The exceptionally close security relationship between the United States and Australia could be at risk over a telephone spat between President Donald Trump and the Australian prime minister.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties sought Thursday to reassure Australia that the strategic alliance wouldn’t unravel even though Trump’s spokesman acknowledged that the president had cut short what was expected to be an hour-long phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the weekend.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer described Trump as “extremely, extremely upset” by an agreement struck by the Obama administration to accept 1,250 or so mostly Muslim refugees who are now stranded on islands in the Pacific.
Trump, too, expressed continued disappointment in the deal, which Turnbull insisted he comply with, despite having signed an executive order a day earlier that barred refugees from entering the U.S. for at last 120 days.
“I love Australia as a country but we had a problem,” Trump said about his phone call with Turnbull, which lasted only 25 minutes.
Turnbull, however, denied reports that Trump had slammed down the phone on him.
“The suggestion that the president hung up is not correct,” Turnbull said.
U.S. intelligence officials and politicians lined up Thursday to stress the importance of the U.S.-Australia relationship.
It’s an incredibly close, interdependent relationship. The only ones who are closer to us are the Brits.
Mark Lowenthal, former assistant director for analysis at the CIA
“It’s an incredibly close, interdependent relationship,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former assistant director at the CIA. “The only ones who are closer to us are the Brits.”
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said he called the Australian ambassador in Washington to offer his “unwavering support,” and Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, warned Trump not to endanger a critical relationship.
There is only one nation that has stood with us in every war of the last century . . . Australia.
Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of House intelligence panel
“Before the president shows such disrespect again, he should consider this: There is only one nation that has stood with us in every war of the last century, from the fields of France and Belgium to the mountains of Afghanistan – Australia,” Schiff said.
Peter Hayes, a Sydney-based security specialist, suggested Trump had criticized the refugee deal “to appeal to his base” without regard for the long U.S.-Australia alliance that has made Australia among the largest contributors to the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State and a key staging area for U.S. forces in Asia.
Under a 2012 accord, some 2,500 U.S. Marines are based near Darwin in the Northern Territory, and sometime later this year, the U.S. Air Force will begin using Tindal Base in Australia’s far north for F-22 Raptor long-range patrols of the tense South China Sea, a projection of strength against China’s expansion plans.
Australia also hosts an electronic listening post known commonly as Pine Gap near Alice Springs in the Australian Outback that is among the largest and most important secret sites in the world. With its 33 or so satellite antennas and white domes, it controls a variety of geostationary satellites that have played a role in nearly every conflict the U.S. has been involved in since the facility was established in 1965.
“The mission is still so highly classified that every employee who works in the secure building requires a ‘Top Secret’ security clearance just to enter the front door,” a former employee of the National Security Agency, David Rosenberg, wrote in Inside Pine Gap, a book he published three years after he retired from the National Security Agency.
Among the U.S. intelligence agencies with staff there are the CIA, the NSA, the Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office.
Its listening equipment helped locate Iraqi Scud missiles during the First Gulf War in 1991, and it’s played a role in crises in Somalia in 1993-1994, Kosovo and Iraq in 1998 and following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Rosenberg wrote.
The facilities also monitor ballistic, cruise and surface-to-air missile activity in China, Russia and North Korea.
Hayes, who lives in Sydney but is the executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in Berkeley, Calif., said the facility even plays a role in U.S. drone strikes against al Qaida and the Islamic State – “precisely one of the tools that Trump is going to rely on to implement his crusade against radical Islam,” he said.
Elizabeth Koh contributed to this article.