A Break-In At Pine Gap


On Easter Monday night, Bryan Law, a tall, portly taxi driver from Cairns and committed peace activist, was found dead in his Rockhampton home. The 57-year-old had once again been preparing to defend himself in court after he attacked a military helicopter at the Rockhampton airport in July last year. I met Bryan in an Alice Springs court in 2007 where he and three other people were defending charges of trespass after arguably the most daring protest of his career: a break-in at Pine Gap.

On the night of 8 December 2005, the four, travelling in pairs, hiked for many hours through the desert scrub to demonstrate their opposition to Australia’s role in the Iraq war. The first, Donna Mulhearn, was a human shield in Iraq when the bombing started. She still had blood on her boots from the devastated marketplace she walked through one morning. Second was Law’s jail companion, Jim Dowling, a man who never — even for weddings, funerals or court hearings — wears shoes. Dowling, his wife and seven children live a life of voluntary poverty according to the principles of the Catholic Worker movement. Third was Adele Goldie, the youngest of the group at just 28. She worked at a fruit and veg co-op, lived in a squat with friends and sported thick dreadlocks. She would break down most frequently in court when speaking about the bloodshed in Iraq. Along with Law, they made an eclectic quartet, but their common motivation was their Christian faith.

Calling themselves “Christians Against ALL Terrorism”, the four set out in the direction of Pine Gap wearing white overalls labelled Citizen’s Inspection Team. At 4am, after avoiding a patrol car, Dowling and Goldie made a 100 metre dash across open, floodlit ground, cut through the wire fence and climbed onto one of the buildings. Here they took photos of one another making peace signs before they were surrounded by security guards and Australian Federal Police officers. Law and Mulhearn were intercepted before they cut through the internal fence. All were arrested and charged — but not with trespass under Northern Territory law, as previous protesters had. They were instead charged under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act of 1952 — a charge that required the permission of the then attorney-general Phillip Ruddock and carried a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.

Earlier that year, Law wrote a letter to the then defence minister, Robert Hill, requesting permission to make a citizen’s inspection of Pine Gap on the suspicion that the base was involved in terrorist activity. Permission was denied. Law wrote back saying he and three other people intended to perform the inspection anyway and gave the exact date on which they would be arriving.

On arrival in Alice Springs the four went to a hardware store to buy two pairs of bolt-cutters. They filmed the transaction and told the salesman they intended using the tools to cut through the fence at Pine Gap. They asked him what chance he thought they had of breaking in. He told them they’d need a miracle. At the Northern Territory government map shop they asked the cashier for a map of walking trails in the Pine Gap area, again explaining why they needed it.

Despite this openness, the AFP felt it necessary to send an undercover officer to a public meeting that the group held in order to inform the people of Alice Springs of their intentions. In the photo shown in court, the smiling agent David Perry is the only one not holding his hand up in a peace sign. In the witness box he stood shifting his feet while fighting to keep the smirk off his face.

The trial attracted a crowd of supporters, including Mary, a Quaker who hitched a ride from Adelaide with the Jesus Christians, and Trish, an ex-nun from southern New South Wales. They fed, prayed with and escorted the four accused to court each morning to the strains of Oh When the Saints. Many were seasoned protesters. Their next stop after the Pine Gap trial was the Operation Talisman-Sabre war games at Shoalwater Bay near Rockhampton.

Among them was Helen Caldicott, a long time anti-nuclear campaigner. At the Wednesday night’s public meeting, held during the trial, she gave an impassioned speech about “that hideous installation” and how it and Alice Springs itself is a nuclear target. She told us nuclear war would cause a nuclear winter forming a cloud of debris that would last a year. Pine Gap, she said, represented “death on Earth”.

The four accused chose to represent themselves in their Supreme Court case — four Davids against a mighty Goliath of barristers and their advising solicitors. Law did most of the talking. Dressed in various t-shirts with slogans like “Who would Jesus bomb?”, he pitted himself in his eloquent and gentle manner against the wigged and gowned Crown Prosecutor — the swarthy, theatrical and curiously named, Hilton Dembo.

Dembo had his patience sorely tried by his amateur opponents, springing to his feet with increasing frequency as the four tried to establish the true nature of Pine Gap’s role. He gasped and spluttered at the judge when Dowling, a short bearded man in an oversized t-shirt, asked Mike Burgess, the Deputy Chief at Pine Gap, a hunched, dour-looking man, whether the base was in fact established as a “Space Research Centre”. Burgess confirmed that “yes” it was a “Joint Space Defence Research Centre”.

“Are you serious?” Dowling asked. “Yes,” replied Burgess.

“What planets do they monitor?” Dowling retorted, to much mirth from the public gallery. Dembo had turned a deep shade of purple. His objection was upheld.

Fortunately for Burgess, he was spared further questions about Pine Gap when Maurice, the Commonwealth-appointed solicitor for the witness, popped up waving numerous affidavits from various heads of security. All questions about the nature of Pine Gap would now be off limits on the grounds of public interest immunity.

When the court resumed after lunch one day, a tall, barefoot youth came into the courtroom carrying a box that looked like it had been made from off-cuts of timber, masonite and an old kitchen drawer. He placed it next to the tall, blonde court officer and took his seat in the gallery. We all rose for the grandmotherly judge, the court officer announced, “court is now in session,” and we seated ourselves for the afternoon’s proceedings. But just as the tedium of courtroom debate got under way a young, swaggering fellow in a suit (my English companion described him in her homeland vernacular as a “wide boy”) suddenly stood up, interrupting the proceedings to seek leave to bring something to the judge’s attention. He had noticed that an “article” had been brought into the courtroom that may place the four defendants in danger of fresh charges.

The article, which had been on display at Wednesday night’s public meeting, was a scale model of the Pine Gap facility, complete with polystyrene balls for the distinctive white spheres. Under the same 1952 act it is illegal to possess any replica (which would now include a printed photo from Google Earth) of the Pine Gap base. After judge Sally Thomas was informed about the presence of the Pine Gap model she calmly, carefully and at some length, explained to the four that they should be very careful at this point not to say anything about the article. They all nodded mutely. Then Bryan stood up saying slowly and deliberately, “But, your honour, I was intending to use that model in evidence”. The judge gave a pained smile and repeated the earlier caution. They never saw their model again.

On 15 June 2007 the four were found guilty and fined. They were also required to contribute to the cost of repairing the fences. On 22 February 2008 the charges under the DSU act were dismissed in a unanimous decision by the full bench of the Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal. Bryan and his companions had won, but it was just another fight in Bryan’s long battle for peace.

Rose Lane completed a Masters in Creative Industries (Creative Writing) at QUT in 2016 for which she completed a manuscript about the area of Upper Mustang, Nepal. Her previous article for New Matilda was "A Break In at Pine Gap" (19/04/2013). She has also written for The Big Issue, Living Now and The Guardian.