Former high-tech spy David Rosenberg has written a book revealing the truth about Pine Gap. It may have been the most frustrating job of his life, Melanie Sheridan learns.
When I was growing up, there was a pine forest we used to play in that we’d nicknamed Pine Gap. The games we most often played there were of the ‘ET phone home’ type. That was all we ‘knew’ about the real Pine Gap, after all — it had something to do with aliens from outer space.
Of course, we were wrong. Not about the aliens, though. Because David Rosenberg, who worked at Pine Gap for 18 years, was an alien: a foreigner residing in another country than that of his birth, and not having rights of citizenship.
Today, Rosenberg is an Australian citizen and he’s recently opened the book on Pine Gap, literally. As the author of Inside Pine Gap: the Spy Who Came in from the Desert, he offers us a surprising look at the reality behind the alien-looking “radomes” (radar domes) of one of Australia’s most misunderstood organisations.
Established in 1966 just south of Alice Springs, this US–Australian jointly run satellite tracking station acquired its mystery — and legends — thanks to the secrecy under which it operates. Rosenberg worked there as an employee of the US National Security Agency (NSA) in a signals intelligence role from the end of the Cold War, through two wars in Iraq and well into the War on Terror.
In Rosenberg’s words, Pine Gap is an “intelligence collection facility” that utilises “satellites to obtain otherwise inaccessible information from behind the lines of foreign countries.”
More 007 than ET
“In the book I only devote about two paragraphs to aliens,” he says. “That was really all I felt that topic deserved, but I did touch on it simply because it’s part of the history; and also to dispel any theories that people might still have about aliens at Pine Gap.”
Indeed, one of the most distinctive things about Rosenberg’s story is how normal it all is, how un-X-Files or even un-Bond. He went to his office every day, he had BBQs on the weekends. Sure, he had to get security clearance to date and his job title was and still is classified, but David Rosenberg was not James Bond.
He was, however, privy to much covert information. Don’t expect any of it to be revealed in the book, though. In addition to being vetted by four different intelligence agencies — the NSA, two other US agencies, and an Australian one — on four separate occasions, plus a final review by the NSA Chief of Staff, it still contains numerous sentences inscrutably hidden behind those thick black bars that scream TOP SECRET!
The whole process took about two years. “I think if I left it up to the review board, they would have buried the book,” Rosenberg says. “They would have delayed and delayed and delayed and tried to wear me down in order to make me give up.”
Asked if he thought about it, Rosenberg replies “Not one day. I would not let anyone stand in my way.”
An extraordinary partnership
His determination to publish stemmed from wanting to tell the story of what he calls “a very, very extraordinary partnership between Australia and the United States at Pine Gap — and to let people know that this relationship is a fantastic thing for both countries.”
One of the book’s most amazing stories is the unpublished one that follows it: what happens to a spy after he leaves the secret service. Rosenberg left to live as a civilian in Sydney with his Australian wife, and because he wasn’t allowed to tell prospective employers what he had done or where he had worked, it proved difficult. He ended up being unemployed for two years, during which time he wrote Inside Pine Gap.
But thanks to the book, everybody knows these things now. This was as much a mystery to Rosenberg as to anybody else. “It really surprised me that I was able to talk about those things in the book, even though I couldn’t put them on a resume,” he says. “I think they really weren’t sure of what is actually classified. I had to convince them this information was unclassified by citing open sources which say it’s in the public domain. And once I did that, they allowed me to repeat it in the book. Even though they still won’t let me put it in my resume!”
Inside Pine Gap: the Spy Who Came in from the Desert is out now through Hardie Grant, RRP $35.