Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pine Gap - a reality check

Do a search on Pine Gap and all manner of unusual and often unverifiable wild claims are made about this restricted joint US and Australian base in central Australia. It has been a lightning rod for many conspiracy stories and some of the more unusual and bizarre seem to have a UFO or alien connection - underground UFO base, the new Area 51 etc. I have generally found most such stories rather dubious and few, if any, are based on verifiable information. I've attempted to track down some of these exotic stories, but such efforts have not been rewarded with any credible information. Some interesting UFO reports have been made around the general area of Pine Gap, but none, to my knowledge, give credible sustenance to the wilder claims about the base.

The recent publication of former NSA ELINT(electronic intelligence) analyst David Rosenberg's memoir "Inside Pine Gap - the Spy who came in from the Desert" (Hardie Grant books, Melbourne, 2011) is a welcome reality check. In a foreword by Professor Desmond Ball, author of many excellent intelligence related books, such as "A Suitable Piece of Real Estate: American Installations in Australia" (1980) and "Pine Gap" (1988), attention is drawn to the fact that "Pine Gap is one of the largest, most important and most secret US intelligence collection stations in the world." It was the various "cover stories" about the purpose of Pine Gap that lent some sustenance to the wilder conspiracy stories - originally described as a "defence space research facility", "an experimental project ... concerned with upper atmosphere and space phenomena" (1968), (plenty of fodder within that suggestive description) - until Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1988 acknowledged that "Pine Gap is a satellite ground station whose function is to collect intelligence data which supports the national security of both Australia and the US."

Because of his security oaths David Rosenberg's book is not a technical account of Pine Gap's functioning. He defers to Des Ball's 1988 book for that sort of take. Indeed the book "The Ties that Bind - Intelligence cooperation between the UKUSKA countries: United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand" (1985) gives the larger context.

David Rosenberg gives a more personal account, even highlighting how he found love in Australia and his transition to an Australian citizen. His book is still quite revealing in describing Pine Gap's "general intelligence-gathering functions" and its "support of military operations." Despite the redactions evident in the book (quite a few blacked out sections) the book gives some intriguing accounts of the applications and operations of Pine Gap's intelligence gathering and applications.

UFOs and aliens are lightly touched upon but only in the context of the original base "descriptions" fanning rumours of a UFO connection. David Rosenberg highlights a 1967 story. He states, "Despite the countless stories involving UFOs and Pine Gap offered up by the internet, the aliens must have kept a very low profile during my eighteen-year tenure in Operations, as I ... never saw any evidence of aliens at or around Pine Gap."

I interviewed David on August 13, 2011 and addressed the "UFO rumours" in detail, even highlighting an account that allegedly occurred during his tenure.

In September 1998 at a Sydney UFO conference John Auchettl of PRA gave a presentation of an alleged “Pine Gap UFO Intrusion” that had ostensibly occurred during October 1997. Auchettl presented material that suggested the base had over flights of UFOs and that just outside the perimeter of the boundary of the base aboriginal witnesses had a striking UFO encounter which had left behind physical traces. Auchettl’s presentation seemed to indicate he had been given unprecedented access to Pine Gap, had been taken onto the base and had been given access to documentation and a CD-ROM that contained imaging from Pine Gap perimeter security cameras that were apparently related to the UFO physical trace event that had apparently occurred just north of the base.

I was in the audience for Auchettl’s presentation. My own extensive research and experience with UFO and physical trace cases made me think that the physical trace event he was presenting was similar (if not identical) to a striking lightning/ball lightning event and the ground traces appeared to be very much like expected lightning ground strike evidence, particularly the phenomenon of fulgurites. Additionally Auchettl’s “analysis” of the alleged Pine Gap perimeter camera imaging seemed to me to more about making far too much of what may have been prosaic, low weight stimuli, punctuated by his unsubstantiated and somewhat bizarre suggestions that it was evidence of “black holes”, “plasma states” and “dimensional shifts!”

I took the opportunity to privately question John Auchettl at the conference. As I was a physical chemist I naturally enquired about the density (specific gravity) and other characteristics of the material recovered from the site. I was surprised that PRA had not been able to get any data on the material between gathering the samples back in October 1997 and Auchettl’s conference presentation in September 1998. I indicated I could give him a reasonably reliable result in 5 minutes! In the wake of the conference it proved difficult to get any further information from Auchettl but eventually he advised that the globule densities were averaging at 2.836, which was quite heavy, but typical of glass specific gravity. The material was apparently confirmed as fused silicate. This was what I was anticipating as I had felt from Auchettl’s conference presentation and his comments to me that the ground impact event may have been a spectacular lightning ground strike event.

I suspected that the Pine Gap people and DSTO (allegedly also involved in investigating the event) had been intrigued by the incident and that it had been perhaps spuriously linked to the “UFO” “tracks” over the base, some of which had been caught on the Pine Gap perimeter cameras. But context should always be considered. Pine Gap had long been a base that was both a target and originator of controversy and intrigue. It had developed an apocryphal legendary status and was uncritically cast as Australia’s Area 51, a secret UFO base, and a whole lot of other conspiracy driven identities. The Alice Springs location and the Pine Gap area to the west had been the site of various UFO sightings, but often these were of the low weight nocturnal light variety and many seemed generated by the garbage bag/hot air balloon variations. Apparently local police had even detained the occupants of a vehicle in the act of launching such devices, only to release them when they determined they were American base employees. The film imagery capture in October 1997 seemed rather poor and ambiguous in quality and it seemed on the limited airing it got at the UFO conference to be rather dubious. It would be helpful to be able to analyse the PRA data but unfortunately like on other occasions with PRA investigations, such as their investigations of the Kelly Cahill case they were not being forthcoming and their material seem to end up in some sort of odd “bower bird” PRA bunker of silence and scant open cooperation. On the limited and confusing evidence available it seemed possible that some Pine Gap personnel, DSTO and PRA got swept up in a self perpetuating loop of misinterpretation and delusion. Some openness and clarity from PRA would help resolve whether the events at Pine Gap during 1997 were about really about real and compelling UFO events or more about nature unbound, hoaxing and the will to believe.

David Rosenberg was not aware of the 1997 incident. He did volunteer to me that before he left the US for his Pine Gap tenure, his best friend said to him that he didn't care what his job was, all he wanted to know was the real story about UFOs. David said there was nothing, despite a interest in such matters, that he learnt during his Pine Gap tenure that would answer his friends question.

I did ask specifically about a cryptic redacted reference on page 89 of his book to an odd "electromagnetic" transmission, as to whether it was a "fastwalker" or "slowwalker" as the number of redacted letters fitted. He indicated he was not familiar with the term, to which I responded with an explanation. While he would not give a clarication, he did indicate that he was referring to a man made transmission/signature, not a UFO or alien one.

While the conspiracy driven will probably not accept that David Rosenberg is giving an honest and personal accounting of his time at Pine Gap, I found him to be very forthcoming, within the limits of his security restrictions. In this book you will find a fascinating and engaging story, that also gives an insightful look at the difficulties a person like David Rosenberg has to go through to give us his story of his time at Pine Gap and his engagement with Australia. The book had to run the gauntlet of the security agencies pre-publication review board. I was bemused to see evidence of Catch 22 mentalities when public sourced material is redacted via this process!

David Rosenberg's "Inside Pine Gap" is an engaging and insightful book. I recommend it.

(Photo credit: David Rosenberg with Bill Chalker during August, 2011 (Bill Chalker); 1967 newsclipping: image taken by Bill Chalker during October lecture presentation by David Rosenberg to the Sydney group UFO Research (NSW))

The June 26 1967 date of the Centralian Advocate item suggests that the "expert" in question may have been Dr. James McDonald. He was in Sydney on June 26, 1967 during his visit to gather Australian UFO data. He is pictured here on that day in the radio 2GB studios with legendary radio man John Pearce.

I told David Rosenberg that one of my primary sources on government UFO matters here in OZ has been Harry Turner, a nuclear physicist, and head of the nuclear section in the JIB/JIO during the late 1960s and early 1970s. His boss Bob Mathams, head of SIG in the JIB, tilled the soil with Bud Wheelon, Carl Duckett & Leslie Dirks of DS&T of the CIA back in 1966,
marking the beginnings of what would become Pine Gap. They cracked opened some red wine to celebrate the occassion. I corresponded with Bob Mathams back in the 1980s. He along with ASIO & DAFI helped me locate Harry Turner.