Damaging documents withheld or censored ~ Marian Wilkinson (SMH)
Despite months of hearings by the Senate investigating Operation Relex, many documents obtained by the Herald from defence headquarters' files have not been given to that investigation. And many of the 100 or more documents from the file are heavily censored.
While nearly all these deletions are withheld on the grounds of "national security" or "operational security", many of the documents appear to be ones that could also cause political problems for the Howard Government. Among the documents refused is one described as a "message" on the sinking of an illegal immigrant vessel, believed to be the SIEV X, dated October 23, the day news broke of the tragedy. The message was withheld on grounds that it would "cause damage" to the security and defence of the country and have a "substantial adverse effect" on the navy's operations.
Most of the other documents go to the issue of safety of life at sea for the asylum seekers and navy crews, including all documents on the rules of engagement that the navy and army operate under when boarding and taking control of asylum boats.
One of the most controversial of these boardings was that of the SIEV 7, towed from near Ashmore Reef back towards the Indonesian island of Roti and left just outside Indonesian waters. Passengers were subdued by an army force using pepper spray and batons. After the boat was left, some of the asylum seekers claim three people went missing after they tried to make their way to land. Several documents on that operation are censored.
Most intriguing is the number of censored documents on the tensions between Canberra and Jakarta over RAN warships operating in waters near the Indonesian coast during Operation Relex. On September 10 last year, shortly after Relex was launched, an Indonesian naval aircraft flew over Ashmore Reef. Defence headquarters prepared a "hot issues" brief.
A few days later, Australian and Indonesian defence officials met in Bali and, a week later, the then Defence Force chief, Admiral Chris Barrie, went to Jakarta. All documents about these tensions were withheld on national security grounds. although it is known that the strains continued until the sinking of the SIEV X. After that tragedy Indonesia moved towards more co-operation with Australia.