The Netflix thriller series, “Pine Gap” takes place on a sprawling, top-secret signals intelligence facility in the Australian Outback. On the screen, Pine Gap is depicted as a cockpit of drone strikes, romance, cybersleuthing, basketball, blackmail, office politics, and paranoia. The cribbed-from-the-chyrons first season culminated with a belligerent American president taking the world to the brink of shooting war with China to deflect outrage triggered by a hacked Wikileaks-style video from an unlikely suspect whose identity you don’t learn until the last frame of the last episode.
In fact, Pine Gap is a real place. Or rather, Pine Gap is the real National Security Agency code name for a real sprawling secret signals intelligence facility outside the town of Alice Springs, located in the geographical center of the Australian continent. Pine Gap is the technological jewel in the proverbial crown of the world’s most powerful intelligence organization, the Five Eyes.
In the words of one expert, “Pine Gap is involved in the geolocation of cell phone used by people throughout the world, from the Pacific to the edge of Africa. And phone surveillance is just part of the story. From the joint facility in Alice Springs, the U.S. supports wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and drone strikes in Syria and Somalia. And then there’s the Five Eyes scanning of email, web searches, chat groups, and social media.
Compared to the world’s most notorious spy services– CIA, Mossad, and GRU—the Five Eyes is virtually unknown. Yet, as an organization, the Five Eyes collects and disseminates far more intelligence with less oversight than any national intelligence service, and it does so on global scale. The watchdog group Privacy International has dubbed the alliance “the five eyed monster.”
In bureaucratic terms, the Five Eyes is a strategically integrated alliance of the signals intelligence agencies of five English speaking countries:
- United States’ National Security Agency (NSA)
- Great Britain’s General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)
- Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE)
- New Zealand’s General Communications Security Bureau (GCSB)
- the Australian Signal Directorate (ASD).
While their agencies have collaborated for decades, representatives of the Five Eyes had never been seen together in public until they shared a stage in Aspen Colorado in November 2018.
Born in Secrecy
The Five Eyes is a legacy of Britain’s colonial realm, refurbished by America’ anti-communist empire. After World War II ended, Britain was victorious, exhausted and broke but retained a robust intact communications system linking London to all of its former colonies, from Kingston to Jerusalem to Mumbai. The United States had money and ambitions to project power everywhere under the auspices of defending the world and U.S. corporate interests from the threat of Soviet-led communist parties and revolutionary movements. The Americans needed expertise and wires; the British needed muscle and money. In 1946 an agreement was reached.
In their seminal 1985 book on the Five Eyes: The Ties That Bind, Desmond Ball and the late Dr Jeffrey T. Richelson detailed the first agreement of the United States and the United Kingdom to cooperate in signals intelligence. The pact was so secret, according to Ball and Richelson, “that nearly 30 years were to pass before any of the participating governments were to acknowledge its existence.”
What is unique about the Five Eyes—what makes it in may ways a unified intelligence service–is that the five members have formally agreed to share all the signals intelligence they collect. A 1955 update to the original US-UK agreement states the two countries will share “continuously, currently and without request,” both “raw” intelligence (unanalyzed information) and “end product,” (intelligence that has been analyzed or interpreted.) The NSA reached similar bilateral agreements with the Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders.
In 1993, these agreements became the basis for the group arrangement known as the Five Eyes. The alliance vastly increased the surveillance power the United States and its allies at the very moment that the threat of Soviet communism evaporated and the internet began to emerge as the central nervous system of a networked world.
Such were origins of a highly secretive, increasingly integrated, intelligence system that knits together wealthy and industrialized countries. The consequences of this merger were, and are, bigger than the efficacy of the component services. To share the exponentially expanding take of signals intelligence on an ongoing basis has created a process that tends to harmonize the political of the partner countries against geopolitical rivals, namely China and Russia.
While curiosity about the Five Eyes has been growing since 2004, according to Google Trends, reporting on the revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 raised global interest to a new level. The Snowden documents (many of them slugged FVEYS) gave the world its most detailed glimpse of how the SIGINT alliance works.
Pine Gap: The Netflix Series