Complicity of Australia and New Zealand in US Drone Assassinations


The Joint Defense Facility at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, has had something of an iniquitous history in the Australian political landscape. It is, more than anything, a sign of the pressing inequalities of the Australian-United States relationship. “Joint command” is a misnomer, given that the facility is under US control. The Pine Gap facility, established in 1970 as one of the world’s largest satellite ground installations, has been responsible for feeding intelligence to American military missions for decades, with, or without the knowledge of the wallahs in Canberra.


Last month, it was revealed by The Australian that two Australian citizens had been killed in a drone strike in Yemen on November 19, 2013. They were Queensland’s Christopher Havard and New Zealand dual national “Muslim bin John” (Darryl Jones). Both men, supposedly members of the group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, were traveling in a convoy of vehicles with Abu Habib al Yemeni, a key AQAP figure. (The Australian does not even bother to attach the term “alleged militants” in describing the fate of the slain.) Australia’s somewhat redundant Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, was only informed of the strike after it was revealed that Australian citizens might have been killed. At least that’s the official account.


The Australian was a rather late arrival to the party, given that Philip Dorling of the Fairfax Press was already reporting last year that intercepts obtained from Pine Gap were being used to conduct extra-judicial killings in the Middle East. The facility’s “primary function” was to identify radio signals throughout the “eastern hemisphere, from the Middle East across Asia and China, North Korea and the Russian far east.” As one former Pine Gap operator told Fairfax Media, “We track them [the combatants], we combine the signals intelligence with imagery, and once we’ve passed the geolocation intell[igence] on, our job is done. When drones do their job we don’t need to track that target anymore.” Such is the desensitized, amoral world of the signals tracker.


None of this was new to American investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, who has been telling Australian and New Zealand audiences about the extent of knowledge, even complicity, of their governments in the dirty business of drone strikes. On May 17, 2014, Scahill told New Zealand’s TV3’s The Nation that he had seen “dozens of top secret documents” provided by US authorities to the NZ government showing effectively “that New Zealand, through signal intercepts, is directly involved with what is effectively an American assassination program.”


This month, the Australian National University’s Des Ball expressed “no doubt that intercepts of phone calls and things like that, that are intercepted at Pine Gap are used in drone operations.” According to Ball, intercepted signals obtained at Pine Gap were used in a strike against an al-Qaeda target in Yemen on November 3, 2002. “It was one of the first uses of a drone against targets in Yemen.”


Given Canberra’s sluggish record in guarding the rights of its citizens at the best of times, the looming question here is what it did do, or would have done, in such cases. Previous instances of Australian citizens being accused, justifiably or otherwise, have led to merry surrender to foreign powers to be disposed of. The gold standard remains the case of David Hicks: an individual who was condemned by the Howard government for his links to the Taliban and sentenced before a dubiously constituted military commission in the US.


In this case, the very suggestion that the slain individuals might be linked to al-Qaeda was sufficient to have them executed. Accusation, not evidence, was a sufficient standard. NZ Prime Minister John Key, for instance, openly suggested that the killings were “legitimate… given that three of the people killed were known al-Qaeda operatives.” Nothing more, it seems, is needed.


The response from Canberra has been less open but no less credible. A spokesman claimed that, “There was no Australian involvement in, or prior awareness of, the operation.” It certainly did not concern those at The Australian, who feel that preempting guilt by way of execution, in an undeclared war, without any suitable standard of evidence has “done much to stop the terrorists committing even more atrocities.” Evidently, you can’t make an odious omelet without breaking numerous eggs, even if you don’t know what those eggs actually contain.


The deployment of drones in what has become a broadly applicable assassination program does not merely implicate the White House and the US Justice Department. It has also netted allies and uncomfortable friends in a web of murderous complicity. Approaches to this vary, but they have one central theme: Citizenship is less important than presumed guilt. The prying eyes of the law have no place in automated killing programs initiated by signal and switch.


Editor’s Notes: Photographs one, two, three, four, five, seven and eight from Pan-African News. Photograph nine by Debra Sweet and photograph ten by Yu Pong.


You must be logged in to post a comment Login