. This illuminating book also draws on ­numerous interviews with key participants and on recently ­declassified documents from US and Australian archives. In doing so, it tells a riveting story chronicling five decades, “from the genesis of Pine Gap in the minds of America’s Cold War ­intelligence chiefs to its current role as a key weapon in the Pentagon’s so-called ‘war on terror’ ”.

What is particularly intriguing is the fact that, until he ­resigned the US presidency on August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon and his key advisers, including Henry Kissinger, were deeply suspicious of the ALP government of Gough Whitlam. This was ­especially the case when the left-inclined Jim Cairns was elected deputy prime minister after Whitlam led Labor to a second election victory in May 1974. What really frightened Washington was that Cairns, who was regarded by Nixon’s key advisers as “Marxist by persuasion”, had never hidden his desire to rid Australia of all American military installations, including Pine Gap.

‘Project Rainfall’also deals with matters much more arcane than Australian and American foreign intelligence. In one of the book’s key chapters, A Saucerful of Secrets, Gilling reveals that, unlike the FBI, the CIA was, at least initially, intensely interested in so-called flying saucers. Indeed, in 1966, the same year that saw the beginnings of Pine Gap, Republican congressman and later president Gerald Ford called for a congressional inquiry into unidentified flying objects.

This was, in part, because Ford feared some form of Soviet ­intervention in fomenting mass hysteria in the US. Meanwhile, as Gilling explains, one of the three CIA operatives involved in the foundation of Pine Gap, Bud Wheelon, “continued to juggle his time between the agency’s fledgling geostationary satellite program and its investigation of flying saucers”.

Until the 1970s, the CIA’s interest in flying saucers and its ­involvement in spying operations at Pine Gap remained tightly controlled. But this stress on secrecy produced unforeseen ­results. In the US, “the public suspected the agency was up to more than it would admit”. At the same time, “the mystery surrounding UFOs and Pine Gap convinced many Australians that the two were linked”.

As it happens, Pine Gap is also the setting for a 2012 Australian-made sci-fi horror movie called Crawlspace. Its synopsis states: “Deep in the heart of the unforgiving Australian desert lies Pine Gap, a top-secret government facility operated by the United States military. When the base comes under attack from unknown forces, an elite team is sent in to extract the military scientists.” Although the Pine Gap in the film bore little resemblance to reality, it tapped into what Gilling terms “a mythology of sinister goings-on nourished by decades of government ­duplicity”.

As Gilling perceptively concludes, the road to Pine Gap “still bristles with signs warning unwanted visitors to keep away, but the most serious threats to the secrets of Pine Gap have rarely entered by the front gate”.

‘Project Rainfall’ is a fine example of how painstaking scholarship and untiring research can uncover the fascinating history of what is arguably still our most secret place.

What the book makes crystal clear is that Pine Gap remains a fundamentally American facility, to which Australia is merely ­allowed some access.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 41 books.

The Weekend Australian, December 21-22, 2019, Review, Books p 18.

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