Senate inquiry must uncover the truth about SIEV X
By TONY KEVIN
Tuesday, 9 July 2002
THE SIEV X story grows. Three recent newspaper editorials demand full transparency. Incisive investigative journalism by Margo Kingston, Cameron Stewart and The Canberra Times's Kirsten Lawson builds the story. There is now even a SIEV X web site (http://sievx.com), a scrupulous compilation by some generous-minded Australian women of all testimony, documentation and media material on SIEV X.
The faces of three drowned children, Eman, Zhra and Fatima, gaze out from the web site's home page. They remind us that this issue is about getting full facts on the deaths of 353 human beings who drowned in Australia's zone of surveillance, rescue and responsibility during Australia's harsh "deter and repel" border-protection exercise last October. To argue otherwise is to claim that Australia's safety-of-life-at-sea obligations need not apply to unauthorised boat people in the same way as they do to missing yachtsmen. No civilised person could take such a position, and certainly not our Australian Defence Force or political leaders.
As the stakes rise, the public game grows uglier. There is the risk of invective replacing rational analysis, of the pursuit of truth being lost in a cacophony of accusations and counter-accusations. Truth is best pursued calmly. There is no place for indignation. The truth will set us free.
The investigation now pivots on two matters: Royal Australian Air Force air surveillance, and how Australian Federal Police intelligence reporting from Indonesia on SIEV X was assessed and actioned in Canberra. Many agencies are involved: this is not just an ADF responsibility.
Senator Hill recently treated his eight fellow senators on the "unthrown children" committee with contempt when his office chief of staff gave out detailed RAAF Orion flightpath maps and supporting briefing. Was this a calculated risk to get out into the media a (previously denied) acknowledgment that there had been air surveillance where SIEV X most probably sank?
Did the minister hope that the maps would settle the matter? In fact they raise more questions. The issue is not, as retiring Admiral Barrie suggested, whether the ADF varied its normal surveillance pattern so as not to find SIEV X; the maps and briefing confirm that determinedly normal surveillance routines were followed on October 18, 19 and 20.
The real issue is, why did not the ADF vary its normal large-area surveillance pattern in order to try seriously to find SIEV X, when it had good-quality intelligence that this grossly overloaded boat had probably entered the north-western quarter where Sunda Strait meets the Indian Ocean on the morning of October 19?
Why was not a safety-of-life- at-sea-oriented search focused on this much smaller area, instead of wasting the Orions' scarce fuel and observing time on the usual low-intensity overflight of the whole 35,000-square-nautical-mile Christmas Island surveillance zone, most of which SIEV X could not have possibly reached?
Were Orion flight crews briefed on the AFP intelligence reports of October 18 and 20? With what priority were they tasked to search for this boat?
Admiral Raydon Gates, originally scheduled to testify on SIEV X on June 23 but withdrawn by Hill, is now proposed to testify on Thursday. Senators may also wish to question Orion flight commanders directly. In the interests of transparency and the ADF's honour, any relevant testimony should be allowed.
On the second current issue, assessment of intelligence, both Admiral Smith (in his May 22 letter) and Admiral Ritchie (in his June 4 testimony) testified that before October 22 there was too much conflicting intelligence information to conclude that SIEV X had departed, so no special air search was required; that against this "white noise" of overwhelming intelligence, Operation Relex could not reasonably conclude anything about SIEV X. Defence Secretary Allan Hawke echoed this at the National Press Club.
Against this, Admiral Bonser's testimony on May 22 and letter on June 17 revealed that, among the six AFP intelligence reports on SIEV X since October 14 (reports not acknowledged by Smith or Halton in their testimony), two (on October 18 and 20) had reported its departure. The report on October 20, by telephone to Coastwatch, not only said that the boat was allegedly overloaded with over 400 on board but added the "personal opinion" of the AFP reporting officer of increased risk therefrom.
It is now important to know what the October 18 report said. Outside experts with a government background suggest that these two reports were detailed enough to be recognised as credible. Clearly the AFP thought so.
After Admiral Ritchie's lengthy testimony in Senate Estimates on June 4, confusion reigns as to where intelligence on SIEV X was coordinated and assessed in Canberra. Was it in the AFP? In Coastwatch? In a so-far little-discussed "joint intelligence strike team" in DIMIA? In Operation Relex's own Joint Intelligence Centre? There seems much scope here for diversionary pass-the-parcel games.
The record of dramatic shifts in testimony over the past three months does not inspire confidence that any latest version is necessarily truer than its predecessors. Official witnesses have only themselves to thank for a degree of justifiable public scepticism at this point.
Expected testimony by AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty will be important in trying to fill out a still murky picture of failed response to strong intelligence. How did AFP at the time evaluate the veracity of its own reporting on SIEV X?
This inquiry, which carries full powers to investigate what Australian authorities did to ensure the safety of asylum-seekers at sea, still has far to go before conscientious senators, from any party, could be satisfied that the truth had been fully explored.
Tony Kevin is a former ambassador to Cambodia and is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University's Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies.