America has always kept us in the loop – The Australian, September 10 2005

America has always kept us in the loop

The Australian | September 10, 2005 | Paul Dibb

THE Government seems to think that Australia has just gained an absolutely unprecedented intelligence relationship with our US ally. It is true that the volume of real-time intelligence we have access to has greatly increased of late. But that does not mean that what we now share is unequalled in its importance.

A lot of what we did with the US in the Cold War was much more crucial to its survival in an era when all-out nuclear war was a real possibility.

Greg Sheridan (Inquirer, September 3 and The Australian, September 1) thinks that we’ve reached a new moment in Australia’s national security history. He asserts that we now have “the most intimate intelligence relationship in Australian history” and that in the 50 years of the US-Australia alliance “Australia has never before enjoyed this level of access to American intelligence”. He quotes Defence Minister Robert Hill as saying “In recent years we have obtained unprecedented access to US intelligence.”

Have they forgotten about our intelligence co-operation with the US in the Cold War — or is it merely that they simply have no idea about just what we did? Let me set out in some detail just how unprecedented Australia’s intelligence co-operation with the US was in the most dangerous years of the Cold War.

Needless to say, there are still sensitive operational aspects of intelligence collection against the former Soviet Union that even now cannot be revealed. This, therefore, is an abbreviated listing:

* FROM the 1970s, we were intimately briefed on America’s nuclear targeting of the Soviet Union. This was crucial to our understanding of the roles of Pine Gap, Nurrungar and Northwest Cape, which were America’s most potent facilities in the entire Asia-Pacific region. We had access, at the highest intelligence levels in Washington, to the details of US nuclear targeting of the Soviet Union and the Pentagon’s operational nuclear doctrine.

* US intelligence also helped us to assess the risk of Soviet nuclear strikes on Australia in the event of global nuclear war. We were able to identify the locations in Australia that were targeted by Moscow and assess likely casualties. We judged, for example, that the SS-11 ICBM site at Svobodny in Siberia was capable of inflicting one million instant deaths and 750,000 radiation deaths on Sydney. And you would not have wanted to live in Alice Springs, Woomera or Exmouth — or even Adelaide.

* THROUGHOUT the Cold War Australian intelligence agencies had access to the most sensitive US National Intelligence Estimates on the Soviet Union. For example, the series of annual CIA reports entitled Soviet Forces for Intercontinental Attack (NIE-11-8) and Soviet Capabilities for Strategic Nuclear Conflict (NIE-11-3) were classified top secret, and were handled on an extremely restricted basis in Canberra. (They can now be downloaded – albeit still censored – from the CIA history unit’s website!)

* THE facility at Pine Gap was one of the most powerful intelligence collectors against the Soviet Union anywhere in the world. In the late ’80s we negotiated with America for us to have “full knowledge and concurrence” with regard to intelligence collected by Pine Gap, and the other joint facilities. Australia was indeed “unprecedented” among all America’s intelligence partners when we negotiated this level of access. Pine Gap continues to provide us with very important intelligence for our own purposes.

* AUSTRALIA, together with only Britain and Canada, has also had access to other forms of highly classified US satellite intelligence data for more than 40 years. This data is critical to our understanding of our strategic environment and assessment of potential military threats.

* AT the operational level, it is now well known that Australia mounted very sensitive submarine operations against the Soviet navy. They were highly dangerous missions. In a discussion I had a couple of years ago with US Vice-President Dick Cheney, he reminded me of just how important they were to the US in the Cold War.

* THE level of trust we were given by Washington is illustrated by the fact that we were allocated the responsibility for the detection of Chinese nuclear explosions and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile tests. I had intelligence officers who specialised in this esoteric task for more than 20 years.

* IN our own region, the intimacy of our intelligence relationship with the US was such that we were given the task of monitoring Soviet military activities. For example, in the ’80s we had the task of analysing the Soviet Union’s naval and air force presence at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam (as we had in the ’70s for the Soviet Union’s military and intelligence base at Berbera in Somalia).

* WE also collaborated with the US in observing Soviet nuclear weapons movements in the region.

* AND we were able to influence the type of US military platforms and missiles being sold in our area of primary strategic concern, so that we had confidence in retaining a margin of technological superiority.

* WITH regard to Soviet espionage in Australia, successive CIA station chiefs in Canberra had deep experience in counter-espionage operations against the Soviet Union.

All this leads me to the conclusion that, contrary to some recent breathless claims, the current era of intelligence sharing with the US is far from being “unprecedented”. What is true, of course, is that advances in America’s ability to transmit technical intelligence data in real time are now being shared with our troops in the field. This is a crucial breakthrough for the safety and operational effectiveness of Australian Defence Force personnel. It could also be extremely useful in providing warning of terrorist attacks.

But let’s not pretend that the threat from terrorism is as dangerous to the survival of the US or Australia as nuclear war with the Soviet Union (which was a real prospect in the early ’80s). Our calculations in the Cold War were that a full-scale nuclear exchange would involve at least 300 million deaths on each side in a matter of hours, and that the US and the Soviet Union would completely cease to exist as modern functioning societies. The terrorists are not capable of doing that.

Australia is indeed fortunate to be ranked among the very few most privileged intelligence partners that the US has in the world. The Australian’s editorial of September 5 is absolutely correct in arguing that the huge US defence budget effectively subsidises our military and intelligence spending. But it is important to understand there are limits. For example, we will never have the same status as Britain when it comes to sharing nuclear weapons secrets.

It is also the case that the so-called third-party rule means that the US does not like sharing with us information about its other allies, including those in our own region.

So, there are limits to what the US will share with us, no matter how close we undoubtedly are. No degree of intelligence intimacy will change that. It is simply not true to assert that in effect our intelligence is now, as The Australian’s editorial put it, “the equal of that of the world’s greatest military power”. No country (not even Australia) shares all its intelligence or other secrets with its friends.

Between 1974 and 1991, Paul Dibb headed the national assessments staff for the Government’s national intelligence committee, was deputy director and then director of the Joint Intelligence Organisation, and was deputy secretary of defence for intelligence and strategy. In the latter position, he oversaw the operations of the Defence Department’s intelligence collection and analysis agencies and the management of Australia’s alliance with the US (including the operations of Pine Gap, Nurrungar and Northwest Cape).

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