BY SARAH STEPHEN
The claims that asylum seekers threw children from a boat to force the navy to take them to Australia, made by many federal government ministers during last year's election, were lies.
"Now another horror story about asylum seekers during the election has begun to emerge", stated the June 25 Canberra Times editorial, "but this time it is about something that did happen: 353 people died [on October 19] when the overcrowded boat on which they were travelling sank on its way to Australia from Indonesia. Once again, however, how much Australian authorities knew about the incident is a matter of controversy."
At the time, the media by and large failed to ask the key question: how could an overloaded boat leave Indonesia and sink unnoticed during the most intense land, sea and air surveillance operation ever undertaken by the Australian navy?
Soon after, Prime Minister John Howard declared that it had sunk in Indonesian waters and, while it was a terrible tragedy, it was not Australia's concern.
In March, a Senate committee began an investigation into the incident after questions were raised by former ambassador to Cambodia Tony Kevin. Thirteen days of hearings and 1500 pages of testimony have begun to unravel a web of lies and withheld information from senior government and navy personnel. The government has something to hide.
The Senate inquiry was originally set up to investigate the government's misuse of navy photos upon which it based its claims that children had been thrown from an asylum seekers' boat on October 8 (quaintly referred to as a "certain maritime incident"). The committee's terms of reference were widened by government committee members who were confident that, if it couldn't prove children were thrown overboard on October 8, it could prove such incidents had occurred on other occasions.
This allowed Kevin to present his concerns about the sinking of "SIEV-X" on March 4 (SIEV is government jargon for "suspected illegal entry vessel"; X is for unknown).
Kevin pieced together the available information and hypothesised that the Australian authorities knew about the boat, but decided to look the other way. In a March 25 Canberra Times article, Kevin noted that the boat which was the focus of the "children overboard" (SIEV-4) allegations was intercepted on October 7. Throughout that day, every attempt was made to force it to return to Indonesia, including "a 45-minute firing program involving four rounds of cannon fire, 23 rounds of machine-gun fire and a close-quarters blocking manoeuvre that forced SIEV-4 to stop".
This effort failed. Asylum seekers were rescued the following day when their boat sank. This exposed the navy's new "robust" rules of engagement as a bluff, Kevin argued, because in the end the navy would rescue asylum seekers in distress rather than leave them to drown.
Kevin wrote: "Since the Howard government had made strong border protection the central plank of its re-election campaign, the failure of the policy could have had decisive consequences. The thing feared most was that more boats would refuse to turn back. The sinking of SIEV-X on October 19 saved Australia's faltering border protection regime.
"The effect was dramatic and almost immediate: asylum-seeker voyages stopped (the last boat to arrive was at Ashmore Reef on October 25) ... News of the tragedy would have spread quickly around refugee communities".
Kevin's article presented evidence that Australian authorities would have known about the departure of SIEV-X from Indonesia, a claim denied by the government. Documents released by defence minister Senator Robert Hill on July 8 revealed that an intelligence unit within the immigration department filed nearly 50 reports on the activities of Abu Quassey, who was responsible for organising the voyage, over three months prior to the boat's departure on October 18.
In the ensuing months, the Senate committee has called witnesses from the navy, police and government to give their version of the events. Two main lies have begun to unravel: that the Australian government and navy knew nothing about SIEV-X until after it sank; and, that SIEV-X sank in Indonesian waters.
On April 4 and 5, Rear Admiral Geoffrey Smith, commander of the navy's "border protection" duties (known as Operation Relex), testified three times under oath that he knew nothing about SIEV-X until Coastwatch advised him on October 22 that it was overdue, presumed sunk.
Smith explained that the navy routinely stepped up its air surveillance following reported boat sightings from Indonesia, and planes flew as close to 48 kilometres from Indonesia, which is within range of where SIEV-X sank (Indonesian territorial waters extend only 38 kms from its coast). On this occasion, with no reported sightings, the planes conducted their usual surveillance flights and did not spot it, Smith explained.
Jane Halton, head of the PM's multi-agency People Smuggling Taskforce, also told the Senate inquiry that the taskforce had no knowledge of SIEV-X prior to October 23 when the sinking became public.
It wasn't until Rear Admiral Marcus Bonser, director of Coastwatch, testified on May 22 that the first lie was exposed. Bonser revealed that Operation Relex knew SIEV-X's date of departure, intended destination, its poor condition and that it was overcrowded. This information came from Australian Federal Police intelligence. He explained that SIEV-X was likely to have been within the aerial surveillance area of Operation Relex when it sank.
Bonser's testimony was a turning point in the investigation, because it was the first evidence which gave weight to Kevin's hypothesis. Furthermore, it sharply contradicted Smith's evidence. Clearly one of them was lying.
In anticipation of Bonser's testimony, Smith submitted a "letter of clarification" to the inquiry on May 22. In it, he retracted his statement that the navy had not known about SIEV-X, revealing that Operation Relex had in fact received six intelligence reports from Indonesia between October 14 and 22 about SIEV-X's impending or actual departure.
Smith wrote that these reports had been considered too inconclusive to warrant an aerial search. Yet, his letter noted that one report, on October 20, said that the boat was small and overcrowded with more than 400 passengers. Breathtakingly, the letter was withdrawn for "security clearance" an hour after it was tabled and was only resubmitted on July 11.
In the July 7 Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Margot Kingston wrote that the navy was warned by its intelligence department that the boat was behind schedule. The defence force's Northern Command (NORCOM) intelligence summary on October 20 said SIEV-X's progress would be delayed because it was overcrowded and needed to maintain stability, contradicting Smith's testimony that intelligence was not firm enough to require action.
On June 4, incoming chief of the navy, Admiral Chris Ritchie, completely contradicted Smith and Bonser. Ritchie said that air surveillance was not close to Indonesia but further south, near Christmas Island, and was not triggered by intelligence reports. He told the inquiry that SIEV-X "never came within our search area and we did not change our search area specifically to look for SIEV-X".
On June 15, official minutes of the People Smuggling Taskforce were leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald. Despite being heavily censored, the minutes seriously undermined much of the previous testimony. SIEV-X was discussed at six successive taskforce meetings between October 18 and 23. On October 18, the day SIEV-X left southern Sumatra, the government was aware that two boats were on their way to Christmas Island (the second, SIEV-6, arrived at Christmas Island on October 19). The minutes for that day noted: "Some risk of vessels in poor condition and rescue at sea."
Minutes from October 21, two days after the boat sank, gave the boat a name, SIEV 8, and noted: "Not spotted yet, missing, grossly overloaded, no jetsam spotted, no reports from relatives."
This undermined Ritchie's testimony, because it suggested that navy planes were in fact looking for wreckage.
Defence minister Robert Hill caused a stir when he gagged a key witness, Rear Admiral Raydon Gates, from testifying on June 21. Gates was to have briefed the Senate inquiry on his review of intelligence material related to SIEV-X. Gates remains forbidden from testifying.
Media to the rescue
Initially, government and navy leaders maintained that SIEV-X sank in the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra. When evidence began to contradict this, the official version of events changed. Government and navy personnel began to say they did not know where SIEV-X had gone down.
Hill was asked on June 15 if he still maintained that the boat sank in Indonesian waters. He said: "We — well we don't know exactly where it sank — what we do is that we didn't have the capability to assist it because we didn't know where it was."
The media came to the government's rescue for the first time with an article by Mike Carlton in the June 8 Sydney Morning Herald, headlined "Smearing navy latest sport for axe-grinders". "To suggest that any Australian naval officer ignored that moral and legal obligation [to save life at sea], for any reason, is a cruel insult to honour, humanity and duty", Carlton wrote.
In her June 9 Sydney Morning Herald web diary, Margot Kingston challenged Carlton's outburst: "Carlton mounts an emotive, largely rhetorical defence of the navy... It amounts to 'Trust the navy, they're a great mob'. Yet he deals with none of the issues raised in the inquiry so far."
"I have no doubt about the integrity and sense of duty of sailors and their commanders", Kingston continued. "I have grave doubts that those qualities apply to some in the navy's leadership."
The actions of the navy are closely tied to the political demands of the government, as other boat interceptions have illustrated. Some months ago, ABC's Four Corners documented the interception of a boatload of asylum seekers near Ashmore Island in October. The navy held them on the island for days before word came through from the PM's office that they were to be escorted back to Indonesian waters. Navy personnel were forbidden from airlifting to the mainland a woman suffering heavy bleeding after giving birth. On the way, the asylum seekers were "restrained" with capsicum spray and electric batons.
On July 4, Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Ackerman joined the fray with an article, "All-at-sea critics sunk by the facts", in which he mounted a more systematic criticism of what he called the "conspiracists" spreading "malicious falsehoods" about the Australian air force and navy.
The asylum seekers aboard SIEV-X, Ackerman asserted, didn't leave the boat when they had a chance (24 people got off at an island in the Sunda Strait). A survivor interviewed in Jakarta on October 23 said: "When they came to us and showed us the boat, we were told that this boat was not the one to get us to Australia, it was only a transit boat."
Ackerman alleged that passengers collected an extra $5000 to convince the captain to sail on, even as it was sailing into a storm with broken pumps, a claim which has not previously been made. "It must be accepted that those aboard, having paid extra to continue the voyage, were therefore responsible for their own safety", Ackerman concluded.
Robert Manne wrote an opinion piece for the June 24 Sydney Morning Herald, "Our humanity sank with SIEV-X". Concluding a survey of the latest revelations, Manne asserted: "In the history of our callous indifference to asylum seekers no single fact is more disturbing than the passivity of the Australian defence forces to the dangers facing 400 fellow human beings in the three days between the morning of October 20 and the morning of October 23, when the anticipated news of 353 deaths arrived."
Hill, furious at Manne's condemnation of the navy and determined to refute the snowballing allegations that the navy did nothing to look for SIEV-X, revealed new information in a letter to the editor printed in the June 27 Age.
Manne had referred to the Senate inquiry's understanding at that time, that "no Australian aircraft were ordered on October 20 to fly over international waters south of Sunda Strait in search of SIEV-X".
Hill challenged this with a detailed description of the number and scope of flights in the area between October 18 and 20, concluding that there was no sighting of a vessel in distress, and that "there is no doubt that when presented with a situation involving safety of life at sea the navy would take all actions necessary to assist".
The issue made front-page headlines on June 29 when Hill released maps to the Weekend Australian which detailed P3 Orion flight paths for October 18, 19 and 20. The sensational article was titled "Spy plane in drown zone", with the kicker: "Revealed: navy says pilots didn't spot doomed asylum-seeker boat".
In an accompanying opinion piece, journalist Cameron Stewart surmised: "For all the talk about grand conspiracies, the truth about the Siev X tragedy might boil down to some desperately bad luck and a dubious judgement call by the Australian navy [to ignore reports that a boat was heading towards Christmas Island]."
Kevin argued that Hill's new information raised more questions than it answered. Writing for Margot Kingston's June 30 web diary, Kevin remarked that the June 29 Weekend Australian coverage and the maps made available "strengthen the critique that Operation Relex was not really trying to find this boat". With knowledge of a dangerously overcrowded boat in the north-west sector of the surveillance zone, Kevin noted, the aircraft "sticks rigidly to its flight path, looping all over the whole area [35,000 sq nautical miles] — most of which SIEV-X could not possibly have reached".
"Is this how our P3 Orions would look for a missing Tony Bullimore or a Louise Autissier? Of course not — they would focus their efforts on where the best possibilities are for finding missing yachties, in terms of the best known intelligence about where they were last known to be heading. Why wasn't this done for 400-odd people at grave risk on SIEV-X? Answer — because nobody in Operation Relex really cared to find them."
Writing in the June 28 Sydney Morning Herald, Kingston pointed out that Hill "admitted there was no afternoon surveillance of the [north-west] sector on October 19. Most evidence points to SIEV-X sinking about 50 nautical miles off Indonesia, 20 nautical miles inside international waters covered by aerial surveillance. It sank at 3pm on the afternoon of October 19."
Kevin was scathing of Hill's contempt for the Senate inquiry. Information "that has been withheld on alleged security grounds from investigating senators over three months of hearings is suddenly spilled out in a deliberate feed to a newspaper".
Continuing his attack, Kevin asked, "how can one rationally attribute to 'bad luck' a failure to concentrate Orion surveillance resources in the area where a SIEV boat in probable distress was expected from intelligence reports to be?". Suppose the Orion had concentrated on the north-western region, Kevin hypothesised. "Of course the Orion would have then found SIEV-X on the morning of 19 October — before it sank. If this is not negligence by the Operation Relex command, what is?"
The remarkable contradictions among the testimonies from navy commanders and departmental staff, along with the removal of a letter tabled at the inquiry and the gagging of a navy officer's testimony, indicate that the stakes are high and the government and navy do have something to hide.
Kevin believes there was a deliberate decision, taken at the highest level, to look the other way. He is also scathing of the mockery being made of the Senate committee. On June 16, Kevin wrote: "The Executive, supported by a few senior officials who seem to put their personal career interest ahead of the public interest in truth and respect for parliament, has been during the past 10 weeks cynically kicking sand in the face of the Senate committee system of public scrutiny and accountability."
The Senate committee continues to hear submissions and will present a report in August. While it may have some success in compelling future witnesses to stop lying and withholding evidence, the issues at stake demand a more high-level investigation.
In its June 17 editorial, the Canberra Times called for a judicial inquiry: "That so many agencies are involved, and that statements by ministers and senior defence officers are in question, emphasises the need for an independent inquiry. It should be by a judge with unlimited rights to see security material, rather than an internal whitewash. The truth may be unpleasant for some, but, until it is known, it casts a slur not only on our border protection mechanisms, but on all Australians."
That the issue has only made front-page news once in one newspaper, when the alleged affair between Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans was open season for all newspapers, is a shameful testament to the willingness of the corporate media [to toe the line]. It's not as if the government's possible complicity in the deaths of 353 people wouldn't sell papers. This scandal demands a massive public outcry and a major investigation.
From Green Left Weekly, July 17, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.