Other Foreign Bases in New Zealand


US Airforce Starlifter, Christchurch Airport

US Airforce Starlifter, Christchurch Airport

Operation Deep Freeze, the American military base at Christchurch Airport

The American military occupation of Christchurch International Airport (Harewood) has its roots in the 1950s. The scientific International Geophysical Year (1957-58) brought military air and logistics support in the form of the US Navy and Air Force. The Navy left in 1998, but the Air Force continues its military/intelligence support operations to this day. The American military operates under the cover the Antarctic Agreement of 1961. Both overt and covert military and intelligence support operations that have little or no relationship to Antarctic science and logistics (Operation Deep Freeze) have gone on for years both in Christchurch and Antarctica. The New Zealand government has never questioned the scope of US military activities at Christchurch – the only Australasian city to host a foreign base within its bounds.

The US government regards the US area at the airport as sovereign US territory and not subject to NZ law. New Zealanders in the employ of the US military engaged in Antarctic logistics have long been denied the option of belonging to a trade union in their own country. Customs and agriculture officials may not set foot on any American military aircraft; they too are sovereign US territory under international law.

Military research in the Southern Hemisphere and in the Antarctic was frequently supported from Operation Deep Freeze in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Antarctic Treaty. The USAF Air Mobility Command (formerly the Military Airlift Command) supports Antarctic operations in the southern summer. But its large Starlifter and Galaxy cargo aircraft also supply vital US military/intelligence bases in Australia (such as Pine Gap) year-round with several flights a month through Christchurch. This has gone on since the early 1960s with the planes covered by the American neither-confirm-nor-deny nuclear weapons policy – the same policy that saw US Navy ships banned by law from New Zealand since 1987. The NZ government gives these aircraft annual blanket clearance for unlimited flights and no questions asked.

Despite New Zealand having been expelled from ANZUS since the 1980s and supposedly frozen out of a direct military relationship with the US, because of our nuclear free stance, there has never been the slightest suggestion from the US of it relocating or closing the Harewood base. Why? Because it values having a medium level multi-purpose US military transport base in New Zealand. Harewood has always been the only actual US military base in NZ, as opposed to specialist installations. The US values having a sovereign base here, and it has served as host for all manner of US military and political figures for decades, to the very highest level of the US Government. From CIA Director Richard Helms in the 1970s to President Bill Clinton in 1999, they've all come to Harewood.


Aerials at Tangimoana

Aerials at Tangimoana

New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) operates a radio communications interception facility called Tangimoana. The station is located 150 km north of Wellington in sand-hill country on the West Coast of the North Island. The sophisticated antennae are designed to pick up high frequency (or ‘short wave’) radio signals from ships, aircraft and land-based transmitters around the Pacific.

Beyond high barbed wire-topped fences, electronic sensors, security cameras and barred windows, the neon lights in the operations building can be seen shining day and night. Here, rows of intercept officers sit at control panels with headphones, searching for, listening to and recording radio messages picked up through the different antennae.

At any time one officer may be recording Vanuatu telex messages, another monitoring military communications in New Caledonia and another tuning in to a Russian ship's radio frequency at its usual reporting time to get a direction finding ‘fix’ on its position.

Until the discovery and expose of the station by Owen Wilkes in 1984, New Zealanders had no idea that their country was involved in spying on other countries' communications.

For example, the French communications targeted by Tangimoana are French military communications: radio messages between French Polynesia and Paris, between French territories including Mororoa Atoll (site of nuclear weapons testing) and military communications in New Caledonia. Tangimoana also monitored the French terrorists who sank the Rainbow Warrior. The interception occurred in mid-July 1985 as they sailed away from New Zealand on the yacht Ouvea. Their radio messages were translated by GCSB personnel, but this was only after the police had already identified the yacht and it was too late to catch them.

Another major area targeted by Tangimoana is communications between and within South Pacific nations and their communications with the rest of the world. This includes a wide range of political, economic and military communications: from political telexes in Melanesia, to Fiji army communications, to Tongan patrol boats communicating with their headquarters. There is even some monitoring of private ham radio operators in the South Pacific if they are in a position to know about subjects of interest (e.g., internal conflict within a Pacific Island nation). However by the mid-1990s most of the non-military South Pacific communications have been replaced by satellite (see Waihopai).

Since the second half of the 1980s computer technology has dramatically altered the operations at Tangimoana. The station's Dictionary computer and the internal station computer network are now central to its work. One of the staff asked the interviewer (Nicky Hager):

“…you do realise that Tangimoana and Waihopai collect for the other agencies?”

This comment partly refers to special requests where Tangimoana may have better reception than other stations in the network or is doing special interception work for another agency. Mainly, though, it refers to the regular interception-sharing coordinated within the ECHELON global intelligence system of the US National Security Agency.

The Tangimoana collection schedule (i.e., schedule of whom to spy on when) optimises collection for the whole network and the Dictionary computer automatically sends raw intercept to the overseas agencies according to their keyword specifications.

(Adapted from “Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role In The International Spy Network” by Nicky Hager, with permission.)