Australia’s collateral damage in the US drone program

In the last few years there has been a hotly contested global debate about the civilian impact of the U.S. drone strike program and its moral and legal justifications. Despite being geographically part of Asia (where the majority of drone strikes took place) and politically aligned with the west (states responsible for the strikes), until now the global debate went largely unnoticed in Australia.

The death of two Australians has led to a new reality Down Under – there is now an increasing public debate about whether the U.S-Australian intelligence sharing alliance has fairly been used as cover for Australia’s secret involvement in the controversial U.S. targeted killing program. The debate has raised concerns that Australia’s democratic institutions and rule of law could be collateral damage in the US drone program.

In April 2014, the human suffering caused by the U.S. drone program was brought home to many Australians for the first time, with reports that the U.S. had killed two Australians in a drone strike in Yemen.  In November 2013, Australians Chris Havard and Muslim bin John were killed in a US Predator drone attack on a convoy in Hadramout Province, Yemen.  Their deaths were reported in Australia five months later.

The news of the Australian deaths was reported amid increasing concern that Pine Gap, a joint Australian-American facility located in the desert of Australia’s Northern Territory, is used to locate the targets of U.S. drone strikes. Pine Gap controls U.S. spy satellites that intercept communications across key parts of the globe including Pakistan and the Middle East.

Australia and the United States, along with the other countries in the Five Eyes alliance, have long benefited from sharing intelligence.  Unsurprisingly, Australia sees its close relationship with the United States as essential to Australia’s prosperity and security and vital to meeting global and regional security challenges.

But the deaths of two Australian citizens in a US drone attack have publicly highlighted the perils and limitations of that friendship.

Diminishing support for the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap

Established in 1970 as an intelligence gathering base, Pine Gap has long been shrouded in secrecy. The facility is staffed by Australian and American officials, and Australia claims “full knowledge and concurrence” of all activities at the facility.

Malcolm Fraser was Australia’s conservative Prime Minister not long after Pine Gap was established and he believes that the fundamental nature of the joint facility has changed over time. “Initially Pine Gap was collecting information – it was, if you like, listening in.  It’s now targeting weapons systems. It’s also very much involved in the targeting of drones.”

Fraser’s view is supported by reports in the Australian press, based on information from former Pine Gap personnel, that Pine Gap has had outstanding success locating and tracking al-Qa’ida and Taliban leaders.

During his recent visit to Australia, American investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill said that Australia, Canada and New Zealand provide critical..

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