Chapter 8 - The Sinking of SIEV X:
Intelligence and Surveillance
In the early hours
(approximately 1.30am ‘Golf’ or local time) of 18 October 2001,
a vessel under the pay of alleged people smuggler, Abu Qussey, departed from Bandar Lampung in south
Sumatra. 421 passengers and crew, including
70 children, were on board. Ten people had refused to embark due to the boat’s
size. Media reports, based on passenger accounts, claim that the remainder were
forced at gun point by Indonesian officials to board the vessel.
Before heading to Christmas Island, the vessel
stopped near the Karakatau group of islands where 24 passengers disembarked due
to concerns about the SIEV’s seaworthiness. 397 passengers and crew remained
At about noon
on 19 October
2001, the engines on the vessel stalled. By
about 2.00pm (GT) the vessel began to take on water out of the sight of land, a
situation that deteriorated an hour later when it began to take ‘heavy water,
listed violently to the side, capsized and sank within an hour’. 120 people are estimated to have
been in the water after the boat sank; none of the 70 life jackets worked.
on 20 October, after close to twenty hours in the water, two fishing boats
picked up the survivors. The notes for the People Smuggling Taskforce state:
41 adults and 3 children survived, 352 drowned. Survivors taken
to Jakarta – being cared for by IOM [International Migration Organisation] at
Bogor outside Jakarta. Vessel likely to have been in international waters south
The exact location where the
boat sank remains in doubt, with speculation that it might have gone down in
the Sunda Strait within Indonesian waters. One report received by DIMIA
indicated that the vessel capsized ‘between Java and Sumatra’.A DIMA Intelligence Note issued on 23
October, however, suggested the boat had capsized and sunk approximately 60
nautical miles (NM) south of the Sunda Strait. Advice provided to the Prime
Minister, Mr Howard, on 24 October referred to the vessel sinking in ‘Indonesian
waters’, and stated that the ‘boat capsized and sank quickly south of the
western end of Java’.
Survivor testimony claimed
that, during the night of 19 October after SIEV X sank, two large vessels
approached those in the water. According to the survivors, these vessels shone
lights on the people in the water, but did nothing to rescue them.
The closest RAN vessel, the
frigate HMAS Arunta, was by the
Navy’s estimation at least 150 nautical miles distant from the position where
SIEV X is roughly estimated to have foundered.
The Committee’s Inquiry
During the inquiry a range of
concerns arose about Australia’s role in relation to the fate of the Qussey
vessel or, as it has now become known, SIEV X. Questions were raised about the
extent to which Australian government agencies knew of the vessel’s departure,
its unseaworthy state and what actions were taken or not taken in response. In
short, did the Australian authorities have sufficient forewarning of SIEV X and
its likely fate, such that they could have either acted to avert the disaster
or rescued more survivors?
These concerns were fanned as
the evidence to the inquiry gradually unfolded to reveal that early claims from
Defence witnesses, that little was known of SIEV X, were at odds with the volume
of intelligence gathered on the vessel during Operation Relex.
In this chapter, the Committee
examines the prime sources of potential information about SIEV X available to
Australian decision makers: intelligence and maritime surveillance. It
attempts, first, to trace the development of the intelligence picture being
formed by Australian agencies in the lead up to its passage. The Committee then
discusses the information available on the level and patterns of maritime
surveillance conducted at the time of the SIEV X incident.
Against this backdrop, in the
next chapter the Committee examines the response of Australian agencies to this
information, and whether that response and the reasons for it were appropriate.
Evidence available to the Committee
In addition to the testimony of
relevant officials before the inquiry, the Committee has received a range of
declassified intelligence and other official material relating to SIEV X. This
material is an important source of information for reconstructing the SIEV X
episode. The Committee considers, however, that the evidence before it is
limited in four respects.
First, much of the intelligence
material has been heavily censored, with agencies citing national security
reasons for so doing. In some cases, agencies have stated that they are not in
able to disclose information because the source agency has not agreed to
declassify it. The Committee notes the following explanation provided by DIMIA:
Those [source] agencies have cited reasons of national security,
particularly the possibility of exposing intelligence collection capabilities
and the need to protect sources from exposure and, in the context of the
current people smuggling environment in Indonesia, possible harm.
Second, as a consequence, gaps
exist in the intelligence picture on SIEV X. The Committee has not been able to
see original or ‘raw’ intelligence received from sources. It has also not been
able to compare the information it has received on SIEV X with that available
to agencies on other boat arrivals. Thus, it has had to rely on witness
testimony in making assessments of the extent to which reports on SIEV X fitted
the overall intelligence picture on boat arrivals.
Third, the evidence
concentrates mostly on SIEV X after
it was reported to have departed Indonesia. The Committee has had little in the
way of information on SIEV X before
it left Indonesia. As was outlined in chapter 1, Australian authorities were
involved in substantial ‘disruption’ activities in Indonesia. These activities
involved information campaigns, targeting people smuggling syndicates and
preventing passengers from embarking on vessels bound for Australia. The
Committee was interested to understand the relationship between the disruption
activity and the circumstances of SIEV X. However, despite extensive
questioning of official witnesses on the disruption strategy, the Committee was
provided with limited information.
The fourth problem the
Committee encountered with the evidence on SIEV X was the piecemeal manner in
which information was provided to the inquiry. During the initial inquiry
hearings official witnesses took a blanket approach of reassuring the Committee
that Australian authorities had acted properly in relation to SIEV X, rather
than providing a more open and detailed account of the intelligence trail about
the vessel. Although this stance seems to have reflected the sensitivity
surrounding Australia’s intelligence capability, it raised more questions than
To illustrate the difficulty
that this approach posed for the inquiry, the Committee notes the evidence from
Rear Admiral Smith, the senior operational commander for Operation Relex. In
his opening testimony to the Committee, Admiral Smith declared:
if my memory serves me right, we had some information that a
boat might have been being prepared in the vicinity of Sunda Strait but we had
no real fixed information as to when it was going to sail. Indeed, the first
time that the Navy knew that this vessel had sailed was when we were advised
through the search and rescue organisation in Canberra that this vessel may
have foundered in the vicinity of Sunda Strait.
Subsequently, Admiral Smith
wrote to the Committee to clarify his original testimony. Among other things, Admiral Smith
referred to intelligence that ‘reported’ SIEV X as departing Indonesia and as a
‘possible’ arrival at Christmas Island, prior to the advice that it had
foundered. He concluded that:
While the intelligence reports regarding the Abu Qussey vessel
were from Coastwatch assessments and normally reliable sources, they provided
only an assessment of ‘alleged’ departures and ‘possible’ arrival windows. No
specific confirmation of departure was ever received. ...
... my Headquarters did not receive any information (intelligence
or otherwise) that could lead to a definitive assessment that the vessel had
Although Admiral Smith might
have been strictly correct in his original evidence, such a narrowly defined
answer provided only a limited portrayal of the complex picture surrounding
SIEV X and therefore an inadequate impression of the situation related to the
vessel. The Committee continued to experience difficulties in receiving a full
account of the SIEV X episode throughout the inquiry. As is discussed later in
this chapter, vital information revealing gaps in the chain of reporting of the
intelligence traffic emerged only at the Committee’s last hearing and
afterwards, thus preventing the Committee from exploring it as fully as might
have been expected.
The Committee is mindful of the
particular sensitivities and national security interests that attend matters of
intelligence. Nevertheless, intelligence agencies and practices are properly
the concern of the parliament and cannot be shielded from accountability and
review, particularly in cases of public importance such as SIEV X. As the
Committee’s findings of gaps in the handling of SIEV X intelligence show,
parliamentary examination of the intelligence matters is not only a vital
accountability mechanism but it is also a key element in strengthening the
governance and working of the national security system.
The Committee considers that
the intelligence community should, in consultation with the relevant
parliamentary committees, review its approaches to the provision of information
to parliamentary inquiries to better balance the flow of information to
parliament with the need to protect intelligence capabilities and sources.
The Intelligence System and SIEV X
The story of what Australian
government agencies knew about SIEV X is to a large degree a story of
intelligence and its limitations, how it is coordinated and fed into
operational decision making.
Before detailing the
intelligence chronology for SIEV X, it is worth reiterating here the key
elements of the intelligence system. As noted in chapter 2, an extensive
intelligence capability involving several government agencies supported the
overall border protection strategy and Operation Relex in particular. The main
elements of the system included:
Wide-ranging ‘all source’ intelligence on people
smuggling and illegal immigration activities, including off-shore sources in
countries of origin, first asylum and transit, particularly Indonesia.
Information in Indonesia came partly from defence attaches in the Australian
embassy but mainly from posted AFP and DIMIA compliance officers, their
counterparts in the Indonesian police and military and from ‘human sources’
(ie. agents or informants on the ground);
DIMIA served as the central agency for the
collection, analysis and production of intelligence on border protection. It
produced intelligence reports for a range of ‘customer’ agencies;
Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre
(ASTJIC) was, during the SIEV X episode, the primary Defence intelligence body.
For Operation Relex it received mainly processed intelligence, the ‘vast bulk’
of which came from DIMIA and Coastwatch,
which it in turn analysed and used to produce reports;
ASTJIC reports provided ‘a consolidated forecast
of SIEV activity to COMAST [Rear Admiral Ritchie] and to subordinate ADF
headquarters and units’, as well
as ‘intelligence support to people who are deployed and to operational decision
makers’. ASTJIC reports formed
part of the basis upon which Rear Admiral Smith (Naval Component Commander) and
Brigadier Silverstone (HQNORCOM/CJTF 639) made daily operational decisions;
and to a lesser degree DIMIA
regularly briefed the People Smuggling Taskforce (PST) on numbers of potential
boat and people arrivals, with forecasts on expected dates and destinations. DIMIA intelligence bulletins,
containing more detailed information on arrivals and the state of the people
smuggling pipeline, also went to the agencies represented on the PST; and
RAAF and Coastwatch maritime surveillance, as
well as operational intelligence gleaned from intercepted arrivals supplemented
the intelligence reporting on impending people and boat arrivals. Defence told
the Committee that the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) also produced reports,
presumably based on signals intercepts, that ‘may or may not have’ related to
SIEV X. It should be noted,
however, that HQNORCOM indicated to the Committee that it received no
intelligence based on DSD intercepts of communications from SIEV X.
This is the framework within
which domestic and external intelligence on SIEVs was collected, analysed and
disseminated to various agencies and then onto decision makers and military
units deployed on Relex operations.
SIEV X Chronology
The period of time from the
receipt of the first reports of SIEV X by Australian agencies to its sinking
covers three months. It can be divided into two phases:
July to mid October – when a series of reports
about Abu Qussey and possible boat departures began to emerge; and
17 to 23 October – the period surrounding the
SIEV X disaster.
The Committee discusses the
nature and timing of the information received during these two phases,
identifying the key points that emerge and foreshadowing some of the questions
that the Committee will deal with in the next chapter.
July to mid October 2001: Early
The first reports on SIEV X can
be traced to July 2001 when indications were received that a people smuggler,
Abu Qussey, was preparing vessels for departure to Christmas Island. The
internal ADF review of intelligence on SIEV X identified 20 July as the
earliest mention of Qussey. It also noted that ‘DIMA [was] monitoring and reporting on
the progress of 10 other SIEV[s] at the time’.
Ms Nelly Seigmund, head of the
DIMIA Border Protection Branch which includes the Intelligence Analysis Section
(IAS), told the Committee:
...we started hearing about this particular organiser with this
particular boat – which we initially thought was two boats – back in July. From
that period on, the number of passengers varied, not dramatically, in terms of
what we had. At one stage we thought there were two boats coming, not one, and
the departure points varied.
As what follows will show, Ms
Siegmund’s statement points to the varying signals on SIEV X that Australian
agencies were receiving throughout July to October.
During August 2001 DIMA
Intelligence Notes mentioned Qussey on nine occasions, mainly during the last
half of the month. On five occasions these Notes indicated that SIEV X ‘was
about to depart or had departed’.
Reporting on Qussey increased
in September with DIMA Intelligence Notes referring to him on 21 dates.
Coastwatch indicated to the Committee that it had received information that
SIEV X was about to depart or had departed ‘anywhere within a seven-day block
However, according to ADF
evidence it appears that there was only one report in September – 5 September – indicating that the ‘Qussey
vessel’ had departed. This appears to be the first instance where a location of
departure – ‘south-west Java’ – is mentioned.
While DIMA Intelligence Notes
referred to Qussey continually through early October, there appears to have
been no further reports of the ‘Qussey vessel’ (ie. SIEV X) or departures until
around 11-14 October. On 14 October a Coastwatch daily Civil Maritime
Surveillance Program (CMSP) Operations Summary (OPSUM), based on an
intelligence report of 11 October, suggested that SIEV X had been delayed.
No overdue notice or concern
seems to have been raised during the period between the September report of
SIEV X departing and subsequent 11-14 October intelligence that it had been
delayed. This suggests that the intelligence on Qussey or SIEV X at this time
was unconfirmed and that Australian analysts discounted these early reports of
the vessel’s supposed departure.
17 to 23 October: Ambiguous intelligence
The intelligence trail on SIEV
X resumed on 17 October. Over the next five days a number of reports about the
vessel’s apparent movements arrived. The mixed signals seen during the July-early
October phase also resumed, but in a more compressed timeframe.
The chain of events during this
critical phase is complex, not least because of the ambiguity of the
intelligence and the number of Australian agencies dealing with it. To help
make sense of this complexity the Committee examines the incoming intelligence
reports and steps taken by the various Australia agencies on each day.
Two reports about SIEV X’s
movements appear to have entered the intelligence and decision making system on
17 October. At midday DIMIA issued a DIMA Intelligence Note. In a heavily
censored section of the version of the Intelligence Note that the Committee
received, the following comment is made:
DIMA Jakarta reports that several sources claim [DELETED] moved
[DELETED] passengers on [DELETED] last night. The departure of the boat has yet
to be confirmed.
Although it is hard to be
certain of the vessel and organiser’s identity to which this passage refers, other evidence suggests that it
relates to Abu Qussey and SIEV X. First, the comment that the report is based on ‘several sources’
sounds akin to the ‘multisource information’ mentioned elsewhere in relation to
SIEV X, although it appears that SIEV X was not the only vessel mentioned in
Second, the daily Coastwatch OPSUM is said to
have referred to the ‘Quassey vessel moving from port to port’. This movement was not seen as
unusual. Colonel Gallagher, the
current Commander of ASTJIC, explained to the Committee that ‘it is a common
occurrence...that the people smugglers would move their vessels through a number
The second report about SIEV X came
much later in the day. At about 10.00pm (Kilo Time or AEST) Coastwatch received
information that SIEV X had left central Java on 16 October bound for Christmas Island. It assessed
that the vessel was expected to arrive early on 18 October. Coastwatch promptly relayed this
message by telephone to both HQNORCOM and the ASTJIC watchkeeper. (As is now known, SIEV X did
not depart Indonesia until 18 October.)
Both Coastwatch and ASTJIC
posted the formal advice of this intelligence the next day.
On the day SIEV X sailed from
Sumatra, Coastwatch ‘promulgated’ an OPSUM containing the previous night’s
report of the vessel’s ‘departure’ on 17 October. ASTJIC also reported this
information at its daily morning Theatre intelligence briefing, whereafter it
would have been disseminated to the Defence network in a formal message and
updated on the ASTJIC webpage.
Rear Admiral Smith informed
the Committee of the detail of the Coastwatch OPSUM:
The Abu Qussey
vessel in the Coastwatch’s CMSP OPSUM on PM 18 October through intelligence
sources was ‘reported’ to have departed Indonesia
for Christmas Island on 17 October 2001. Coastwatch assessed that the vessel
could ‘possibly’ [original emphasis] arrive at Christmas
Island, late 18 October or early 19 October 2001.
At this time, a question
appears to have remained about the exact date when SIEV X was
thought to have departed. Colonel Gallagher told
the Committee that the ‘date of departure was unclear, and to my mind, remains
DIMIA also reported on SIEV X’s
apparent departure, as well as other possible arrivals in its Intelligence Note
of 18 October. This Intelligence
Note served as the basis for a discussion on ‘prospective arrivals’ at that
day’s meeting of a subgroup of the People Smuggling Taskforce (PST). The notes
from that meeting record in bullet point form:
Intelligence re 2 boats with total 600 PUAs [possible unauthorised
arrivals] expected at Christmas, with one possibly arriving today, a further 3
boats with total 600 expected at Ashmore, with earliest arriving Monday [22
October]. Some risk of vessels in poor condition and rescue at sea.
No confirmed sightings by Coastwatch, but multisource
information with high confidence level.
Deciphering these notes
requires care. Although Mr Killesteyn of DIMIA (who was present at the subgroup
meeting on 18 October) said that ‘there is a good deal of symmetry’ between the
PST meeting notes and the DIMA Intelligence Note, the meeting notes ‘are a
cryptic summary’ and therefore not entirely accurate. The following seeks to clarify these
DIMIA confirmed that the
opening reference to ‘2 boats’ referred to SIEV X belonging to Abu Qussey and a
second vessel belonging to another people smuggler. Ms Siegmund said that intelligence
was now indicating that there was only one Qussey vessel and no longer two, as
had been thought to be the case earlier.
Members of the Committee were concerned
to ascertain whether the reference to ‘total 600 PUAs’ indicated that SIEV X
was expected to be carrying 400 people – and therefore was an early warning of
overcrowding – and that the other vessel was carrying 200 people. However,
DIMIA advised the Committee that the opposite
was the case. Ms Siegmund explained how DIMIA arrived at the figure of ‘total 600 PUAs’:
The numbers we had reported
to us in relation to Qussey’s boat ranged from 150 to 250 at varying times. The
figure of 400 came to our attention after the event of the tragic sinking. On
the day that you are referring to, in terms of the task force, there were at
least three organisers that we were concerned about who potentially were going
to send boats through to Christmas
Island. The numbers
certainly would have added up to 600-plus, spread across those organisers. But,
in terms of the Qussey vessel at that time, our estimate was still that it
would be possibly carrying up to 250 passengers.
The following day’s DIMA
Intelligence Note reflected these figures. It noted that SIEV 6 was thought to
be carrying between 250-300 passengers; that the Abu Qussey vessel was believed
to be carrying 250 passengers; and that there had been ‘no further reporting on
Abdul Paskistani’s (aka Mohammed Khan) intentions to send his boat with over
500 passengers to Christmas Island next week’.
The fluidity in the passenger
numbers reflects the flux in the intelligence not only on SIEV X but on
possible boat and people arrivals in general. In the next chapter, the
Committee discusses this feature of the Operation Relex intelligence.
Contrary to some of the
speculation based on the PST notes, the mention of ‘some risk of vessels in
poor condition and rescue at sea’ did not
relate to SIEV X but, rather, the condition of the other organiser’s vessels. Ms Siegmund
mentioned that that particular organiser ‘had previously used boats in poor
condition’. The DIMA Intelligence
Note of 19 October made the same comment and observed that ‘the requirement for
a rescue at sea cannot be ruled out’.
The Committee believes that the
second bullet point that talks of ‘no confirmed sightings by Coastwatch’ is
probably an instance of a mistake in the PST meeting notes. As noted earlier in
the report, at the beginning of Operation Relex the ADF took over surveillance
of the Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef zones, while Coastwatch withdrew from these areas
to concentrate its efforts on the Timor and Arafura Sea approaches. Based on
this, the notes perhaps meant to say that the ADF or RAAF had not reported any
sightings of SIEV X at that point. This would be consistent with the evidence provided
on air surveillance in the Christmas Island area for 18-20 October that is discussed later in this chapter.
The mention of ‘multisource information’
is another example of the need to decipher the PST meeting notes with care.
Although it appears that earlier intelligence (17 October) on SIEV X might have
been multisource, DIMIA advised the Committee that the intelligence on Qussey
on 18 October was single source. Thus it seems that, again, the PST
notes are referring in this instance to the ‘other’ organiser’s vessel, not
SIEV X. As the matter of the ‘multisource information’ (the second part of the
bullet point) goes to the question of the credibility of this intelligence, the
Committee discusses its importance in the next chapter.
On the day that SIEV X
foundered, no fresh intelligence appears to have been received on it.
Coastwatch repeated its advice of 18 October in its OPSUM for the day that a
Qussey vessel was a ‘possible’ arrival.
In reference to the Coastwatch OPSUMs for both 18 and 19 October, Rear Admiral
Smith observed that ‘neither of these reports were confirmed’.
On the same day a P3
surveillance flight sighted SIEV 6 near Christmas
Island. In reporting the sighting, the
DIMA Intelligence Note of the day also commented that ‘the other vessel’ (ie.
SIEV X) had not been seen. The Intelligence Note stated:
Abu Qussay’s boat carrying up to 250 passengers [original emphasis] that
reportedly departed from probably Cilicap, on Tuesday night has not yet been
sighted. It was expected to arrive in the vicinity of Christmas
Island late Thursday.
DIMIA’s Intelligence Analysis
Section (IAS) attributed the delay to the following factors:
IAS COMMENT: Abu Qussay’s boats often take longer to complete
the journey to Christmas Island than those organised by [DELETED] for example,
possibly because of the departure point (south-west Java) and the prevailing
currents and the use of smaller boats.
In other words, although SIEV X was by
DIMIA’s reckoning a day overdue at this stage (based on intelligence that it
had left Java on 16 October, which turned out to be wrong), it was not seen as
unusual given DIMIA’s experience with earlier vessels organised by Qussey.
Further, adverse weather conditions appear to have prevailed over these days.
Bad weather is thought to have forced SIEV X to
shelter in the lee of an island in the Indonesian archipelago on 18 October, and the weather conditions in the
area of operations north of Christmas Island were also poor on 19 October.
The expectation that SIEV X was
but one of many people smuggling vessels due to arrive in Australian waters
during this period should also be noted. After earlier predictions of an
impending influx in boat and people arrivals,
the DIMA Intelligence Note of 19 October made the following assessment:
The sighting of possibly [DELETED]’s vessel [SIEV 6] north west
of Christmas Island earlier today is probably the vanguard of the anticipated
surge and will probably be followed by Qussay’s boat later today. This will
probably see approximately 550 people off Christmas Island
by the weekend. There will probably be a three to five day break before the
first of the Ashmore Island-bound boats are likely to be approaching Australian
The Committee discusses the
‘anticipated surge’ in chapter 9.
One further development should
be noted. According to Coastwatch, from 19 October on the AFP became ‘the
primary source of information about SIEV X’. As will be seen, AFP reporting over
the next three days is central to the intelligence picture on SIEV X.
Two key items of intelligence
appeared on 20 October. The organiser of SIEV 6 was identified as not being Abu Qussey, indicating that SIEV X was
still in transit.
The second critical item of
intelligence arrived early in the morning. The AFP telephoned Coastwatch to
advise that a ‘source’ had provided fresh intelligence indicating that a vessel
had departed west Java the previous day and that it was reported to be small
and overcrowded. Coastwatch
immediately telephoned this advice through to ASTJIC and HQNORCOM and later
issued an OPSUM.
According to Rear Admiral Smith, Coastwatch’s advice indicated:
that the Abu Qussey
vessel had allegedly departed Sumar ... on the West Coast of Java early AM hours
19 October instead of Pelabuhan Ratu
as previously reported on the previous two days.
While neither the date nor
place of departure was correct, the rest of the message was consistent with the
later testimony of SIEV X survivors. Rear Admiral Smith continued:
The vessel was reported by the source ‘allegedly as small and
with 400 passengers onboard, with some passengers not embarking because the
vessel was overcrowded’.
In addition to the information
that SIEV X was small, carrying 400 passengers and overcrowded, the AFP officer
who provided the advice, Ms Kylie Pratt, also made a risk
assessment of the vessel’s capacity to ferry its passengers safely. Rear Admiral Bonser, the Director General of Coastwatch, told the Committee:
When the advice about the vessel’s alleged departure was
provided to Coastwatch by phone on 20 October, the AFP officer providing the
advice also offered a personal opinion that the vessel may be subject to increased
risk due to the numbers reportedly on board.
In the Committee’s view, the
AFP’s advice on 20 October is probably the single most crucial piece of
intelligence in the traffic about SIEV X. It
reached Australian authorities at a time when it might still have been possible
to have launched a search and rescue operation to locate the survivors of SIEV X. The
Committee traces the passing of this advice through the intelligence system
below, and then in the next chapter examines why it triggered little reaction
from operational decision makers.
Coastwatch to ASTJIC and HQNORCOM
Soon after its receipt,
Coastwatch telephoned the AFP advice through to ASTJIC and HQNORCOM. Coastwatch
records show the timing of the
sending of this information as:
0930K Phone call From AFP to Coastwatch
0950K Phone call From Coastwatch to ASTJIC
1000K Phone call From Coastwatch to HQNORCOM
1000K OPSUM From Coastwatch to Defence
The news from Coastwatch
galvanised ASTJIC into action. In less than 15 minutes ASTJIC had issued an
immediate intelligence report on the imminent arrival of another SIEV. In his recounting of the
intelligence traffic on SIEV X, Colonel Gallagher told the Committee ‘that even
though the point of departure was different [to the 17-18 October reports], the
ASTJIC took that report from the AFP via Coastwatch on the morning of the 20th
to be corroboration of the fact that the vessel had left’.
Colonel Gallagher also
said that this was the only instance when ASTJIC generated a ‘specific
immediate intelligence report’, its uniqueness reflecting the agency’s
assessment that the information was of ‘sufficient moment that people needed to
be aware of it’.
Elaborating on the reason for
ASTJIC issuing an ‘immediate intelligence report’ to HQNORCOM, Colonel Gallagher said that as it was the weekend (20 October was a Saturday) ‘the
way to get the attention of people out of normal working hours was to send them
an immediate message’.
Under the heading ‘Possible
boat departure for CI’, the declassified version of the ASTJIC report states:
information provided by [DELETED] AFP [DELETED] indicates that an Abu Qussay boat
departed [DELETED] the west coast of Java in the early AM hours of Friday
19 OCT 2001. The vessel is described as a small boat and may be carrying
up to 400 passengers.
ASTJIC assess that the vessel could arrive from late afternoon today (SAT
20 OCT) onwards.
The ASTJIC report went to a
range of recipients, including HQNORCOM, CJTF 639 (ie. Brigadier Silverstone)
and the Australian embassy in Jakarta.
At about midday
HQNORCOM issued its own intelligence summary or INTSUM. In the declassified review of the
intelligence on SIEV X, the INTSUM is said to include the following assessment:
NORCOM INTSUM assesses there is a high probability of the vessel
arriving vic [vicinity] Christmas Island from 21 Oct 01, and that due to its
overcrowding and need to maintain stability it may be limited to a slow
passage, and therefore a later time of arrival could be expected.
The INTSUM also noted that 400
passengers were on board a small vessel.
According to Rear Admiral Bonser of
Coastwatch, HQNORCOM repeated the original Coastwatch advice conveyed that
morning by telephone to ASTJIC. It
appears that the INTSUM also reflected discussions between HQNORCOM
intelligence staff and Coastwatch analysts about the probability of SIEV X’s
arrival and the level of confidence that could be placed on such an assessment. Further, Colonel Gallagher told the Committee ‘that the NORCOM INTSUM on 20 October
reflected the fact that they were concerned about overcrowding on the vessel,
which is essentially the substance of the intelligence report that was put out
by ASTJIC that morning’.
The Committee was initially
puzzled, nonetheless, at the apparent omission of the AFP advice that the
vessel might be at increased risk because of overcrowding. Subsequent evidence
has revealed, however, that HQNORCOM never received this particular piece of
information. When asked about the AFP officer’s concern about the increased
risk to the vessel’s safety, Brigadier Silverstone (who doubled as CJTF 639 and
Commander NORCOM) stated:
No such report was received by NORCOM from the AFP. On 20
October, Coastwatch advised HQNORCOM of the AFP report describing numbers
embarked, a place and approximate time of departure and that some unauthorised
arrivals had refused to board the SIEV due to overcrowding. The advice did not include a report of
concern for increased risk to the vessel’s safety. Due to previous
conflicting reports, HQNORCOM assessed that the report, except for the
departure date probably being correct, as having low credibility, with the requirement for confirmation of the
remaining details [emphasis added].
When combined with the ASTJIC
intelligence report cited above, this statement indicates that Coastwatch
failed to pass onto the ADF and Defence network the ‘personal assessment’ of
the AFP officer, Ms Kylie Pratt, regarding the increased risk that the overcrowding posed for SIEV X. This
casts a new light on the ADF’s response to the SIEV X
intelligence, particularly in relation to the question about whether a SOLAS
alert was warranted. It also suggests that ASTJIC issued an ‘immediate’
intelligence report on the morning of 20 October out of concern for the sudden
arrival of a new SIEV at Christmas Island, rather than concern for the vessel’s safety. In the next chapter
the Committee assesses the impact of Coastwatch’s handling of the AFP
intelligence on the SIEV X tragedy.
ASTJIC to Maritime Patrol Group
The ASTJIC intelligence report
also went to the 92 Wing Detachment at Learmonth in Western Australia,
where the Maritime Patrol Group (MPG) P3 Orions were based for Operation Relex.
This was the first occasion when the MPG heard of a ‘small and overcrowded
vessel’ which is now known to be SIEV X.
The ASTJIC report was received while the surveillance flight for 20 October was
The new information about SIEV X,
however, was not passed to the P3 on task at the time. It was not until the midnight briefing of the aircrew for the following day’s surveillance flight
that the detail about a small and overcrowded vessel was provided to any of the
MPG aircrews. When asked to
explain why the ASTJIC ‘immediate’ intelligence report was not transmitted to
the P3 on patrol on the morning of 20 October, Air Commodore Byrne, the
Commander of the MPG, said to the Committee:
The only thing I can think of is that there was nothing of any
criticality in that intelligence report to bring to the attention of the crew,
which was airborne.
In subsequent evidence to the
Committee, Air Commodore Byrne elaborated on the lack of ‘criticality’ in the
The information contained in the STJIC intelligence report of 20
October 2001 was not passed to the P-3C aircraft in the air at the time because
the report was assessed as adding nothing
of immediate significance [emphasis added] to the information already held
at Maritime Patrol Group and by the crew flying at the time. The intelligence
report described the vessel as ‘small and may be carrying up to 400
passengers’. Additionally, ASTJIC assessed that the vessel could arrive from
late that afternoon onwards. There was no information received to suggest that
any action other than routine intelligence reporting was warranted. Therefore,
the report’s information was collated into the pre-flight intelligence report
that afternoon, to brief the crew for the next flight.
This was not the only instance
on 20 October when the AFP intelligence was not passed onto key decision makers.
Neither DIMIA nor the afternoon meeting of the People Smuggling Taskforce
received the AFP intelligence. The Committee examines these apparent lapses in
the communication chain in the next two sections.
Communication breakdown: DIMIA
While the AFP advice was
transmitted rapidly to Coastwatch and the key Defence agencies, it appears not
to have reached DIMIA. When asked by the Committee if DIMIA’s Intelligence
Analysis Section (IAS) had received the AFP information on 20 October, none of
the DIMIA witnesses could recall seeing or knowing of it. In Ms Siegmund’s
words, ‘in this instance we were not part of that intelligence loop’.
DIMIA offered two possible
explanations for why it was not in the ‘intelligence loop’ on this occasion.
Both relate to operational considerations. While Ms Siegmund
indicated that she would have expected that DIMIA’s intelligence people would
also have been telephoned the AFP advice at some stage during the weekend, she
made the observation that:
But I also accept the fact that, in these circumstances –
particularly where an agency might feel that it has operational information
that has to be passed quickly – the first instinct might be to ring an agency
such as Coastwatch or Defence, rather than us, because it is something they are
expecting action to be taken on or it is needed more urgently. We might be
advised at a later time.
Mr Killesteyn also suggested that the operational priority would have been to
fast track the information to those responsible for surveillance and interception,
and that this could have overshadowed the requirement to pass it onto DIMIA for
analysis and reporting. In Mr Killesteyn’s view:
I suspect that the particular piece of intelligence we are
referring to – from AFP to Coastwatch on Saturday 20 – was around the process
of interception as distinct from making sure that there was an opportunity to
build it into a report. It was very much a focus on interception, and then
dealing with the vessel and its passengers at that point.
The Committee notes two points
in relation to this aspect of the SIEV X
incident. First, both Ms Siegmund’s and Mr Killesteyn’s view of the operational
importance of the AFP intelligence accords with Colonel Gallagher’s evidence
that it was of ‘sufficient moment’ to warrant fast tracking to the joint
taskforce headquarters at NORCOM. The Committee discusses this issue in the
Second, the Committee finds
this instance of a breakdown in intelligence sharing to be odd for two reasons.
First, DIMIA was the clearinghouse for intelligence on people smuggling and
therefore the collection point for all relevant onshore and offshore
intelligence. Second, the AFP officer who provided the 20 October report was a
member of the Joint AFP-DIMIA People Smuggling Strike Team. According to Ms Siegmund, ‘there
is a close relationship in terms of information sharing’ between the Strike
Team and IAS.
The Committee considers that
the communication breakdown in this instance might reflect not only operational
exigencies but also problems with the processes and procedures in place for
intelligence coordination across government agencies. The Committee returns to
the issue of systemic problems with the intelligence system in chapter 9.
Afternoon meeting of the People Smuggling Taskforce
The possibility of SIEV X
arriving at Christmas Island over the next day or so seems to have been canvassed at the meeting
of the PST in the afternoon of 20 October. The meeting started at 4.00pm.
That is, the meeting occurred after
the SIEV X survivors had been rescued.
After discussing the situation
with SIEV 6, the meeting notes record, under the subheading ‘Further arrivals’:
Second boat expected at Christmas Island
tomorrow. If arrives, assessment to be made whether possible to return larger
vessel. Arunta to relieve possible overcrowding.
Ms Halton thought it ‘likely’ that this passage referred to SIEV X. She also explained that the comment
about ‘overcrowding’ did not relate to passenger numbers on SIEV X but to
the mounting pressure on accommodation facilities at Christmas Island. With
intelligence reports forecasting possibly SIEV X and another boat arriving with
250 and over 500 passengers respectively, the PST meeting that day was focused
on ‘a huge accommodation problem’.
Consideration turned to the practicality of returning to Indonesia
whichever of the two SIEVs turned out to be carrying the most passengers (ie.
the ‘larger vessel’).
Ms Halton also stressed that the discussion around the accommodation
implications of SIEV X arriving was provisional, reflecting the unconfirmed
status of its departure from Indonesia.
Referring to the passage from the PST notes cited above, Ms Halton said to
If you read that particular sentence, it goes on: ‘if arrives,
assessment to be made whether’. So we are planning prudently for things that
may or may not happen. There is a greater probability with things [intelligence
reports] that are multisource ... but here we are still saying ‘if arrives’.
There is no categorical assurance or understanding in our minds that it is
absolutely on its way. It had not been spotted. The confirmation that we always
relied on in terms of vessels was them actually being found by an aircraft. Our
experience of however many SIEVs beforehand was that sometimes they got unnervingly
close to Ashmore or to Christmas Island before they were
When asked about the AFP
intelligence report of that day, Ms Halton told the
Committee that neither she nor the PST meeting was made aware of it, even
though an AFP officer and Rear Admiral Bonser attended
the meeting. She observed that had
a report been received which raised the number of expected passengers on SIEV X from
250 to 400, it would have set ‘alarm bells ... ringing’ because of the acute
accommodation situation on Christmas Island. Ms Halton also said
that the meeting received neither the Coastwatch OPSUM nor the
any of the Defence intelligence reports for that day.
The Committee has not been in a
position to explore the reasons behind the omission of the content of the 20
October AFP intelligence at the PST meeting that afternoon. One possible
explanation might be that the PST did not, according to Ms Halton, ‘sieve
through intelligence’ at the level of detail contained in the AFP report. Apart from the odd exception, the taskforce received mainly
high-level summaries of the intelligence situation; other interdepartmental bodies
handled operational intelligence.
Another explanation might be
that, as appears to have been the case on 18 October, the intelligence briefing
came from DIMIA officers discussing relevant detail from the current DIMA
Intelligence Note. If this was so,
the briefing would have reflected the DIMA Intelligence Note of 19 October
(there were no DIMA Intelligence Notes for 20 or 21 October) which reported
SIEV X as carrying up to 250 passengers.
However plausible these
explanations might be, the Committee finds it inexplicable that some elements
of the AFP intelligence were not raised during the meeting. Given that the High
Level Group was grappling with, in Ms Halton’s words, ‘a huge accommodation
problem’ on Christmas Island, it is hard to fathom why none of the
representatives from Defence, Coastwatch and the AFP mentioned the new
intelligence that the passenger numbers on SIEV X had risen from 250 to 400.
Given also that the meeting was considering the question of returning a ‘larger
vessel’ to Indonesia if required, it is odd that neither the small size of SIEV X nor
the concern about its seaworthiness was raised.
It is possible that none of the
officers from Defence, Coastwatch and AFP personally knew themselves of the new
intelligence. However, this seems unlikely in relation to Coastwatch and Rear Admiral Bonser, as it was usually Coastwatch’s role, according to Ms Halton, to run
the intelligence briefings at the taskforce meetings.
In the next chapter, the
Committee assesses the impact of these apparent breakdowns in the intelligence
chain – Coastwatch’s omission of the reported increased risk to the vessel in
its briefing to Defence, the failure to pass the AFP report to DIMIA and it not
being mentioned at the PST meeting – on Australia’s
response to SIEV X.
A lull appears in the
intelligence flow on 21 October. Both the Coastwatch OPSUM and the HQNORCOM INTSUM for the
day reported no new information and repeated earlier reports on the boat’s
In his advice to the Committee,
Rear Admiral Smith restated
his view of the ‘unconfirmed’ reports in the Coastwatch OPSUMs of 18 and 19
October, saying that ‘again the reports of 20 and 21 October were
The Committee also notes that
the previous day’s AFP intelligence was again not canvassed at the PST meeting
held late in the afternoon on 21 October.
The first concerns that SIEV X might
be overdue surfaced in Australian intelligence circles on 22 October. The AFP
contacted Coastwatch again with advice that the vessel had departed Java but on
this occasion also assessed that it was overdue. Coastwatch passed this
information to not only its regular contacts (ASTJIC and HQNORCOM) but also to
the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) at the Australian Search and Rescue
(AusSAR) organisation. The RCC in
turn transmitted an overdue message to Australian agencies and to its
counterparts in Indonesia.
The situation concerning SIEV X was
also debated at the PST meeting that afternoon.
Coastwatch, AusSAR and HQNORCOM
sent out messages based on the AFP advice during the course of the day. The
Committee examines these three messages in the sections below, before turning
to the PST meeting of 22 October.
Coastwatch advice to other agencies
Rear Admiral Bonser outlined
to the Committee the chain of reporting on the day:
On the 22nd, we received the
information from AFP at 10.03. The assessment was made that the vessel was
overdue and AFP were contacted about what information could or could not be
conveyed. They requested a stay of the notification while they put together some suitable words.
That was provided to us at 13.50. After they authorised release of that at
14.05, Coastwatch advised AusSAR
using the words that were provided by AFP.
AusSAR’s records show that
Coastwatch telephoned through this advice to the Rescue Coordination Centre
(RCC) at approximately 2.40pm and then sent a fax with the AFP authorised release at 2.45pm. The Coastwatch fax
A number of sources are reporting that a vessel carrying an
unknown number of potential illegal immigrants departed the West Coast of Java
on Friday 19 October 2001 transiting the Sunda Strait[s] heading for Christmas
Island. By our calculations the vessel is now overdue.
Coastwatch also faxed ASTJIC
and HQNORCOM, in addition to the standard addressees in Defence. It appears that the Coastwatch OPSUM was sent
some time later in the day. Rear
Admiral Smith said that ‘Late on 22 October 2001, Coastwatch
advised my headquarters via the CMSP OPSUM that the Abu Qussey vessel
was now considered overdue’.
Admiral Bonser told the
Committee that Coastwatch viewed the latest AFP advice as ‘corroborating’ the
earlier AFP report on 20 October of the vessel’s departure and ‘confirming’
that it was overdue. He also said
that the AFP’s advice of 22 October had included an assessment that SIEV X was
overdue, a conclusion with which Coastwatch agreed based on its own calculations
of the likely transit time.
These comments need to be set,
however, alongside the Coastwatch OPSUM for that day. The OPSUM not only contained more information than
that faxed to AusSAR but it also to some extent qualified the overdue notice. According
to the Defence review of SIEV intelligence, the OPSUM noted that it was not
unusual for a SIEV to be overdue.
The OPSUM also suggested that the ‘delay could be due to poor condition of the
boat and large numbers onboard or the use of an alternative route to avoid
As is discussed more fully
later in this chapter and in the next, the assessment and its positing of
possible reasons for the vessel being overdue seems to have reflected some
doubts within Coastwatch over the firmness of the AFP report and whether the
vessel had departed. In this
regard, the Committee also notes the DIMA Intelligence Note of 22 October
which, after discussing SIEV 6, stated:
The other vessel believed to be heading for Christmas
Island, organised by Abu Qussay and carrying up to 400
passengers [original emphasis], has not yet been sighted but should be in
the vicinity of Christmas Island if it was able to
depart successfully from the Cilicap area on Friday morning.
The qualification concerning SIEV X’s departure
from Cilicap – ‘if it was able to depart’ – contained in this note further
hedged earlier DIMIA reports of the boat’s ‘reported’ departure. This suggests
that at this stage in DIMIA doubts were also circulating about the accuracy of
earlier reports that SIEV X had left Indonesian territory for Australian waters.
AusSAR advice to Australian and Indonesian agencies
After Coastwatch had contacted
the AusSAR Rescue and Coordination Centre (RCC) – initially by telephone and then fax – of the concerns about
the overdue vessel, the RCC responded with a telephone call to Coastwatch. The
RCC files record the conversation as follows:
base to ensure Defence are aware and that this area is out of our SRR [search
and rescue region].
Coastwatch: Yes – realise that – ensuring you are aware and we will keep you in
the loop over the coming days.
we use your exact words in a fax to BASARNAS (SAR colleagues in Indonesia).
Coastwatch: Yes – exact words.
This call occurred at 2.42pm. The RCC staff then did their own calculations to satisfy
themselves that the vessel was potentially overdue. At 3.16pm RCC sent
a fax with the overdue message to both BASARNAS (the Indonesian search and
rescue authority) and the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, to the
Indonesian Embassy and Coastwatch in Canberra and to
Maritime Headquarters Australia and Headquarters Australian Theatre. The fax
Australia has been advised that a vessel carrying an unknown number of
persons departed the West Coast of Java on Friday 19 October 2001
transiting the Sunda Strait[s] heading for Christmas Island. This vessel
has not yet arrived and concerns have been expressed for its safety.
for information and action as considered necessary.
No further contact occurred
between the RCC and Indonesian authorities in relation to SIEV X.
At 3.46pm, in
response to the RCC fax, Headquarters Australian Theatre (HQAST) telephoned the
RCC to check that no new information had come in since the earlier Coastwatch
fax of 2.45pm. The nature of that telephone call was recorded as follows:
got your fax. What is your source?
already have a large search for this vessel for surveillance matters.
[search and rescue]?
In Mr Davidson’s
recollection of the telephone call, the reason behind HQAST contacting the RCC
was due to a difference in wording between the Coastwatch and RCC faxes. Unlike
the original Coastwatch fax, the RCC one mentioned in relation to the overdue
vessel that ‘concerns have been expressed for its safety’. Mr Davidson
ventured the opinion that ‘Defence were trying to confirm whether there was
something different or more knowledge that they did not have’. He thought that the new phrase
possibly came from RCC conversations with Coastwatch or the RCC staff itself,
as there was no new information on which the phrase might have been based.
Given that the RCC files record
only the one conversation cited above between the RCC and Coastwatch, it seems
fair to conclude that the phrase originated within the RCC itself.
The Committee notes that AusSAR
received only part of the information
(the estimated departure date and suspected overdue status) that was
circulating within the intelligence system and operational commands about the SIEV X’s
state. Mr Davidson said to the Committee:
The nature of the number of people on board the vessel was
unknown, the departure point was unknown, the calculations that were undertaken
were based upon assumptions being made by Coastwatch and then confirmed by the
RCC and, on that basis, BASARNAS was advised of the information.
This is the second instance
during the 17-23 October period when Coastwatch passed on only part of the
information available on SIEV X to other Australian agencies (the first
instance occurred, as discussed above, on 20 October ).
It remains unclear to the
Committee why Coastwatch did not convey to AusSAR the remaining, and arguably
critical, elements of the AFP advice – namely that the vessel was thought to
have 400 people on board, that it was considered to be overcrowded and that, on
one view of the situation at least, the vessel was at risk. Constraints on the
sharing of intelligence sourced from another agency may have limited the extent
to which Coastwatch was able to pass on to AusSAR sensitive information of this
kind. However, if there were concerns about compromising security, it seems
that this could have been easily handled with carefully chosen words that would
have alerted recipients to concerns about the risk to the vessel without
exposing intelligence sources or methods.
On the same day that three
agencies (AFP, Coastwatch and AusSAR RCC) calculated that SIEV X was
overdue and sent messages to that effect, HQNORCOM issued an INTSUM that
reached a rather different conclusion. According to the declassified Defence
review of the intelligence on SIEV X, the
daily NORCOM INTSUM concluded:
NORCOM INTSUM assesses the vessel has returned [emphasis added] to the Java coast because of the
unfavourable weather and overcrowding, however, that if weather conditions
improved, there was a low probability of the vessel arriving at Christmas
Island after 24 Oct 01.
In elaborating on this INTSUM,
HQNORCOM emphasised that weather conditions were the main factor that
determined the assessment. Brigadier Silverstone, Commander NORCOM, stated:
Weather had been an important factor in previous SIEV movements.
The prevailing weather conditions and sea state at the time would certainly
have made a transit from Indonesia
to Christmas Island difficult for any small vessel. It
was assessed that, if the vessel had departed as reported, it would likely
return to the Indonesian coastline to seek shelter once encountered adverse
conditions. It was further assessed that the crew would not risk a passage (and
their lives) if the vessel was insufficiently seaworthy to make a passage in
the prevailing weather conditions.
As it transpired, it appears
that SIEV X did shelter in the lee of an island due to bad weather at about 9.00am
on 18 October, before continuing on its way.
Brigadier Silverstone also
stated that ‘[t]he probability of arrival at Christmas Island was reduced to
low on the basis that the crew would probably await more favourable weather
conditions’. The level of ‘low
probablility’ given to SIEV X meant that HQNORCOM assessed the likelihood of it arriving at Christmas Island as less than
50 per cent.
Although weather conditions
would have been a major consideration for the vessel’s crew, it appears that
HQNORCOM played down or overlooked recent intelligence assessments that pointed
to other ‘push factors’ that would have influenced those in charge of SIEV X.
DIMA Intelligence Notes on 17, 18 and 19 October concentrated on the expected
‘surge’ in boat and people arrivals. In particular, the intelligence
assessments highlighted the pressures on people smugglers behind the surge. For
example, on 18 October DIMIA stated:
All current major organisers in
Indonesia reportedly have clients and boats and are ready to move to alleviate
both their financial difficulties and the management problems of keeping large
pools of potential clients in Indonesia for extended periods of time.The impending wet season, which was
only weeks away, was an additional factor impelling boat organisers to move
quickly. The cumulative pressures or push factors bearing on organisers at the
time led DIMIA’s intelligence analysts to conclude:
The need to get people (and boats) away has built to such a
point that all the major organisers and their clients are ready to move, no
matter what the consequences.
Nonetheless, by this stage
HQNORCOM was not alone in thinking that SIEV X was
probably no longer bound for Christmas
Island. As the next section will show, the
PST meeting of 22 October also had strong doubts that the vessel was in transit
towards Australian waters.
Afternoon meeting of the PST
Shortly after Coastwatch
contacted AusSAR, the PST met and discussed the matter of SIEV X. The notes of the meeting record the
discussion in the following single line:
Not spotted yet, missing, grossly overloaded, no jetsam spotted,
no reports from relatives.
The evidence to the Committee
shows that the tenor of the discussion at the meeting was somewhat different to
the meaning apparent in the overdue messages sent out that day by various
agencies. It also shows that the notes of the meeting, like those for the
meeting on 18 October, are ‘cryptic’ insofar as they do not convey the real
sense of the debate that occurred over SIEV X.
During the meeting, the
discussion appears to have been as much about whether SIEV X could
still be considered a ‘possible arrival’ as about it being unseaworthy and
overdue. Ms Halton, who chaired the meeting, said of the debate about SIEV X: ‘The
context was, “Did it leave? Is it really on the water?”’
The discussion involved
primarily DIMIA and Coastwatch, as the two agencies most familiar with not only
the intelligence on SIEV X but also boat arrivals in general. According to Ms Halton, the
DIMIA representatives indicated to the meeting ‘that they were now starting to
think that the boat was not on the water’ (ie. not in transit). She explained the reasons for DIMIA
reaching this conclusion:
The DIMIA people advised that, if a vessel had departed and had
not arrived – that is, if some tragedy had befallen it – they tended to get
phone calls from relatives, because the relatives in Australia
knew that the vessel had left. They reported that they had not had any
reporting. There was a report that no jetsam had been spotted. In fact, the
conversation turned on whether in fact it existed, whether it had returned to Indonesia
or what have you. My memory is that the balance of view at that point – we now
know that, tragically, this was not the case – was that the vessel was not on
the water. ...
That it was not en route to Christmas Island.
This [assessment] was as a consequence of the DIMIA experience [of vessels that
The thrust of Ms Halton’s
recollection of the discussion was corroborated by Mr Vince McMahon, First
Assistant Secretary, DIMIA. Mr McMahon said that, from DIMIA’s perspective, none of the usual indicators
used to verify a boat in transit had been detected.
Likewise, Ms Halton indicated
that the absence of any ‘jestsam’ or flotsam suggested to Coastwatch that the
vessel had not sunk, leading the
meeting to conclude that, on balance, the boat had probably not left Indonesian
waters, if it existed all.
It is in that sense that the
PST meeting notes seem to have recorded SIEV X as
‘missing’: it had disappeared from view, rather than was considered to be
missing at sea. In Ms Halton’s words, ‘the conversation on the 22nd ... was actually a
discussion about whether in fact this boat existed’.
Ms Halton also said that the meeting had discussed the possibility that, if
in the event SIEV X had been in transit, it now might be in distress and facing a
safety of life at sea (SOLAS) situation.
However, the absence of any sightings of flotsam and any telephone calls from
relatives inclined those present to discount this contingency. Ms Halton said
... in assessing whether there was an issue at sea, on balance the
advice seemed to be that if there was a vessel out there in distress there
would have been phone calls from relatives and something would have been said.
Although ‘the view of the
people who do this intelligence work was in fact that there was not a safety of
lives at sea issue’, the
discussion went to the question of whether the Australian Maritime Safety
Authority (AMSA) should be notified of the situation concerning SIEV X. Ms
I think there was an agreement that someone should ring AMSA. I
think the basis of the discussion was that there was not necessarily a need for
an alert, because the intelligence people thought that there was not likely to
be an issue. Nonetheless, there was a phone call to AMSA. The phone call to
AMSA then elucidated the fact that an alert had already been issued.
Ms Halton’s record of the key points of the discussion about SIEV X – on
the significance that the vessel had not been sighted and that no telephone
calls from relatives had been received and thus the conclusion that it was not
a matter for alarm – was also corroborated by another senior officer present at
the meeting. Ms Katrina Edwards, First Assistant Secretary, PM & C, told the Committee that,
while the intelligence on the vessel appeared ‘firmer than some’, Coastwatch
appeared uncertain about the vessel. Ms Edwards
My recollection is that Coastwatch was seeking to test the
assessment of whether or not it had in fact departed.
Ms Edwards also said that the meeting agreed that, owing to the uncertainty
surrounding the vessel, there appeared to be insufficient grounds for
In light of the doubts over the
veracity of intelligence on SIEV X’s
departure, the decision on the part of the PST meeting to contact AusSAR
appears to have been a prudential step, one that is hard to reconcile with
claims that the meeting was indifferent to or ignored the vessel’s situation.
In the next chapter, the
Committee returns to the discussion at the PST meeting in the context of its
assessment of the handling of the SIEV X
On 23 October, four days after
it had foundered, the first reports of SIEV X’s
sinking filtered into intelligence and decision making circles in Canberra. An AFP
federal agent phoned Ms Halton at 2.00 a.m. to say that a boat had sunk.
At some point in the day ASTJIC provided similar advice to Coastwatch. Later on, CNN reported the sinking
of a vessel and rescue of 45 survivors.
The DIMA Intelligence Note of
the day, issued at 2.00
p.m., identified the sunken vessel as that
belonging to Abu Qussey. It reported, among other things, that the vessel was
‘approximately 60NM [nautical miles] south of the Sunda Strait’ when
it began to take water before capsizing.
That afternoon at 3.15 p.m.,
the High Level Group meeting of the PST was briefed (it is thought by the AFP
based on a cable from the Jakarta embassy)
in detail about the vessel’s transit before it sank and was told that 352
people had drowned.
Based on the evidence received
by the Committee, the intelligence on SIEV X appears to have dried up after 23
October. The only significant mention of it in the material before the
Committee appears in an e-mail message originating from DIMIA on 24 October.
The message contains
‘preliminary details’ about the size of the vessel (‘reportedly 3 x 18
metres’), its transit, sinking and the nationalities of those on board.
One point to note is that the
message says that SIEV X ‘capsized on 19 October between Java and Sumatra’, which seems to contradict the
previous day’s DIMA Intelligence Note which suggested that the vessel sank 60nm
south of Java.
Surveillance and SIEV X
As mentioned earlier in the
report, extensive maritime surveillance, stretching across the ‘air-sea gap’ in
the northern approaches to Australia, was operating almost daily throughout
Operation Relex. Rear Admiral Bonser observed:
The whole general area is being covered by what is probably the
most comprehensive surveillance that I have seen in some 30 years service.
Despite its comprehensiveness,
the surveillance operation did not pick up SIEV X. Rear Admiral Smith told the
Committee: ‘None of our surveillance that we had operating – aircraft or ships
– had detected this vessel’.
This section discusses the
surveillance that took place during the critical period of SIEV X’s transit,
foundering and the rescue of survivors, that is, 18 to 20 October. It examines
the relevant surveillance area in general and then details the surveillance
patterns and results for the key period.
Surveillance operations and patrol areas
At the time of the SIEV X
incident, surveillance was operating in three patrol routes and maritime patrol
areas: North of Christmas Island; South of Bali, Lombok and Sumbawa Islands;
and the approaches to the Kimberley region of the WA coast. In the division of labour under
Relex, the ADF was responsible for patrolling the first and second areas, while
Coastwatch concentrated on the third area.
These three areas reflected the
concept of operations guiding Operation Relex in general. The first two areas
in particular covered the two key corridors or axes through which the ADF
expected SIEVs to transit towards Australian waters. As Rear Admiral Ritchie
...back in October, there were two main channels of arrival that
we were concerned about: the channel which came from Sumatra, the western end
of Java, down through the Sunda Strait and into Christmas Island; and the
channel which came, generally, through Kupang, Roti and very quickly across the
intervening distance down into Ashmore Island.
Within both of these areas,
surveillance involved aircraft and surface vessels. The air surveillance was
performed primarily by RAAF P3C Orion reconnaissance planes and also ship-borne
helicopters. It provided the outer ring of surveillance while RAN ships sat
back in so-called ‘focal areas’ or likely interception zones closer to
Christmas Island and Ashmore Island.
The relevant area in the case
of SIEV X was that to the north of Christmas Island. The ADF referred to it as
area ‘Charlie’. It was divided into four quadrants: Charlie-Northwest (C-NW),
Charlie-Northeast (C-NE), Charlie-Southwest (C-SW) and Charlie-Southeast
(C-SE). Area Charlie encompassed a 36,400 square nautical mile (nm)
It should be noted that its
northern boundary was circumscribed by the instruction for aircraft not to fly
within a 24 nm buffer zone from the Indonesian archipelagic baseline. This was
designed to prevent RAAF aircraft infringing Indonesian airspace.
The command and control
arrangements for the surveillance operation were explained to the Committee by
Air Commodore Byrne, the Commander of the Maritime Patrol Group (MPG):
Aircraft conducting Operation Relex surveillance are under the
command of Headquarters Air Command and the operational control of Commander
NORCOM whilst airborne. In addition, aircraft come under tactical control of
RAN ships deployed on Operation Relex while in the search area.
Surveillance 18-20 October
During the three-day period of
SIEV X’s ill-fated transit the ADF continued its scheduled aerial surveillance
of area Charlie. According to the ADF:
In fact normal surveillance was carried out in the surveillance
area, including 100% coverage of the northern reaches, on both 18th
and 19th of October 2001. On the 19th of October, the day
the vessel is believed to have sunk, an additional flight was flown in the
evening to compensate for the unserviceability of HMAS ARUNTA’s helicopter. The
flight’s coverage was limited by adverse weather.
The ADF review of the
surveillance findings on these three days also noted: ‘Surveillance on these
days did not detect any vessel in distress, nor any distress calls on
international distress frequencies which are constantly monitored’.
This point should be put,
however, in context. Evidence from both Coastwatch and AMSA indicated that it
was rare for SIEVs to carry radios
or equipment such as emergency position beacons. The Committee notes that this would
not exclude the possibility, of course, of a vessel so equipped issuing an
alert to other shipping and surveillance authorities of a vessel found in
The review also noted some of
the factors that hindered the surveillance operation:
While the surveillance operations associated with border
protection are accurately described as comprehensive – they do not, as some
have assumed, provide minute by minute, 24 hours a day scrutiny of the surveillance
A number of factors impact on efficiency of the operations
including weather (which impacts both on aircraft and sensor, ie radar and
infra-red performance), the veracity of intelligence and the availability of
assets – in particular the serviceability of aircraft and aircrew hours.
Air Commodore Byrne also
pointed to the constraints facing aircrews searching for wooden-based vessels
such as SIEVs. In Air Commodore Byrne’s words, ‘radar is not brilliant; it
loses a lot of effectiveness, particularly against wooden hulled vessels in
high sea states’.
At the request of the office of
the Minister of Defence, the ADF reviewed the flight data from the P3 patrols
over 18-20 October. The following summarises the findings of that review. Maps
of the surveillance area and flight path patterns for the period are at the end
of the chapter.
On 18 October (the day SIEV X
set sail to Christmas Island), a P3 flew out of Learmonth (WA) at 7.55am, arrived in area Charlie at 9.35am,
patrolled for 4 hours 31 minutes, departed the area at 2.11pm and returned to
Learmonth at 5.52pm.
At this stage, the P3 aircrews
were searching for two possible SIEVs,
based on the intelligence reports discussed earlier in this chapter.
Due to atmospheric conditions,
‘the aircraft’s APS115 radar was detecting wooden fishing vessels of 12-20m
length at about 12nm thus dictating a search track separation of 24nm’. For this flight the Infra-Red
Detection System (IRDS) achieved detection ranges of 1nm for the same type of
In the aircrew’s assessment,
the flight achieved 100 per cent surveillance. 25 contacts were located, 21 of
which were visually identified as two merchant vessels and 19 fishing vessels.
The flight detected four other radar contacts but could not visually confirm
these as they were outside the search zone and in the 24nm ‘no-go’ buffer zone.
19 October morning patrol flight
This flight departed Learmonth
at 3.48am, arrived on task at 5.30am, patrolled for 5 hours 14 minutes, departed
area Charlie at 10.44am and returned to Learmonth at 14.28pm. While it was on
task SIEV X appears to have still been transiting to Christmas Island.
Weather conditions impacted on
the surveillance performance. Intermittent rain in the northwest region (the
area that some consider likely to be the most proximate to where SIEV X
foundered) reduced visibility to five nm, while atmospheric conditions degraded
both radar and IRDS. The P3 flew 20nm ‘sweeps’ or search tracks, managed 100
per cent surveillance of area Charlie but with 75 per cent detection
probability in the northern areas and 80 percent in the southern. IRDS achieved
identification ranges of 1.5nm against ‘smaller surface contacts’.
Early in the flight the P3
detected SIEV 6. A further 37 contacts were made, with visual identification of
eight merchant vessels and 22 fishing vessels. Seven additional but
unidentified contacts were also made, two of which were outside the search area
to the east and three of which were within the buffer zone.
19 October afternoon/evening patrol flight
As mentioned above, this
unplanned flight was made owing to problems with the helicopter on Arunta. It departed Learmonth at 3.05pm,
arrived on task at 4.44pm, patrolled for 4 hours 31 minutes, departed 9.15pm
and returned to base at 0.52am 20 October.
As SIEV 6 had been found during
the morning patrol, the afternoon flight was searching for the ‘second vessel’
reported as a possible arrival in the contemporaneous intelligence.
Weather affected the detection
performance for this flight more than the other patrols over 18-20 October.
According to the ADF:
This flight was notable in that the weather was generally poor
and aircrew spent considerable time avoiding storms, particularly in the
western quadrant. The need to conduct weather avoidance manoeuvres led to the
aircraft reaching its endurance before completing patrol of its designated
Visibility was six nm due to
haze. Radar range for 12-20m wooden fishing vessels varied because of the
weather, achieving only seven nm in poor conditions but up to 12 nm in better
conditions. IRDS achieved two nm. These factors dictated a search track
separation of 24nm. Air Commodore Byrne, who was a member of the aircrew on
this flight, told the Committee that the weather forced the crew to compress
the track spacing. He said that ‘the wind velocity was high and there was a lot
of rain. That makes radar detection performance less than ideal’.
Flight surveillance achieved 95
per cent in C-SW except for a 30nm x 10nm impenetrable storm and 95 per cent in
C-SE before the P3 reached its ‘prudent limit of endurance’.
Eight contacts were detected on
radar, six of which were visually identified as fishing vessels. Three of the
visually identified vessels were close to the line demarcating C-NE and C-SE.
The other three identified vessels were to the west of C-SW, that is, outside
the designated search area. One of the remaining radar contacts was also
outside the search area but was not investigated. The other radar contact was
in C-NW but fuel constraints and tasking instructions from Arunta to concentrate patrolling on the southern sectors prevented
the P3 from diverting north to make a visual identification of this contact.
As this flight occurred when
the survivors and wreckage of SIEV X were in the water, the Committee
questioned Air Commodore Byrne on whether the radar on the P3 would have been
capable of detecting flotsam from the vessel. Air Commodore Byrne observed: ‘I
would say that in the weather that was present in the area that night it would
have been impossible to pick up flotsam or jetsam’ with radar. In other words, it is unlikely that
either of the two unconfirmed radar contacts was the wreckage of SIEV X.
Members of the Committee were
also concerned to understand the reasons why this flight, unlike the other
patrols during 18-20 October, concentrated on the southern search area, at a
time when the SIEV X survivors might have been in an area closer to the
northern sectors of Area Charlie. When
asked to explain why the afternoon flight of 19 October did not patrol as far
north as other flights, Air Commodore Byrne said:
... we were tasked by the Arunta
when we first came on task with searching a sweep from east to west, 10
nautical miles to the south of the area. So we actually initially searched to
the south of the area, which obviously takes time. We also had very bad
weather. We were deviating around thunderstorms and rain cells for the full 4½
hours on task, and that takes up time and effort. We also deviated out to the
west of the area. You will notice on the radar contacts and fishing contacts
that were picked up just outside the area, to the west of the area. We were 45
minutes outside the area visually identifying those in the dead of night with
infra-red detection gear. That actually involves overflying each contact at 300
feet and looking for hot spots to try and identify suspected illegal entry
vessels by multiple hot spots, for example. ... Each contact has to be flown over
directly, and that takes time.
The reason for patrolling
intensively the southern sectors in precedence to the north reflected, in Air
Commodore Byrne’s view, an assessment that the south was the ‘high probability
area’ for detecting the second of the two expected possible boat arrivals. As one
(SIEV 6) of the two vessels had been detected in the morning, operational
commanders would have reasoned that if the second boat was en route to
Christmas Island it would probably have transited the northern area after the
morning P3 patrol, making it more likely to be in the southern area during the
afternoon. In Air Commodore Byrne’s view, the Relex commanders:
... were expecting two vessels that day. They had found one in the
morning in the south of the area and they wanted to make sure that they sanitised
the south of the area before the next flight, which was not coming on until
dawn the next day. If indeed they had not sanitised the south of the area, and
if there had been something there, it would have reached Christmas Island
before the next aircraft came on task at dawn the next day. So the tactical
priority was to ensure that there was nothing in the southern part of the area.
That is the reality of tasking priorities.
Air Commodore Byrne went on to
But I also highlight that we were not restricted from searching
the north of the area, and indeed we were tasked as a next priority with
searching the north-west then the north-east. We never made it there because we
ran low on fuel. It was just the luck of the game – going around all these
thunderstorms in the area.
He also emphasised that, in his
opinion, the focus on patrolling the southern sectors of Area Charlie was a
sound tactical decision:
If I were an operational planner I would start by concentrating
in the south of the area to make sure that nothing got through in the seven or
eight hours subsequent when there was no aircraft on task, whilst there could
have been a vessel transiting from north to south.
On the day the SIEV X survivors
were rescued, a P3 departed Learmonth at 4.00am, arrived on task at 5.35am,
patrolled for 5 hours 11 minutes, departed at 10.46am and returned to Learmonth
at 2.33pm. In other words, it would seem that the survivors were still in the
water during this flight’s patrol time in area Charlie.
The P3 achieved 100 per cent
coverage of C-SW and C-NW, 90 per cent of C-NE and 45 per cent of C-SE. 21
contacts were made with visual identification of 18 fishing vessels and 3
merchant vessels. Two further radar contacts fell within the buffer zone and
therefore were not identified. Shortage of fuel prevented visual identification
of a further two radar contacts late in the flight.
In summing up the surveillance
operation during the 18 to 20 October period and the sinking of SIEV X, Air
Commodore Byrne said to the Committee:
It was a terrible tragedy but unfortunately we had no safety of
life at sea indications and really did not know that it had happened until the
23rd, based upon all of the information that we had at hand.
In the next chapter, the
Committee discusses the relationship between intelligence and surveillance
during Operation Relex and how it affected the decisions taken towards SIEV X.