Intelligence of a leaky Siev
The Weekend Australian
26 OCT 2002
One phone call held the fate of hundreds of people on a stricken refugee boat. Cameron Stewart traces the call's tangled route
A YEAR ago this week the heartbreaking pictures of three young girls who drowned along with 350 other asylum-seekers on Siev X were splashed across the nation's newspapers. Since then, the story of the doomed boat has slowly unfolded amid claims Australia did not do all it could have to help prevent the tragedy. This week, after hearing evidence that runs to thousands of pages, the parliamentary committee investigating the children overboard affair delivered its verdict.
That verdict revolves around a single phone call -- a phone call that explains why Australia did not order a search for the doomed Siev X.
The call was made at 9.30am on October 20 last year by an Australian Federal Police agent named Kylie Pratt, an analyst with the AFP's people-smuggling strike team in Canberra. Pratt called Coastwatch to pass on new intelligence about the departure from Indonesia of a small overcrowded asylum-seeker boat that would later become known as Siev X.
Her call was to become 'the single most crucial piece of intelligence about Siev X', according to this week's children overboard report.
Pratt did not know that at the moment of her call -- several thousand kilometres to the northwest -- at least 41 asylum-seekers and three children were clinging to the floating debris from Siev X. The boat had sunk the previous day.
Pratt's call was to be the first and last hope of an Australian rescue for Siev X survivors. But it never happened. Like the Siev X, her message never reached its ultimate destination and the intelligence it contained was not acted on.
Why not? The story begins two days earlier, on October 18, when the AFP received intelligence that Siev X had departed Indonesia for Christmas Island.
The report did not stir much excitement within the AFP or the various defence agencies involved in the border protection program Operation Relex. Intelligence about asylum-seeker boats was notoriously unreliable and in the preceeding weeks there had been several false reports of departures.
But this time the intelligence was correct, Siev X had set sail. The next day -- in the afternoon of October 19 -- the small, overloaded boat sailed into rough weather, capsized and sank. At 9.30 the next morning -- with survivors still in the water -- Pratt received another report that Siev X had departed.
This time there was more information. The intelligence said Siev X was 'small, with 400 passengers on board'. It also said some passengers had refused to board because the boat was so overcrowded.
This rang alarm bells for Pratt. No asylum-seeker boat heading towards Australia had carried so many people. So when she called Coastwatch to pass on the news, Pratt added her own warning that Siev X might be 'subject to increased risk' because of overcrowding.
Twenty minutes later -- at 9.50am -- Coastwatch called the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre, the key intelligence co-ordination centre for Operation Relex, to pass on the new information on Siev X.
But Coastwatch told ASTJIC only part of the story. It said Siev X was small and overcrowded, with about 400 passengers. It neglected to pass on Pratt's assessment that the boat might be in danger.
Because this was the second report of Siev X's departure in three days, ASTJIC concluded that the boat had left Indonesia. Within 11 minutes -- at 10.01am -- ASTJIC issued an 'immediate intelligence report' to Operation Relex commanders warning them of the imminent arrival of another Siev (suspected illegal entry vessel). This report on Siev X (the X in this case stood for unknown, not 10) was in the hands of the people who controlled the air force and naval surveillance over the waters between Indonesia and Christmas Island.
At 10.02am the Siev X report arrived in the hands of the 92 Wing Detachment at Learmonth in Western Australia, from where air force P3 Orions were making daily surveillance flights over the area. At that moment, a P3 was in the air, making long, slow loops over the waters where Siev X was likely to have sunk. But the crew were unaware that the boat existed, much less that it had sunk and that survivors were in the water.
Back at base, the commanders read the new report saying that a small, overcrowded boat was on the way. This did not trigger concern simply because most of the Sievs were small and overcrowded. Importantly, the report did not contain Pratt's concerns that Siev X might be in danger. Therefore it was not treated as anything but routine and it was not considered necessary to alert the P3 crew already in the air. As the P3 group commander Philip Byrne said later: 'It was a terrible tragedy but unfortunately we had no safety of life at sea indications.'
By the time the next P3 patrol flight took off the following day, the 44 Siev X survivors had been rescued by Indonesian fishing boats.
There were other gaps in the intelligence chain on Siev X that day. Somehow Pratt's AFP intelligence report on October 20 about the boat being small and carrying 400 passengers was not passed on to the Immigration Department or the Prime Minister's People Smuggling Taskforce. But by this stage such shortcomings were academic because the survivors of Siev had been rescued at midday on the 20th.
The dilemma for the children overboard inquiry was to judge whether these intelligence shortcomings made any real difference to the fate of those on Siev X.
On the larger question of whether the defence force could have prevented the tragedy, the judgment was clear: there was no intelligence before the sinking that indicated the boat was overcrowded or in danger of sinking. In any case, there was no certainty it had even set sail.
More difficult was the question of whether the ADF should have ordered a search for Siev X on October 20, based on the intelligence it had. The committee agonised over the ramifications of Pratt's warning being edited from the intelligence reports of October 20. But in the end, committee members concluded it was unlikely to have made any difference. This was because a Siev being unseaworthy 'was not an uncommon sort of observation to make about a Siev'. There were also ongoing doubts about the reliability of all AFP intelligence on the Sievs. 'The committee has found that intelligence breakdowns occurred,' the report concludes.
However, it could not say whether these shortcomings 'reached a state whereby Australia's response could reasonably be expected to have been different'. And that is where half the Siev X story is likely to end.
But the tragedy has been linked to a new issue: the Australian Government's policy of disrupting asylum-seeker vessels in Indonesia.
Labor Senate leader John Faulkner last month raised delicate questions about whether Australia's policy led to the sabotage of asylum-seeker boats, including Siev X. This week's children overboard report -- which put half of the Siev X story to bed -- urges an independent inquiry into the disruption program.
It seems the tragic voyage of Siev X is not yet over.