The story of SIEV X
Tony KevinPaper presented at conference "The Tampa: One year on", Sydney, 24-25 August 2002
A chain of consequence links three events:
After Tampa, the Howard Government resolved to stop any more asylum seekers landing at Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef. Detection of boats was never a problem - 94% of boats were detected under the old system of interception and taking into custody. Howard's challenge to the ADF was to make people go back. The new strategy had been planned for months - Tampa was merely the trigger.
The Government ordered the Navy under Operation Relex, the new border protection plan announced on 2 September, to deter and repel asylum seeker boats beyond Australian islands' 12-mile territorial seas. Navy ships were initially directed to use all means short of sinking boats to force them to turn back: loudhailer warnings, then repeated volleys of cannon and machinegun fire across the bows, then dangerous close-quarters blocking maneouvres, finally aggressive boarding actions by armed assault teams: all intended to terrify asylum seekers into returning to Indonesia.
Such tactics of intense psychological warfare failed, because asylum seekers had the courage to disable their boats, trusting that in the final analysis Australian sailors would not stand by and watch them drown. An angry Howard government, forced in the end to accept HMAS Adelaide taking the disabled and sinking SIEV 4 into tow back towards Christmas Island, ordered that the 223 people including 116 women and children be kept on board their unseaworthy vessel during a 24 hour tow. This criminally irresponsible order contradicted every safety of life at sea principle our naval officers ever learned, but such was the power of politics over navy ethics that the order was carried out without question. As Commander Banks testified, a primary mission aim at this stage was to keep the people on their boat - to take them off before their boat sank would have been mission failure. (CMI Hansard pages 180-2, 186-7).
The boat finally foundered on 8 October with only an hour's warning. In a dangerous emergency rescue from the sea, it is a miracle that nobody drowned. The most important dimension of the "Certain Maritime Incident" - just as important as the cynical falsification of rescue photographs - has been curiously ignored by almost every commentator. For 24 hours, the Operation Relex command were so contemptuous of their responsibility for the lives of these people that Banks was required to keep them on board a wrecked and unseaworthy vessel, instead of prudently moving them to the Adelaide. The lack of concern for human life is significant, in the light of what happened with SIEV X twelve days later.
Adelaide's encounter with SIEV 4 shattered Operation Relex's deter-and-repel border protection strategy. The outcome proved to prospective asylum seekers that as long as they held their nerve after interception by the Navy, they would not be left to drown. The Indonesian Government was not allowing forced towbacks of vessels. The People Smuggling Taskforce in Prime Minister's Department reported on 7 October:
"A strong signal that the people smugglers have succeeded in transporting a group to Australia could have disastrous consequences. There are in the order of 2500 potential unauthorised arrivals in the pipeline in Indonesia awaiting transport, therefore this should be avoided at all costs." (My italics)
But then, the sinking of SIEV X on 19 October changed everything. SIEV voyages dried up within days. The Indonesian Government - shocked at the damage to its vulnerable international standing of a sinking reported to have happened in Indonesian waters - decided almost overnight to accept forcible Australian Navy towbacks to Indonesia, as a humanitarian necessity. The Indonesian Foreign Minister announced he would host an anti-people smuggling conference in Bali. Two weeks later, a satisfied John Howard told Kerry O'Brien in his election victory interview on 10 November that the flow of people had virtually stopped, and that this was "specifically attributable to the action we took on the 'Tampa' ".
Howard added " Obviously the more difficult we make it, the less likely they are to come".
Indeed. But the sinking of SIEV X, not the Tampa episode, was the decisive turning point that both won the election for John Howard, and won his campaign to stop SIEVs coming. Because SIEV X, not Tampa, stopped the boats coming. It sent a terrifying deterrent message to asylum seekers: if you attempt to travel to Australia using people smugglers, you may well die on the way.
Australia seemed, at least according to John Howard on 23 and 24 October, to have entirely clean hands. Howard claimed emphatically that the boat sank in Indonesian waters: Australia was not responsible.
After five months of painstaking investigative work by the Senate Select Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident, there is now much public evidence that the Australian Government and its border protection agencies do not have clean hands in the sinking of SIEV X. 2000 pages of Hansard testimony and furnished documents make this clear.
What remains to be seen now is what our public institutions - our Parliament, our political parties, our national media, and we the people of Australia - will do with the highly disturbing truths that have already emerged about SIEV X.
Whatever happens from here on, the community owes a huge debt to the patient yet persistent forensic interrogations by four Senators in particular: Peter Cook, John Faulkner, Jacinta Collins and Andrew Bartlett. We also are indebted to Senator George Brandis for his perhaps accidental contribution to public transparency, in pressing for a great deal of previously classified information about the scale and methods of Operation Relex to be made public. His initiative in April to have the Australian Defence Force (ADF) table details of 12 naval interceptions began a healthy process of public revelation of remarkable facts about Australian intelligence gathering, disruption activity, air surveillance and naval interception - hitherto carefully concealed from the public.
Today's paper has no room for a chronological account of how the truth of SIEV X gradually emerged from a fog of government misinformation and deception. The story is fascinating at several levels:
This paper summarises where key matters of evidence stand. The Senate Committee has apparently decided not to call any more witnesses, but has been granted extra time - probably until the end of September - to complete its report. I am submitting this paper to the Senate Committee.
A good way to flesh out the detail is to browse the fascinating SIEV X website, [www.sievx.com] ; and to view the three SBS "Dateline" features on SIEV X. There has been courageous newspaper coverage by Margo Kingston, Cameron Stewart and Kirsten Lawson.
We honor the dead of SIEV X and their grieving families if we learn the details of this story, and show our political leaders and media that we care about it.
The ill-fated voyage of SIEV X
Most of what we know comes from Don Greenlees' detailed and well-based account in "The Australian" on 24 October 2001. SIEV X left from Bandar Lampung in southern Sumatra before dawn on 18 October. It was grossly overloaded with over 400 people on a 19 metre boat. The overloading took place under armed duress by uniformed policemen. There was a large crack in the hull requiring passengers to bail from the outset. The engines failed once it got out into the Indian Ocean on 19 October, and it sank soon after at around 2 pm, Greenlees says some 50 kilometers south of the western tip of Java. Survivors spent 22 hours in the water before being picked up by an Indonesian fishing boat at midday on 20 October, and taken to Jakarta where they arrived on 22 October. They met world media on 23 October and it became a huge story.
This chronology and sinking location were broadly corroborated by survivor accounts and by coordinates given by fishermen to the Jakarta Harbourmaster of where they picked up the 44 survivors. This general location is supported by Committee testimony that the nearest navy ship Arunta was 150 miles from SIEV X (Smith's 4 April testimony) and 67 nautical miles north of Christmas Island (Smith's letter of 22 May). Both sets of data put SIEV X's sinking location in an area some 30 to 80 miles south of the western tip of Java - well into international waters and well within Operation Relex's air surveillance area.
Yet John Howard still sticks to his untenable original claim that SIEV X sank in Indonesian waters. Senator Hill has claimed variously either that we don't know where it sank, or that it sank in or near Sunda Strait, i.e. by implication in Indonesian waters. Jane Halton, who headed the People Smuggling Taskforce in Prime Minister's Department, says that the difference between territorial seas and Indonesia's nominal search and rescue zone was never explained to her. She was questioned closely by Senators on 30 July as to how her Taskforce reconciled an intelligence report recorded in its minutes on 23 October, saying that the boat was likely to have sunk in international waters, with the Prime Minister's emphatic statements on 23 and 24 October that it sank in Indonesian waters.
Why is there still so much official evasion and inconsistency on where the boat sank? And why the emphatic uncertainty still claimed by official witnesses over where the boat left from, and when it left? Especially when both the media and survivor accounts since 24 October have presented a pretty clear picture on these crucial matters. Most remarkably, when the whole voyage chronology and sinking location is retrospectively confirmed in the Halton Taskforce minutes of 23 October. Why so much evasion of the truth, unless the system is still trying to hide something very important here - probably to do with the receipt and handling of earlier intelligence on SIEV X ?
The people smuggling disruption program
We have learned through Senate questioning of Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Immigration Department (DIMIA) witnesses about the existence of a "people smuggling disruption program". It is managed by a joint AFP / DIMIA "People Smuggling Strike Team", which operates out of Canberra and the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. The Strike Team is proud of achieving its desired outcomes, to disrupt and thereby discourage asylum seeker boat departures from Indonesia. Until recently the Team's existence was secret.
The disruption program is well funded. It operates through cultivating working-level liaison, nurtured by generous gifting, with selected areas of the Indonesian national police. It also relies on paid informants and intelligence operatives like Kevin Ennis, whose unusual activities were publicly scrutinised on two Channel Nine "Sunday" programs in February which led to Senate L and C Committee testimony by AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty on 19 February.
According to Keelty's 11 July testimony, virtually ignored by our media, the disruption program involves such activities as monitoring when boats are about to leave and where from. Crews and passengers are then rounded up at the point of departure. Passengers are put into supervised United Nations agencies' care. Clearly this was not done in the case of SIEV X, whose life-threatening departure was not impeded.
We know from Taskforce minutes that a decision was taken around 12 October - soon after the Adelaide encounter - to "beef up" people smuggling disruption program activity in Indonesia. But was AFP actually in control of what Indonesian police and others in Indonesia were doing under the disruption program? For example, when Keelty was asked by Senator Cook whether AFP would know of or condone such disruptive activity as sabotaging engines, Keelty replied to the effect that AFP would not condone but would not necessarily know of such activities (Hansard pages 1810-1812 etc).
Even before the tragedy of SIEV X, it is noteworthy how frequently asylum seeker boats experienced engine failures (eg "Palapa") during the short crossings to Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef. And of course there had been some - relatively unpublicised - earlier sinkings and disappearances of boats before SIEV X. This could have reflected earlier disruption program activity.
On the basis of what is now known about the people smuggling disruption program - its objectives, resources and methods - it is a reasonable hypothesis that SIEV X's doomed voyage may have grown out of a beefed-up disruption program, at a time of urgent political need to halt decisively the flow of boats before this made a mockery of Howard's election pledge to stop the boats coming.
This is not to say that such criminal sabotage was necessarily done with the connivance or aforeknowledge of Australian authorities in Indonesia. Maybe somebody on the Indonesian side might have been silently doing a favour to Australian colleagues, and only told them afterwards.
No more convincing alternative explanation has yet been offered for the ominous departure circumstances of SIEV X. This makes the question of how intelligence reporting to Canberra about SIEV X was handled all the more important.
Handling of AFP intelligence reporting from Indonesia
The Committee during May learned much about intelligence reporting that came down to Canberra about the departure of SIEV X. Initial claims in April official testimony, that nobody knew anything much about SIEV X until they saw news of its sinking on 23 October, were undercut by testimony from Coastwatch Head Rear Admiral Mark Bonser on 22 May, and by the possibly accidental release in early June of detailed summary minutes of the People Smuggling Taskforce in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Senators thereby ascertained that there had been six AFP reports from Indonesia on SIEV X, between 14 and 22 October. They learned also that SIEV X (then designated as SIEV 8, until the Halton Taskforce concluded this boat had definitely sunk, when this number was transferred to another boat in the arrival series) was discussed in the Taskforce on at least six daily meetings, starting on 18 October.
Starting on 22 May, official testimony began to refer to many conflicting reports on SIEV X: as a result of which it was claimed that nothing could be said conclusively at all about when it had left, where from, or even if it existed. The nature of evidence shifted dramatically, from claims of zero information to claims of an excess of conflicting information, as an explanation for why no safety of life at sea action was ever undertaken by Operation Relex.
Senators still confront a vital information black hole. There has been no testimony on the content of AFP reports sent down to Canberra regarding SIEV X, between the reported time of its departure early on 18 October and the receipt in Jakarta of the one so far admitted intelligence report in the evening of 19 October, that was phoned through to Coastwatch in Canberra at 0930 on 20 October. What did the 18 October AFP report say?
AFP and DIMIA witnesses on 11 July firmly declined to give such information, both on grounds of classified intelligence and also that it could jeopardise upcoming possible legal proceedings against the alleged people smuggler Abu Quessai.
Keelty did testify that all the information that may have led to the conclusion that SIEV X was in danger was not obtained by AFP until after SIEV X sunk. So it would seem that if any intelligence operative or informant witnessed or was told about the manifestly unsafe departure of SIEV X in the early hours of 18 October, this was not passed to AFP until the evening of Friday 19 October. And yet we know there was an AFP report on 18 October. We just don't know what was in it and how it was responded to.
In relation to the AFP intelligence report that came down on 20 October - which we only know about thanks to Admiral Bonser, and which I will return to in a moment - Keelty declined for the same legal reasons to express a view on whether the AFP considered there might be a possible safety of life at sea situation.
Yet the Committee had already established from Bonser's testimony (CMI Hansard page 1661 and supplementary letter) that this AFP report stated that a small and overcrowded boat had departed with over 400 people on board, and that some passengers had been unwilling to be boarded; and that an AFP liaison officer Kylie Pratt had conveyed a personal view to Bonser that the vessel may be subject to increased risk due to the numbers of people reportedly on board. It is still being claimed by official witnesses that despite the detail in this report, it did not say where SIEV X had left from. Again, we see that strange obscurity.
During those two crucial days while SIEV X was sailing south through Sunda Strait towards its doom, there was obviously some specific SIEV X intelligence reaching Canberra. We know this from references to SIEV X's expected arrival in the People Smuggling Taskforce summary minutes from 18 October onwards, and from the fact that Australian authorities had expected SIEV X to arrive at Christmas Island by Sunday 22 October. It therefore had to be known that SIEV X had left on Thursday, the journey normally taking such boats three days.
If some Australian authorities knew by 18 October of the departure from Bandar Lampung on that day of a small and overcrowded vessel carrying over 400 people, why did such a report not trigger a Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) precautionary air search of the area of the Indian Ocean nearest to Sunda Strait, i.e, the northwest quarter of the Operation Relex air surveillance zone?
This question of official negligence of a SOLAS requirement is at the heart of the issue. Knowing more about the content of the AFP intelligence reports and how they were handled is now the key to unlocking the mystery.
We know that raw intelligence from AFP and DIMIA sources in Indonesia was normally "packaged" by the AFP/DIMIA Strike Team. This packaged product was normally then passed from the Strike Team to the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre (ASTJIC) for passing to Operation Relex.
Did the Strike Team suppress, or did they dilute beyond possible recognition of SOLAS implications, reports sent down from Indonesia prior to 20 October regarding SIEV X, before such material was sent to ASTJIC and the Operation Relex command? Or did the Strike Team forward accurate and complete processed intelligence reports to ASTJIC, and thence to the Operation Relex command? Who is responsible for the SOLAS failure - AFP informants, the AFP/DIMIA Strike Team, ASTJIC, Operation Relex? We still don't know.
But given Keelty's stated legal constraints of the case against Abu Quessai, Committee Senators cannot now get a public answer. This situation, by preventing access to the truth on a key matter of accountability for the tragedy of SIEV X, leaves the reputations of many agencies and persons under question. Will the final report leave these questions unanswered?
What did Operation Relex and NORCOM do?
The AFP 20 October report, phoned through to Bonser of Coastwatch by Kylie Pratt at 0930 on Saturday 20 October, was immediately passed on to ASTJIC. ASTJIC sent urgent signals to Operation Relex and to its northern field command, NORCOM.
But there, further action was frozen. According to documents provided by Senator Hill on 4 July, NORCOM on 20 October assessed that due to its overcrowding, the vessel would travel slowly and therefore might arrive after the initially expected arrival date of 21 October. On 22 October, NORCOM assessed that the vessel had returned to Java because of unfavourable weather and overcrowding.
So, incredibly and tragically, at no time did NORCOM ever order any SOLAS-oriented search for SIEV X though it was in their search area. The RAAF Maritime Patrol Group Commander Philip Byrne testified on 30 July that the RAAF surveillance flight crews were told nothing on 20 October about the 20 October AFP report. He said they were briefed on the night of 20 October in preparation for the next day's flight; but that briefing was so vague and watered-down that it did not trigger a SOLAS search on 21 October. All surveillance flights took place absolutely as normal, with no SOLAS adjustments to normal procedure. Byrne said a SOLAS search would have used different methods.
Flight charts provided by Senator Hill on 4 July show that on 19 October, ORION flight 1 made radar contact with what might well have been SIEV X at 0919. ORION flight 2 made contact at 1930 with what might have been the wreckage of SIEV X and the (widely reported by survivors) observing boats. But since there was according to the records furnished by Senator Hill no AFP intelligence about SIEV X available to NORCOM on 19 October, Orion crews did not know they should be looking for it.
Senators were unable to question the NORCOM command on its crucial decisions not to order a SOLAS-oriented air surveillance for SIEV X on 19 or 20 October. Authors of the documents sent in by Senator Hill on 4 July have not been examined in public hearings of the Committee. Initially promised testimony by Admiral Raydon Gates, who had reviewed all the intelligence and has now replaced Admiral Smith as Chief of Navy, was blocked by Senator Hill despite repeated Committee requests for him to appear.
So where might the Senate report end up? I do not know. I know where I end up.
Here is Australia's largest-ever maritime surveillance and naval interception program in the sea-air gap, supported in Indonesia by a major and intrusive people smuggling disruption program and a major intelligence operation.
The mission is to keep asylum seekers away from Australia. They are the enemy. Like all enemies in war, they must be dehumanised. They cannot be acknowledged as people. Until they arrive, until they require Jane Halton's Committee to think about logistical issues like tents and food, they are just military abstractions - traces on a radar screen.
If they arrive, so be it. If they do not arrive, they have either turned back or they have sunk. Either way it does not matter, because they did not come here. So they are not our problem. Our safety of life at sea obligations do not apply to these people. We did not invite them to come to Australia. So we do not have to think of them as men women and children dying in the water. As long as we don't see them or get a radio distress signal from them, we can ignore them.
I am curious as to how such attitudes became prevalent in Operation Relex and its supporting agencies. Did people have to be politically indoctrinated to this level of callousness, or did it grow naturally out of the situation? Was it there already in the ADF and administrative culture? What happened to our defence forces' traditional decency and honour? When and how did our border protection agencies stop thinking of asylum seekers as fellow human beings for whom we had a natural duty of care?
Issues of Senate privilege
How should the Senate deal with repeated examples during this long enquiry of a deep lack of respect for its powers and responsibilities, from a Minister who is himself a senior Senator? The withholding of key witnesses like Admiral Gates; the manipulation of key information, eg the RAAF surveillance maps and Operation Relex data which were selectively leaked many days in advance to some media, so as to lessen their news impact when eventually tabled; the disparaging of the Committee's role - where does this leave our fragile system of parliamentary scrutiny over an ever more powerful and arrogant political executive?
The role of the media
It is still not easy to interest major media in this story. Even after June, when there was already a well documented trail of unanswered questions and contradictions, there is still a disposition in some editorial offices to shy away from the subject. There seems a strange reluctance to confront this distasteful reality. The story may just be too frightening, in what it says to us about what our country is becoming.
I hope this might change when this Senate Committee submits its report. I hope the report will shock our nation. Even though the Committee has laboured under serious information denials, it by now has the wherewithal to produce a credible and deeply challenging report.
In my opinion, the challenge now before the Committee - which has done a heroic job to date - is this. Will its report clearly point to the large moral failures involved in SIEV X, or will it attribute the tragedy basically to administrative failures: shortcomings in communications, divided command structures etc ? I pray that it will take the former course.