Were lives lost in intelligence black hole?
By TONY KEVIN
Tuesday, 21 May 2002
THE WORRYING questions over Australian intelligence regarding the sinking of an asylum-seeking vessel last October with the loss of 353 lives (raised in articles published in The Canberra Times on March 23 and April 16, and in testimony on May 1 to the Senate "children overboard" committee) may move forward this week. I have requested the Inspector-General for Intelligence and Security, Bill Blick, to take an interest in the matter because of its intelligence dimension.
Coastwatch (part of Customs, and a supporting agency in the Navy-led whole-of-government border-protection exercise, Operation Relex) and the Australian Federal Police are listed to testify tomorrow. The heart of the matter sits at the point in Canberra where intelligence on people-smuggling is distributed to users. The issue is not primarily about the gathering or sources of intelligence. It is about who in Canberra reads it, and when.
Why at the height of Operation Relex didn't its commander, Rear-Admiral Geoffrey Smith, and the chair of the People Smuggling Task Force in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Jane Halton, officially receive timely intelligence about a suspected illegal entry vessel (SIEV) carrying around 400 suspected illegal immigrants, that left Indonesia on October 18 or 19 bound for Christmas Island?
Why did Coastwatch receive information that Smith and Halton did not: i.e., that this boat left Indonesia on October 18-19 and was overdue at Christmas Island on October 22.
Testimony by officials, and a letter from Senator Robert Hill to Simon Crean, confirm that Coastwatch gave this information to Search and Rescue on October 22 three days after the boat sank. AUSSAR passed it to the Australian Defence Force, which is how Smith testifies that he first heard.
Another puzzling discrepancy: according to Smith, AUSSAR's information was that the vessel was believed sunk. But the head of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority testified that AUSSAR was told by Coastwatch only that the boat was overdue: he says Coastwatch did not advise AUSSAR that the boat may have been in distress or sunk.
Coastwatch's information about the boat's departure from Indonesia and expected arrival at Christmas Island must have originated in intelligence. Smith testified that Operation Relex generally relied on such intelligence for successful air surveillance and naval interception of SIEVs. So it's a reasonable inference from Operation Relex practice that timely intelligence reached Canberra on October 18 or 19 saying SIEV X had left Sumatra on October 18 bound for Christmas Island and that it was a 19-metre fishing boat carrying around 400 people.
That information, had it reached Operation Relex, would have triggered a prompt safety-of-life-at-sea response by surveillance aircraft that could have saved 353 lives. It's indisputable that this intelligence, or part of it, got to Coastwatch or else Coastwatch would have had no basis for informing AUSSAR on October 22. And yet it was not passed to Operation Relex and the Navy in a timely way. Why?
It is to be hoped that Bill Blick, whose office exercises independent scrutiny over Australia's intelligence agencies, will interest himself in this.
Of course, if it can be established that the responsible source intelligence agency or agencies had passed their reports on SIEV X to users in Canberra in a timely way, then the burden of question would fall back on users. This lies within the remit of the Senate Committee, under its term of reference (c): ensuring the safety of asylum-seekers on vessels attempting to enter Australian waters.
There are four reasons why protection of intelligence should not be a pretext for not resolving this question.
First, even the most hard-headed supporters of Operation Relex will demand full investigation of any possibility that an Australian government authority or person may have deliberately sidetracked intelligence that could have saved lives. This would be completely against Australian values.
Second, the source of the intelligence is not relevant. It is in any case public knowledge in Australia and Indonesia that Australia's normal practice is to collect detailed human intelligence in Indonesia concerning when boats leave, where they are bound and how many are on board. AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty acknowledged this in another Senate committee.
Third, the Navy will wish to firmly establish why it was not told about this safety-of-life-at-sea emergency and that no part of the Navy sat on intelligence that could have saved 353 lives.
Fourth, Australia's intelligence community will want to establish that their reporting on SIEV X was timely and accurate. So one way or another, truth will out.
Tony Kevin is a former ambassador to Cambodia and is a Visiting Fellow at the Research School of Asian and Pacific Studies at the Australian National University.