It seems that - irritated by the continuing pressure through last week's major daily newspaper letters pages and Robert Manne's important Monday column on SIEV-X
- Defence Minister Robert Hill instructed the release of RAAF Orion flight path maps for 19 and 20 October, and some supporting briefing, that was the basis for Cameron Stewart's dramatic page 1 scoop story in the Weekend Australian.
A clever move by Hill to undercut the nagging criticism that Operation Relex had not tried to find SIEV X? The Australian's sub-editor obviously thought so - "Navy missed doomed boat" and " Tragedy boils down to bad luck" seem not bad headlines in a damage minimisation sense.
But look closer at the maps, and at the text of Stewart's analysis on page 4. Both actually strengthen the critique that Operation Relex was not really trying to find this boat. On a day when, to quote Stewart, Op Relex has already had a spate of intelligence reports that a dangerously overcrowded boat in possible need of rescue has left a port in the Sunda Strait and was expected to enter the north-west sector of the 35,000 sq nautical miles Orion surveillance zone, does Op Relex in response focus its flying time and fuel in the area where the doomed boat might be coming in? No, it sticks rigidly to its routine flight path, looping all over the whole area - most of which SIEV-X could not possibly have reached.
Is this how our P3 Orions would look for a missing Tony Bullimore or a Louise Autissier? Of course not - they would focus their efforts on where the best possibilities are for finding missing yachties, in terms of the best known intelligence about where they were last known to be heading. Why wasn't this done for the 400-odd people at grave risk on SIEV-X? Answer - because nobody in Operation Relex really cared to find them.
One could go further: Why should anyone actually now believe that SIEV-X or its wreckage were not seen during the Orions' minimalist single passes over the north-west sector near Sunda Strait on 19 and 20 October? Official witnesses before Senate Committees have not exactly established a great track record for truthfulness regarding SIEV X over the past three months. Why should the latest set of claims be any more credible than the succession of contrary claims? But this latest claim is probably pretty safe: Orion surveillance crews are no doubt handpicked to be highly secure.
Still, it would be good for Senators to have an opportunity to interrogate the flight commanders on these Orion flights[.] Questions like: What does a fishing boat look like from an Orion (it is claimed now that 22 fishing boats were detected, but not SIEV-X ). How are sightings classified - are they divided into a range like "definite", "highly probable", "possible", "possible but unlikely" etc? What governs decisions on whether to go back and have a second look? The 19 October flight path map shows that the Orion looped around to locate SIEV 6 - was that in response to a "possible" sighting? Are records kept of possible sightings where the Orion did not go back for a second look? Can the Senate see such records? What determines decisions whether to go back for a second look, and who makes them?
But let's assume it's true that on these flight paths we now have maps of, SIEV-X was not found or even possibly found. So sad, too bad. It still leaves massive questions of Executive accountability.
What is going to be done now to reconcile this latest Ministerially authorised release of flight path maps with highly contrary and detailed earlier official testimony, eg by the new Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Ritchie to Senate Estimates on 4 June, when he assured Senators that air surveillance was kept well back from Indonesia, and could not possibly have been in the area where SIEV X might have sunk? Where does it leave the unexplained people smuggling task force minutes entry for 21 October,
"Check Defence P3 is maintaining surveillance over Christmas Island" ? Where does it leave Smith's statement in his 22 May letter of clarification that "On 19 October 2001 ... air surveillance assets and Navy surface units were conducting layered surveillance operations and responding to SIEVs close to Christmas and Ashmore Islands"?
Hill's release of these maps leaves his top brass's previous sworn testimony with an even greater credibility problem than before. But let's not get lost in such tiresome factual details - let's leave Mike Carlton to explain it all to us in terms of conspiracy theory and smearing the Navy.
The really important conclusions from The Australian articles are twofold. First, that the Senate has again been treated with a high degree of contempt: information - even detailed flight path maps - that has been withheld on alleged security grounds from investigating Senators over 3 months of hearings is suddenly spilled out in a deliberate feed to a newspaper, the day after Parliament rises for its long winter recess (and a week after Admiral Gates' scheduled review testimony was cancelled). If the Senate Committee does not strongly protest against this, it will be seen as remarkably and perhaps dangerously tolerant of contempt by the Executive.
And secondly, how can one rationally attribute to "bad luck" a failure to concentrate Orion surveillance resources in the area where a SIEV boat in probable distress was expected from intelligence reports to be? Instead of a 35,000 nautical miles funnel, suppose the Orion had spent most of its flying time in one-tenth of that area - in a rectangle to the south of Panaitan Island and the westernmost tip of Java. Of course the Orion would have then found SIEV X on the morning of 19 October - before it sank. If this is not negligence by the Operation Relex command, what is?