Chapter 9 - The Response to SIEV X
Relevant signals, so clearly audible after the event, [were]
partially obscured before the event by surrounding noise.
From 17 to 23 October, the
critical ‘time window’ surrounding SIEV X, neither the ADF nor any other
Australian agency took decisive action directly in relation to SIEV X. As seen
in the previous chapter, maritime surveillance for Operation Relex continued as
scheduled (except on 19 October when an extra flight occurred because of an
unserviceable helicopter). The surveillance led to the interception of SIEV 6
on 19 October and SIEV 7 on 22 October. On 22 October the Rescue Coordination
Centre at AusSAR issued an overdue notice in response to Coastwatch and AFP
advice, but no special flights or steps were taken beyond this stage. Neither
SIEV X nor any survivors were detected.
The lack of any direct action
in response to the intelligence reporting on SIEV X has raised concerns that
these reports were disregarded when more ought to have been done to look
specifically for SIEV X either to prevent it sinking or to save more survivors.
In this chapter the Committee
analyses whether Australian agencies responded appropriately to the incoming
information on SIEV X. In making an assessment it is necessary to examine three
factors relating to the SIEV X incident:
the operational climate at the time;
the relationship between intelligence and
operational decisions on surveillance and deployment during Operation Relex;
the quality of intelligence on boat arrivals
The first three sections of the
chapter look at these issues in turn.
In the second half of the
chapter the Committee discusses the response of Australian agencies to the
intelligence on SIEV X and the reasons for that response. It then makes an
assessment about whether the Australian response to SIEV X was adequate.
The Operational Climate
The operational climate is one
of the three factors that shaped the way SIEV X intelligence was handled,
interpreted and acted upon. It had possibly the least impact in determining the
response to SIEV X, but it still indicates the level of activity, particularly
in the intelligence traffic on possible boat arrivals, facing decision makers
at the time.
As discussed in chapter 2,
Operation Relex involved the ADF in a demanding law enforcement exercise that
had an ‘abnormally high’ operational intensity over an extended time. Defence was also gearing itself for
the war on terror (Operation Slipper), in addition to maintaining numerous
other international operations.
For the Australian Theatre
Joint Intelligence Centre (ASTJIC), with its role to provide intelligence for
all Australian operations, Operation Relex coincided with an increasingly heavy
workload. The SIEV X episode
occurred during a period when the rising ‘tempo of activity’, among other
things, led eventually to the role of intelligence support for Operation Relex
shifting from ASTJIC to NORCOM.
At the same time, reports were
coming into the intelligence system from Indonesia indicating a ‘surge’ in
possible arrivals in the people smuggling pipeline. Mr Killesteyn told the
Committee that ‘we were looking at around that time, in October, where there
was clear evidence that there was a build-up potentially of quite a
considerable number of vessels’.
Both Coastwatch and DIMIA believed that up to six organisers were preparing up to possibly six
boats for departure shortly to
The DIMA Intelligence Note of
18 October provides more colour on the situation in Indonesia at the time.
After noting that ‘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’, the
intelligence assessment concluded:
There can be little doubt that the anticipated surge has begun.
The impetus was probably the most recent arrivals at Christmas Island and
Ashmore Reef, combined with pressure from the reportedly large pool of clients
assembled in Indonesia and the impending monsoon season. 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 clients in Indonesia for extended periods of time.
The build-up prompted an
extension in disruption activity in Indonesia to pre-empt the boats departing. It would also have translated into
increased intelligence traffic on potential boat and people arrivals. For
intelligence officers, this would have led to a corresponding increase in the
burden of sifting through the traffic and seeking to corroborate the more
probable reported departures.
This is reflected in the notes
of the People Smuggling Taskforce meetings in mid-October. On 18 October, for
instance, the notes mention ‘intelligence re 2 boats with total 600 PUAs
expected at Christmas, with one possibly arriving today, a further 3 boats with
total 600 expected at Ashmore, with earliest arriving Monday’. The prospect of people arrivals
potentially in excess of 1000 also engendered concerns among the People
Smuggling Taskforce about logistics and the already stretched state of
accommodation on Christmas Island.
In Ms Halton’s view:
... this particular period was unusual because ... there seemed to
be more boats in the ether and with a significant number of people. The task
force was very focused on the accommodation issues and in particular how, if
that number of people turned up, they would actually be accommodated.
In his explanation of the SIEV
X episode, Rear Admiral Smith also pointed to the level of Operation Relex
activity over the period of the vessel’s reported departure. He noted:
During the period 17-22 October 2001, Maritime Headquarters and
the Navy was [sic] busy responding to two SIEVs in the Ashmore Island area and
one in the Christmas Island area in accordance with Government direction.
The SIEVs referred to were
SIEVs 6 and 7.
On the face of it, the upsurge
in people smuggling activity and the prospect of six or so boat arrivals might
arguably have inclined intelligence staff and other decision makers to upgrade
their assessments of intelligence indicating the Qussey vessel had departed.
This perspective has to be tempered, however, in light of the accuracy of the
intelligence on boat arrivals in general and the reliability of the reports on
SIEV X in particular.
Intelligence and Operational Decision Making
The second key to understanding
the ADF response to the reports of SIEV X’s possible arrival is the link
between intelligence and the decisions taken by operational commanders.
The Committee heard that
intelligence and surveillance are, to a large extent, normally interactive. In the case of Operation Relex,
however, intelligence played a limited role in both the general deployment of
units and in daily decision making. This reflected two factors: the limitations
of the intelligence itself and a preset surveillance and patrol strategy for
ADF witnesses explained that
the surveillance and interception strategy for Operation Relex was built on the
assumption that intelligence could not be counted on to provide detailed
warning of SIEV departures and arrivals. Rear Admiral Smith told the Committee
that, in the operational design, ADF commanders had ‘planned on not knowing’
precisely when or from where the SIEVs would depart. He also outlined the limits and gaps
in information provided to commanders by intelligence reports, saying:
if we had information that a vessel was being prepared, we would
probably have a rough idea of the sorts of numbers
that might possibly be embarked. We never really had a strong idea of when things would sail, but our
operation and the disposition of the forces available to us would take into
account that we might not have any
warning at all, and therefore we would be prepared in any eventuality. [emphasis added]
As mentioned in the previous
chapter, the architects of Operation Relex identified two primary routes
through which SIEVs had to transit to reach Australian territorial waters.
These routes were either the axis from Sunda Strait to Christmas Island or the
axis from Roti to Ashmore Reef. ADF surveillance and naval assets were deployed
across these two thoroughfares. Colonel Gallagher described to the Committee
how the preset plan for surveillance and interception was designed to overcome
intelligence shortcomings on SIEVs:
the intelligence relating to these vessels was of insufficient
fidelity to allow precise targeting of surveillance assets. My understanding of
the approach that was being taken [with Operation Relex] was by a process of
logic to work out the tracks that these vessels were likely to take, and to
concentrate appropriate resources along those tracks.
As noted elsewhere in the
report, the surveillance and patrolling worked in concentric rings or a
‘layered surveillance’ with RAAF P3s flying close to Indonesia while Navy ships
waited in focal areas close to Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef. The Navy
avoided deploying ships too far out (or ‘up threat’) of the intercept line
because of the time it would have involved shadowing SIEVs back towards
Christmas Island and the risk that other boats could sneak in through the
Within this framework,
intelligence on boat arrivals was considered an indicator of the possible
timing of a boat arriving, rather than an alert or trigger to divert assets to
search particular spots. Rear
Admiral Bonser told the Committee that Coastwatch used intelligence reports as
‘a guide for informing surveillance activities rather than the foundation on
which these activities are programmed’.  Rear Admiral Smith also stated:
The intelligence reporting from Coastwatch was used as
indicators of a possible SIEV arrival in an area within a probable
time window [original emphasis].
Commander of the Joint Task Force and NORCOM, Brigadier Silverstone, elaborated
on the extent to which intelligence interacted with operational planning,
particularly surveillance patterns. He stated:
As the quality of the
information concerning impending SIEV arrivals constrained NORCOM’s confidence
in the overall intelligence picture, NORCOM sought to maintain a continuous
maritime presence, which usually had the capacity to conduct surface and
helicopter surveillance, in close proximity to both Christmas and Ashmore
Islands. During periods of assessed low probability of a SIEV arrival [ie, less
than 50 per cent], NORCOM would permit greater freedom of movement in the
general area of those locations. As assessments of the probability of an
arrival rose through a medium [50-75 per cent] to a high level [more than 75
per cent], NORCOM would direct its maritime assets to patrol more closely the
outer edge of the associated contiguous zones. In conjunction with this, the
broader approaches to Australian territory were patrolled from the air on a
intelligence on boats did play a role, it was limited to ensuring that
surveillance assets were operating within the pre-designated areas of
operations during indicated ‘time windows’ and crews were alerted to watch out
for possible SIEVs. Rear Admiral
We may alter the pattern of
attendance in those areas if we think we have particularly good intelligence
about a vessel, but the basic, ongoing surveillance of given, predetermined
areas is not based at all on evidence or intelligence of one or more
Air Commodore Byrne, Commander
of the Maritime Patrol Group (MPG), echoed Admiral Ritchie’s point that at
times intelligence provided a basis for targeting or assigning priority to
certain search zones. As to how much MPG aircrews relied on intelligence
reports, the Air Commodore said:
It depends. They are important if they lead us to search an area
in a particular way. In the absence of the reports, we will still search the
area as best we can. However, if we have queuing information that might lead us
to search in one particular area first, then they might become important.
Air Commodore Byrne also
indicated that intelligence which indicated possible boat arrivals tended to
make aircrews more alert to the possibility of sighting vessels while on
When asked if the surveillance
area was ever changed to search for a SIEV, Rear Admiral Ritchie replied:
No. We very cunningly put the search areas in the right places
in the first instance so that we knew people who were going to get to those
destinations would come through them. That is the thrust of my concern with all
this [controversy over SIEV X]. There was never, ever any reason, even if we
had known there had been 10 SIEV Xs, for us to change the pattern of searching.
For those 10 SIEV Xs to get to Christmas Island, they had to come through the
area that we were surveilling. The one SIEV X that we know about never did.
As shown in chapter 8, the ADF
conducted aerial surveillance of the Sunda Strait to Christmas Island area of
operations – Area Charlie – as scheduled on 18-20 October, with an additional
afternoon/evening flight flown on the 19th to compensate for Arunta’s helicopter being unserviceable.
Neither SIEV X, nor any sign of flotsam or survivors, was sighted.
The evidence of the ongoing
scheduled flights in Area Charlie during this period, coupled with knowledge of
the pre-designated deployment areas for Relex, refutes the speculation by some
that ADF assets were redeployed or withdrawn deliberately from this area to
avoid stumbling upon SIEV X.
In the next section, the
Committee considers the quality of intelligence on boat arrivals in general,
before going on to analyse whether the intelligence on SIEV X could have
provided adequate guidance for a successful search and rescue mission if the
ADF had chosen to depart from its usual surveillance pattern.
The Intelligence Puzzle
In its declassified version of
the review into the intelligence on SIEV X, the ADF made the following
Some public comment has inaccurately suggested that information
on SIEV X ... was precise. This situation has led to people drawing precise
conclusions based on imprecise information.
The ‘imprecise’ nature of the
intelligence on not only SIEV X but also forecast boat arrivals in general was
a recurring theme in the evidence to the Committee. It was a refrain that came
from those engaged at every stage in the intelligence cycle – from collection
through analysis to operational command and high level decision making.
The limitations of the
Operation Relex intelligence provides an important background to understanding
the lens through which information on SIEV X was assessed. In the section that
follows, the Committee examines the accuracy of the Operation Relex intelligence
and how it influenced the perceptions of those handling it.
Intelligence accuracy on SIEVs
Despite the sizeable
intelligence capability at the disposal of Operation Relex, much of the raw
intelligence reporting was neither precise nor conclusive nor, for that matter,
reliable. Instead, it appears often to have been hazy, contradictory and
complex. Sometimes it was wrong. Occasionally it was deliberately false.
In general, the value of the
intelligence to those using it appears to have been hampered by at least four
sources that were hard to
uneven quality due to gaps and
difficulties in tracking boat
consequently, a high level of
caution placed on intelligence assessments.
Difficulty with corroborating sources
Representing one of the primary
collection agencies, the AFP Commissioner, Mr Mick Keelty, encapsulated the
problems that this raw intelligence or ‘collateral information’ on boat and
people arrivals posed for analysts, operational commanders and decision makers:
Information we received about SIEVs often contained conflicting
dates regarding their departure, deliberate misinformation regarding departure
locations, and ambiguity into the transport and staging areas for passengers in
Commissioner Keelty went on to
illuminate of the roots of the problem:
Information was often second-hand and difficult to attribute to
specific vessels. As a police organisation, we have extensive experience in
addressing the value of information from human sources. We know that it is an
imprecise science and it is dangerous to make decisions based on uncorroborated
single source information in people-smuggling matters or indeed any criminal
matters. We have learnt through experience that the reliability of information,
which is sometimes provided anonymously, may be questionable and that the
motivation for passing information is usually for self-gain. There are often
other motives for passing on information such as deliberate misinformation to
divert police attention or to harm a criminal competitor. The methods used by
these sources to collect information may result in an incomplete picture and
these sources may not have access to first-hand information. ... As a
consequence, there is often a need to conduct additional inquiries to
corroborate information from human sources.
In contrast to single source
reports, intelligence staff told the Committee that information that could be
backed up by reporting from additional sources was viewed as more reliable. Ms
Siegmund, the Assistant Secretary in charge of DIMIA’s Intelligence Analysis
In general terms, you either get single or you get multisource –
obviously. But we would expect multisource information to corroborate. If there
was a difference, we would probably report it as such – that one source said
this and another source said that – because that is also part of our assessment
process that we need to go through with the intelligence.
However, the Committee heard
that the AFP was unable during any stage of Operation Relex to corroborate any
of the intelligence leads it had on potential boat and people arrivals.
Commissioner Keelty emphasised that:
Between August and November 2001, the AFP received an amount of
information pertaining to all vessels that were identified during this
operation. Additionally, the AFP received numerous pieces of single source
information about potential SIEVs. The AFP was not able to corroborate [emphasis added] any of those alleged
movements until after the vessels were intercepted.
While the quantity of
intelligence on SIEVs was large, the quality was uneven. Decision makers faced
the problem of dealing with a large stream of individual reports, many of which
turned out to be duplicates of the same vessel, leaving other vessels for which
there was no forewarning. Rear Admiral Smith told the Committee:
The intelligence reports often appeared duplicative, with the
associated difficulty of determining whether the numerous reports referred to a
single vessel or multiple vessels. Thus on occasion forecast vessel departures
did not eventuate leading to often erroneous or inconclusive assessments that
could not be relied upon as the sole source to determine the areas for air
surveillance or stationing of ships.
Rear Admiral Bonser illustrated
the nature of this problem. Pointing to gaps in the intelligence, he said that,
‘of the last 15 SIEVs, Coastwatch had prior information of a possible departure
date that was within seven days of the vessel’s arrival in Australian waters in
relation to only eight of the vessels’. But on the other hand, Rear Admiral
Bonser noted that ‘there were in fact 29 departure dates provided for these
eight vessels and in excess of 30 assessments as to the possible additional departures
from Indonesia that did not culminate in an arrival. These figures do not
include indicators in relation to SIEV X.’
Overall, it appears that the
intelligence tended to inflate the numbers of potential boats compared with the number of actual arrivals. Colonel Gallagher, Commander ASTJIC, provided the
Committee with the following assessment of the accuracy of the intelligence for
None of the intelligence that we were receiving regarding any of
the SIEVs was definitive. I had a discussion recently with one of my colleagues
at Headquarters Northern Command. We came to the view that about 40 per cent of
what we received related actually to vessels that turned up or materialised. In
the broad scheme of things this is a very imprecise area.
HQNORCOM concurred with Colonel
Gallagher’s assessment of the overall accuracy of the intelligence on boat
arrivals. Likewise, Ms Halton,
the Chair of the PST, also pointed to the contrast in the numbers of boats
reported compared to those that eventuated. In seeking to correct the
‘misapprehension abroad about the state of our knowledge about vessels leaving’
Indonesia, Ms Halton commented
on the intelligence before the PST:
What we had was often a statement that a source had said that a
vessel might leave. For every source that had said a vessel might leave to a
vessel that actually turned up, we probably had a hit rate of one to four.
Similar difficulties were
experienced in estimating the number of potential arrivals. Ms Siegmund, head
of DIMIA intelligence, observed in relation to SIEV X and other vessels in
We did not know exactly how many we were going to get onboard
the vessel; we never do. We can only go on the reports that get given to us.
Sometimes they are roughly accurate; sometimes they are way off, because you
never quite know, at the time that they are boarding the vessel, how many will
get on and how many will not.
Tracking boat movements
A third problem for those
handling the intelligence related to the difficulty in interpreting the
movements of SIEVs, particularly while they were still in Indonesian waters.
The Committee was told that it was common for vessels to be reported as
departing Indonesia, only for it to emerge later that the vessels had moved to
another port or turned back due to weather conditions, mechanical failure or
other reasons. HQNORCOM stated that, ‘[i]n the majority of cases, these
[departure] dates were ambitious and vessels often were late departing or did
not depart at all’.
Mr Vince McMahon, one of the
DIMIA representatives on the PST, observed to the Committee that:
With a departure, as has happened, we often find that they have
returned to port or they have stopped a couple of hundred metres up the road.
Certainly, from my perspective ... it simply meant that we had no confirmation of
where the boat might be.
The Committee was also told
that often the intelligence on a boat exhibited a ‘stop start’ pattern in the
vessel’s movements. Commissioner Keelty spoke of how this pattern of movement made it difficult to confirm
whether a vessel had departed or not:
we have lots of that sort of information and you would get stop
start, stop start, yes no and no yes. Finally, a vessel might depart. But the
only time you would confirm that a vessel had departed would be when it was
Rear Admiral Ritchie provided
a graphic illustration of the ambiguity that this zigzag pattern created in the
intelligence and the quandary it posed for senior commanders. In describing the
intelligence on boat departures, he said:
The point is that none of
that intelligence is definite; none of it, in general, is specific; and much of
it is continually countermanded. For example, it may be reported that a boat
possibly sailed from the south coast of Sumatra on this date with this many
people; the next day it might be reported that it did not sail from the south
coast of Sumatra, it probably sailed from somewhere east of Jakarta and it
might be going in the other direction. That was the sort of thing that was
happening. So Operation Relex had to consider how best to deal with
intelligence as imprecise as that. Do you look, if you could, in every nook and
cranny: in every creek and every port in the archipelago? Of course you do not;
you cannot do that because we have no right to take Operation Relex into
The uncertainty surrounding
sources of information, the complexity in sifting through the reported numbers
of boats and their points of departure and the difficulty in tracking their
movements – all three factors engendered a degree of circumspection in the way
the intelligence was handled. The problems with corroborating intelligence from
‘human sources’ or informants, for instance, made those handling it wary of
leaping to conclusions. Commissioner Keelty stated:
‘As police, knowing these things instils in us a level of caution against
making decisions based solely on such information’.
The Committee heard that
intelligence assessments tended to be provisional, their judgements hedged in
cautious language. When questioned on the terminology used in DIMA Intelligence
Notes, Ms Siegmund emphasised the point that:
We did not want to give the impression that what we were putting
out in these intelligence notices was fact – that it was definite. It was very
important, given that these notices went out to a very wide range of agencies.
So we were very careful about how we worded it. But what you then get is
something that says ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’. We have to use that kind of
The cautious, hedged tone of
the intelligence reports had a flow-on effect for those using them. Brigadier
Silverstone, Commander NORCOM, in
particular noted that ‘the information that directly related to preparations,
departures and arrivals of SIEVs was limited and contradictory. This
constrained NORCOM’s capacity to make confident assessments.’
This is particularly evident in
the relationship between the intelligence and operational decisions on aerial
surveillance and ship deployment that was discussed in the previous section. It
is also important for understanding some of the assessments on SIEV X,
particularly over the issue of whether its departure was confirmed or not. In
the next section, the Committee revisits the intelligence on SIEV X and examines
SIEV X Intelligence – ‘Through a Glass Darkly’?
In the light of this
intelligence background, the Committee now turns to consider the specific
intelligence on SIEV X itself and its handling by Australian agencies.
The Committee notes that, in
many ways, the information on SIEV X
mirrored the general pattern of the intelligence in this area in that it was
indefinite and in a state of flux.
This is evident from the early
reports in July of Abu Qussey preparing two boats (not one) for Christmas Island but becomes
particularly apparent in the period 17-20 October, where news on the boat
On 17 October, for instance,
two reports were received. The first indicated that SIEV X was
moving from port to port, a development that the Committee heard was not
unusual for these vessels. The
second report later that day, however, suggested (mistakenly) that SIEV X had
departed Java the previous day bound for Christmas
Island. Both of these reports were
superseded on 20 October with AFP advice that SIEV X had
left on 19 October.
Similarly, the intelligence
kept shifting on where in Indonesia SIEV X had departed and the number of
passengers it was carrying. The reports on 17 and 20 October pointed to two
different ports of departure in Java, which were far apart (and would therefore
have significantly altered calculations of likely transit and arrival times). Rear Admiral Ritchie described the intelligence on Abu Qussey after 5
Nothing much more was heard of him [after 5 September] until you
get into October and there were various reports that he had one boat, he had
two boats, that had sailed from here, that had gone back, that had sailed from
As for the passenger numbers,
these varied from initially 150 to 250 until the AFP reports on 20 and 22
October that revealed 400 people had embarked on SIEV X.
The reports from 17 to 20
October of SIEV X’s movements, coming after similar signals in July to September,
paralleled the ‘stop start’ pattern seen with other boats. Ms Siegmund said:
We had varying reports that the boat had left and from where it
left, which were then rescinded. We later found out that it had not sailed.
That unfortunate pattern basically started occurring from about September
onwards, where there were stop-starts in terms of reporting that the boat was
leaving and then not.
Rear Admiral Bonser also drew
a comparison between the patterns usually seen in the intelligence on possible
boat arrivals and those displayed in the SIEV X signals:
We had similar detail on previous occasions. There is this great
history of boats that depart, divert, go to other ports, do different things,
perhaps break down – there is no real confirmation of the boat actually
departing or the fact that it ha[d] left the archipelago.
In addition to these mixed
signals about SIEV X’s movements, it should be remembered that at the time reports were
circulating that as many as six people smugglers were organising up to six
boats to depart. For those
handling the intelligence, it appears to have been a challenging period,
particularly given the difficulty in fathoming the intentions of the various
boats and their organisers. Ms Siegmund told the Committee that: ‘It is one of the frustrations we had at
the time too, trying to keep track of numbers of boats where and when. It is a
However, it also appears that
in some ways the intelligence on SIEV X conveyed details that might arguably
have alerted the authorities to the fact that there were different features to
this boat, which might require a more decisive or different response. Rear Admiral Bonser himself stated:
The information is remarkably similar about all of the vessels,
in particular the on again off again nature of the departures. The only thing
that was different about this vessel was that we had information at the last
report of the possible departure that it was small and overcrowded.
It is that seemingly more
specific information which has led a witness to the inquiry, Mr Tony Kevin, as well
as some in the media to argue that more should have been done by Australian
authorities to search specifically for the vessel.
The Committee considers that
for there to have been warrant for undertaking specific searches for SIEV X,
knowledge of the following three pieces of information would have been
confirmation that the vessel had departed Indonesia and when it departed;
confirmation of whence it had departed; and
a threshold level of concern for its safety.
In the sections that follow, the
Committee examines whether any of this information was possessed by the
relevant authorities at the relevant times. At the same time, it considers
whether more could have been done by those authorities to gain such
information. In the light of that analysis, the Committee then assesses the
adequacy of the response of Australian authorities to the intelligence on SIEV X.
Confirmation of Departure and Departure Time
In his account of the
intelligence on SIEV X, Rear Admiral Smith informed
the Committee 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.
The Committee questioned
several witnesses at length on this matter. Rear Admiral Bonser was asked why, in the face of several intelligence reports
suggesting SIEV X had departed, more was not done to search for the vessel.
Rear Admiral Bonser told the
Committee that up until 22 October (the time of the second AFP report) SIEV X ‘did
not meet the threshold of being a confirmed departure or, indeed, being
overdue’. As for the number of
signals on SIEV X, the Admiral argued the reports were ‘varied and often contained
changing indicators of that particular vessel’s departure, but it was never
sighted or detected’. He put the
AFP report of 20 October into perspective by comparing it to the background on SIEV X:
It goes back to the fact that this was the fifth report about a
departure in that month, plus a range of previous ones in months prior to that,
and the history of these boats being recorded as possibly departing and then
having no arrivals.
Colonel Gallagher also
told the Committee that even though ASTJIC saw the 20 October AFP report on SIEV X as
‘corroborating’ earlier intelligence on its departure, in the resultant ASTJIC
report that day
... it would not have been treated as confirmed. I do not believe
that word would have been used. It would have been along the lines of, ‘It is
assessed that a vessel has departed from a certain location at a certain time’,
which was based on AFP information.
As cited in chapter 8, the
ASTJIC intelligence report for 20 October bears out Colonel Gallagher’s point to a large extent. It was issued under the heading,
‘Possible boat departure for CI’, and said that AFP information ‘indicates’,
rather than ‘confirms’, that a Qussey vessel had departed the west coast of Java.
The highest level of confidence
placed on the various reports about SIEV X is
found in the INTSUM issued by HQNORCOM on 20 October. Although NORCOM was
mainly sceptical about the overall credibility of the AFP intelligence that
day, it considered the departure date as ‘probably being correct’ and assessed
SIEV X arriving at Christmas Island as a ‘high probability’, ie. a more than 75
per cent chance of it occurring.
Despite attaching the top level of probability to SIEV X
arriving on 20 October, at no stage did HQNORCOM consider SIEV X to be
a confirmed departure.
The Committee also asked
witnesses from DIMIA if the new information that came in during the weekend of
20-21 October corroborated SIEV X’s
departure. Ms Siegmund said it did not.
In addition, the Committee
questioned DIMIA about the PST minutes for 18 October that attributed the
‘intelligence re 2 vessels’ (one of which was SIEV X) to
‘multisource information with high confidence level’. Although Mr Killesteyn
confirmed that multisource intelligence is normally seen as more reliable than
single source, he stated:
... but there is never any definitive advice about the departure
of a vessel. We have seen time and time again that information that says the
vessel has departed turns out to be incorrect.
Subsequent to appearing before
the Committee, DIMIA advised that the 18 October intelligence on SIEV X was single source, not multisource. Furthermore, the information
received on 18 October proved to be wrong on two counts: SIEV X did not depart from south west Java, nor did it depart on 17 October.
It was not until the ADF advice
on 22 October arrived that, in some quarters, SIEV X was
assessed as having departed Indonesia.
Rear Admiral Bonser told the
Committee that, as the report on the 22nd ‘corroborated’ the AFP
advice on 20 October, in Coastwatch’s eyes it ‘confirmed for us that this
vessel had most probably departed’.
Coastwatch assessed that the information had reached the ‘threshold’ such ‘that
we had a confirmed departure and that, indeed, the vessel was now overdue’.
likewise, said that ‘it was not until 22 October that Defence agreed that it
was a confirmed departure’.
However, it is clear that this assessment of the vessel’s departure was not
shared universally, particularly within the senior operational command in the
ADF and the intelligence agencies handling the SIEV X
material. Neither Admiral Ritchie nor Admiral Smith believed that SIEV X’s
departure was confirmed at any stage during the intelligence traffic on the
There is also evidence that
Coastwatch was initially more equivocal about the vessel’s status on 22 October
than Rear Admiral Bonser’s
testimony suggests. As detailed in chapter 8, at the PST meeting on 22 October,
Coastwatch appeared to have been undecided initially about the veracity of the
latest signals on SIEV X. According to Ms Katrina Edwards’s (First Assistant Secretary, PM & C) recollection of the
Coastwatch seemed to be trying to get a sense of how strong a
report it really was and whether at this point it was appropriate, based on the
weight of the report, to report onwards to AusSAR that the boat was overdue.
Ms Edwards’s testimony on this event gives a strong sense of the uncertainty
still in people’s minds about SIEV X as
late as 22 October, even though the intelligence was seen as relatively
reliable. It also conveys the way in which the updates on SIEV X
appeared to conform to the experience with earlier reported boat arrivals that
failed to transpire. Ms Edwards said:
As others have testified, it was not unusual for multiple
departure dates to be reported for the same boat, for boats to divert en route
or to otherwise be delayed. The meeting was told that the boat had not been
spotted and that there had been no calls from relatives, who are often well briefed
on when to expect an arrival. On the other hand, the original report had seemed
firmer than some. As I recall, on balance, the conclusion was drawn that the
assessment was not sufficiently firm as to warrant passing the information to
AusSAR at that point. The Coastwatch subsequently advised that it had in fact
passed the information that the boat was overdue to AusSAR that day and,
indeed, while the meeting was in progress.
Ms Edwards’s recall of the meeting, particularly the doubt lingering over SIEV X’s
departure, was corroborated by two other witnesses present at the PST meeting
of 22 October – namely, Mr McMahon, First Assistant Secretary, DIMIA, and Ms Halton, chair of
the Taskforce. Members of the Committee questioned Mr McMahon about
the passage in the PST notes for that day which recorded the discussion on SIEV X as:
‘Not spotted yet, missing, grossly overloaded, no jetsam spotted, no reports
from relatives’. Mr McMahon replied:
I read those now as saying that there was a report, but nothing
happened following that report. In other words, there was no information saying
that it had left, nothing had been sighted – no flotsam had been sighted – and
it was missing. We could have expected, the next day, to find that it had
returned to port or that it had not actually left. The state of the
intelligence at that stage was such that you would often get quite conflicting
information, and in that discussion, as I recall, it simply said that we had no
more information on the boat. There are different things you can look for to
verify whether or not a boat is on the way, but none of those particular leads
had given fruit.
The Committee notes Mr
McMahon’s final point that none of the normal ‘leads’ or avenues for confirming
or corroborating a boat’s departure had yielded information that was
sufficiently sound to confirm that SIEV X had departed. The evidence from Ms Halton, who
chaired the meeting of 20 October, supported Mr McMahon on this
point. Ms Halton told the Committee:
I actively recall this issue about no calls from relatives as
being the kind of thing that they [DIMIA] would use to assess whether in fact
the vessel had foundered.
Ms Halton elaborated on the significance DIMIA attached to relatives
contacting government agencies when it was feared that vessels might be overdue
or in trouble. She said:
I remember the conversation because it was about the advice from
DIMIA that people tended to let their relatives in Australia
know as they were leaving Indonesia
on a vessel. DIMIA’s experience had been ... that in the event that a vessel was
missing they tended to know about it. I think the comment was that they tended
to know about it very quickly because the relatives knew exactly when that
vessel was anticipated to arrive at Ashmore, Christmas Island
As discussed in chapter 8, Ms Halton’s
recollection of the meeting also illustrated the extent to which those handling
the intelligence on SIEV X had begun to question whether the boat had left Indonesia
or indeed existed at all. Ms Halton told the Committee that at the meeting:
... there was a conversation between a couple of the agencies,
principally DIMIA and Coastwatch, and it was about whether this vessel was
genuinely there: whether it was on the water and whether it existed. There was
a question about whether it was real.
Ms Halton’s evidence reveals not only the uncertainty surrounding SIEV X at
this stage but also the wider problem agencies faced in evaluating the accuracy
of the intelligence on, and thus assessing the probability of, reported boat
The Committee considers that
the mixed signals received on SIEV X,
mirroring as they did the stop-start movements experienced with other boats,
instilled a significant degree of doubt in the minds of those handling the
information. Those doubts remained strong, even in the face of new information
on 20 and 22 October that, when considered by itself, appeared to corroborate
earlier reports of the vessel’s departure.
The absence of other important
indicators to verify the whereabouts of SIEV X, or
the situation it might be in, appears to have outweighed the importance that
the AFP reports have assumed with the benefit of hindsight. On balance, the
Committee considers that, based on the range of evidence available to it, there
were reasonable grounds at the time for Australian decision makers to have
doubted the intelligence that SIEV X had
departed Indonesia or remained in transit on 20 and 22 October.
Confirmation of Whence It Had Departed
In evidence to the Committee, Mr Tony Kevin indicated
an area in international waters, where he estimated SIEV X is
likely to have sunk. Mr Kevin’s calculations were based on, among other things, the fact that the
vessel had departed Bandar Lampung early on 19 October, that it had stopped at an island mid-passage
where some passengers disembarked and that it had steamed at five knots per
hour, the usual speed of these vessels.
On the basis of these
calculations, Mr Kevin argued that it should have been possible for the Australian navy,
if not to prevent the boat from sinking, at least to have located and rescued
more of the survivors.
Evidence to the Committee,
however, suggests that there are two problems with Mr Kevin’s argument
on this point. One is that calculations of the vessel’s transit relative to the
impact of tides, currents, weather and its seaworthiness are more haphazard
than he suggests.
The more significant problem
appears to be the knowledge possessed by authorities at the relevant time about
the vessel’s departure point.
Mr Kevin based his estimate on the location of boat’s sinking on survivor
testimony that revealed Bandar Lampung in Sumatra as the place from where SIEV X
departed. The Committee notes, however, that this information about SIEV X’s
actual point of departure was not
known by Australian agencies until 23 October, that is, three days after the
survivors were rescued.
Prior to this stage, the
intelligence suggested that SIEV X had
departed from two different locations in Java,
not Sumatra. Nothing in the intelligence reports indicated the correct
departure location. In other words, if an Australian search and rescue
operation had been ordered it would have been working off the wrong
When questioned if the 20
October AFP advice contained detailed positional information, Rear Admiral Ritchie said:
... there is no such thing as location attached to that particular
report. In fact, that particular report was made available the day after that
particular vessel was subsequently known to have sunk. It includes a change in
port of embarkation for these people, from one part of the archipelago to a
significantly quite distant other part of the archipelago. It did say that it
was probably a small vessel and that it had probably 400 people on it. That is
all good information, but it is not going to help you find it.
Air Commodore Byrne made the
same point to the Committee. When asked if the Maritime Patrol Group had
received any ‘special tasking’ instructions in light of the information that SIEV X had
sunk, the Air Commodore replied: ‘No. We did not know where it was, for a
Air Commodore Byrne also
informed the Committee that the method of surveillance required for a SOLAS
incident, ‘if it is for somebody in the water who does not have a beacon, ...
would be a visual search and it would be restricted to, one hopes, an accurate datum of the last known position
[emphasis added] and it would have very close track spacing’.
There has been no evidence
presented to the Committee which indicates that Australian authorities knew, prior to the testimony of survivors,
where the boat had departed from in Indonesia.
On the other hand, it could be
argued that, on the basis of the ADF’s own argument that there was only one
corridor or funnel through which all SIEVs bound for Christmas Island must
transit, the point of departure was not as critical to a search as has been
suggested. The logical area in which to commence a search mission for the
vessel was the area of operations – ie. Area Charlie – in which
surveillance was ongoing.
A search and rescue or SOLAS
mission would have required not only intensified patrolling in the area
(subject to the availability of assets and aircrew) but also specific tasking
instructions to look for a foundered vessel and people in the water. For such a mission to have been
authorised, the information in the hands of the Operation Relex authorities and
the supporting intelligence agencies would have had to have reached a threshold
level of concern for the vessel’s safety. It is to that issue that the
Committee now turns.
A Threshold Level of Concern for its Safety
The key difference between the SIEV X
intelligence and intelligence on other boats was, according to Rear Admiral Bonser, the reports that the vessel was small and overcrowded. These reports came from an AFP
source on 20 and 22 October.
It should be noted, however,
that before 20 October it was already known to Australian intelligence that Abu Qussey’s boats
tended to be smaller than other people smuggling vessels. The DIMA Intelligence
Note of 19 October, for instance, mentioned this characteristic as one of the
reasons that Qussey’s boats took longer to complete the journey to Christmas Island and thus as a
possible explanation for why SIEV X had not yet been sighted.
Furthermore, that SIEV X was
small and overcrowded was not seen as exceptional by all of those involved in
the intelligence cycle. For Air Commodore Byrne, an ‘end user’ of such
intelligence, these features were common to most of the SIEVs. Air Commodore
Byrne told the Committee:
All of the vessels are small and all of those vessels had been
overcrowded at some point – it is just that there are varying levels of being
In Air Commodore Byrne’s terms,
the degree to which SIEV X was overcrowded, such that it might have alerted those handling the
intelligence on it, is hard to determine. On the one hand, the report of 400 on
board far exceeded the numbers on any of the other SIEVs. At the time of these
reports, the numbers on board intercepted vessels ranged from 129 (SIEV 3) to
238 (SIEV 5), the latter being the most populous of SIEVs 1-12. The only vessel to have carried
more asylum seekers was the Palapa,
with 433 passengers and five crew. It too foundered, but was rescued by the MV Tampa.
On the other hand, intelligence
at the time was also indicating another organiser preparing a boat with 500
passengers expected to be on board. It is possible that this larger number of
passengers obscured the significance of the report of 400 passengers on SIEV X.
Nevertheless, the Committee
considers that the real significance of the reported 400 passengers on SIEV X
lies, not so much in the number itself, but in the fact that it was known to
Australian agencies that Qussey’s boats tended to be smaller than those of
The Committee also notes that
the AFP report of 20 October, according to the Coastwatch OPSUM, mentioned
‘400 passengers onboard, with some passengers not embarking because the vessel
was overcrowded’. Again, it is
difficult to gauge the degree to which this report might have been seen as a
warning signal of the vessel’s unseaworthy state. The report that passengers
had not embarked because of overcrowding could have been a pointer to its poor
condition; it might also have been construed as relieving some of the weight on
In any event, the opinion
within Australian intelligence circles was that the AFP intelligence of 20 and
22 October was not entirely reliable. Since it was ‘single-source AFP
information received third-hand’, intelligence analysts at HQNORCOM, the
principal operational user of such information, considered the AFP intelligence
to be of ‘low credibility’ requiring corroboration of the details about
passenger numbers and overcrowding.
The other key item of
intelligence about SIEV X was the ‘personal opinion’ of AFP analyst Ms Kylie Pratt, that (in
the words of Coastwatch) the ‘vessel may be subject to increased risk due to
the numbers on board’. It is now
known that this advice was not passed onto the Operation Relex high command. To assess the impact of this
breakdown in the intelligence cycle, the Committee has attempted to gauge the
significance of Ms Pratt’s personal risk assessment against other information available to
decision makers at the time.
Judged in hindsight, the AFP
officer’s warning was obviously prescient. However, it needs to be judged, not
with the benefit of hindsight, but rather in terms of the information available
to intelligence staff and decision makers at the time the report was received.
Three important points should be noted in this respect.
First, Colonel Gallagher of ASTJIC indicated that most of the SIEVs tended to be in a poor
sea state. When asked about the PST notes mentioning ‘some risk of vessels in
poor condition and rescue at sea’,
Colonel Gallagher told the Committee ‘that a number of these vessels – even the
ones that arrived and were interdicted – were unseaworthy, so it was not an
uncommon sort of observation to make about a SIEV’.
Second, the pre-arrival
intelligence on SIEV 6 forewarned that there might ‘the requirement for a
rescue at sea’, but this did not eventuate.
It might be that the successful transit of SIEV 6, despite its organiser’s
reputation for using boats in ‘very poor condition’, inclined those handling
reports on SIEV X to conclude that, on balance, there was no cause for
The third point goes back to
the general quality of the intelligence on boat arrivals. When asked if safety
of life at sea concerns figured in intelligence reports, HQNORCOM informed the
Committee that it rarely found such information to be ‘consistent and credible
data’, but when it did so it was included in relevant reporting. Given the ‘low credibility’
attached to the ‘single source AFP information received third-hand’ on which
AFP officer Pratt’s opinion was based, it seems unlikely that the operational
response would have been any different if Coastwatch had passed this advice
Should a SOLAS alert have been raised?
A central question that the
Committee explored addressed whether any of the intelligence on SIEV X met
the criteria that would warrant a Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) alert to be
Air Commodore Byrne informed
the Committee that the following would, in his view as Commander Maritime
Patrol Group, constitute a SOLAS situation:
A report from AusSAR or the Australian Maritime Safety Authority
or anything that we receive from any other party which would indicate that
there was a safety of life at sea situation and anything that we would have
picked up airborne. I cannot think of anything else.
The Committee asked Mr Clive Davidson, the
head of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, about the threshold of
information required to trigger a SOLAS or search and rescue mission by
Australian Search and Rescue (AusSAR). Mr Davidson
indicated that AusSAR would not normally broadcast to shipping an overdue
notice unless a distress alert (eg. an SOS, emergency beacon signal and so on)
had been received. He observed
that overdue vessels are a daily occurrence.
In the case of SIEV X, the
Coastwatch fax to AusSAR on 22 October was considered ‘pre-alert’ information
that reached the ‘uncertainty phase’ in search and rescue planning. Mr Davidson
defined the uncertainty phase as a stage where ‘there is insufficient
information, a concern has been expressed and then people search for collateral
or confirming information that warrants some action being taken’.
When asked why AusSAR did not
search for ‘collateral or confirming information’, Mr Davidson said to
... the nature of the information from Coastwatch was hardly
alarmist and hardly raised a high degree of concern. That was confirmed in a
conversation with the Headquarters Australian Theatre ... that they were out
there looking for it, so if there was a situation they had the assets on the
ground [sic] and in the air.
However, the Committee notes
that, as discussed in chapter 8, Coastwatch sent only some of the information contained in the AFP reports of 20 and 22
October – a general point of departure (South West Java) and that the vessel
was considered overdue – but not the
arguably more crucial detail – that the vessel was overcrowded and a concern
for its safety had been expressed.
Members of the Committee asked
several witnesses whether, in their opinion, reports indicating a small,
heavily overcrowded vessel, which some passengers did not embark upon because
of overcrowding, would meet the criteria to warrant a SOLAS or some other form
of heightened surveillance operation. Some witnesses thought it would, others
Both AFP Commissioner Keelty and Ms Halton thought that such information
would warrant a SOLAS situation. In the case of Ms Halton, the
Committee notes that the critical AFP intelligence report of 20 October was not
raised at the PST meeting on that day. The same report was also not provided to
DIMIA until sometime after 20 October. It is arguable that had the intelligence
on the boat’s overcrowded state and the concerns for its increased risk at sea
been aired at the meeting, the PST might have concluded that a search and
rescue mission should be launched to look for SIEV X.
The Committee notes, however, a
significant factor that counts against this scenario. As Ms Halton reiterated
strenuously to the Committee, the PST did not direct line agencies nor insert
itself into the chain of command with the Operation Relex authorities. She said
in relation to whether the PST should have been responsible for raising a SOLAS
... we did not interfere in the decisions that the relevant line
agencies took. As far as I understood it, the declaring of a safety of life at
sea issue was a matter, rightly, for the appropriate authority. So Mr
Davidson would have alerted his Indonesian
Further, at the time of the
meeting on 20 October the latest DIMA Intelligence Note had mentioned that
boats belonging to Abu Qussey often took longer to complete the journey to Christmas Island. SIEV 6, which intelligence
suggested might pose the risk of a rescue at sea, had turned up on 19 October.
Another factor counting against
the likelihood of the PST meeting of 20 October concluding that a SOLAS
incident had arisen can be inferred from the discussion around SIEV X at the
PST meeting of 22 October. As discussed in chapter 8, the usual indicator of a
vessel overdue – telephone calls from relatives of those on board – had not
been received. Nor had any distress signals been detected.
Given the absence of additional
warning signals, and given other information counting against any cause for alarm,
it seems reasonable to conclude that the PST meeting of 20 October would have
reacted similarly to the meeting of 22 October, even if the AFP intelligence
had been made known at the time.
The Committee also put to Air
Commodore Byrne the question of whether any of the intelligence on SIEV X met
the criteria to satisfy a SOLAS operation for the Maritime Patrol Group. The
Air Commodore said that, ‘We received no information of an AFP report
indicating SOLAS information’.
He also made the observation that:
Really, my judgment is that a report of a small and overcrowded
vessel does not, of itself, indicate a safety of life at sea situation.
The Committee considers that,
as a highly experienced officer with SOLAS expertise, Air Commodore Byrne’s
view is authoritative. The additional element in the AFP intelligence, that
people had refused to embark on SIEV X due to the overcrowding, is inconclusive
as evidence of the boat’s seaworthiness (at this stage it was not known that
passengers were forced, allegedly at gun point, to board the vessel). The
credibility of this information, as with that concerning SIEV X’s
overcrowded state, was also questioned, at least by HQNORCOM whose analysts had
discussed the AFP intelligence with their counterparts in Coastwatch.
Amidst a climate of mounting
doubt about whether SIEV X was in transit to Christmas
Island, none of the intelligence in the
hands of Australian authorities appears to have been of enough concern or
credibility to have warranted the raising of a SOLAS alert.
The Committee also notes that,
shortly after AusSAR sent out the overdue notice about SIEV X on the afternoon
of 22 October, HQ Australian Theatre contacted AusSAR to clarify if any new
information on the vessel lay behind the phrase ‘concerns have been expressed
for its safety’. Rather than
displaying indifference to SIEV X, the
Headquarters Australian Theatre was clearly checking to make sure that no new
information indicating a vessel potentially in distress lay behind the RCC
The question that remains in
the Committee’s mind is whether other arms of the government should have also
sought to investigate further the situation regarding SIEV X. In
raising this point, the Committee is mindful of the climate of doubt
surrounding SIEV X by 22 October. This doubt reflected a range of factors (the
multiple ambiguous reports, the absence of the usual signs of a vessel in
distress and so on), not least the scepticism about the credibility of the AFP
Nevertheless, the door remained
open for the reports on SIEV X to be followed up. As mentioned above, AusSAR considered the
situation with SIEV X to be at the uncertainty phase in the search and rescue context, a
phase warranting the search for ‘collateral or confirming information’. In its
assessment of the AFP intelligence, HQNORCOM also considered there to be a
‘requirement for confirmation of the remaining details’ about the vessel’s
seaworthiness. By this, HQNORCOM
meant that it would not lend much credence to the report of overcrowding unless
corroboration of higher credibility was received. Apart from discussing on 20
October with Coastwatch the probability of SIEV X
arriving, it is unclear whether HQNORCOM requested Coastwatch to seek
additional information on the question of the vessel’s seaworthiness.
While it might be that
Australian Theatre was merely clarifying that the unconfirmed status attached
to SIEV X was unchanged, its action does point to an apparent willingness on
the part of the rest of the intelligence system to accept the ambivalent nature
of the information without probing more deeply into the reports on SIEV X.
There were obvious limits on
the extent to which agencies could delve into the basis of reports,
particularly those from sources operated by other agencies. Apart from anything
else, the logistics involved in running informants and delays in receiving
intelligence would have hampered the checking of reports. It is possible that
the long chain of intelligence reporting, from its source in Indonesia to its
end users at Maritime HQ and NORCOM, constrained the ability of officers to
obtain ‘collateral or confirming information’ when required.
Another possible explanation
for the apparent passivity on following up ambiguous intelligence could be the
seeming tendency of agencies and analysts to rely upon patterns established in
the past to guide their assessment of new reports.
For example, when asked if the
intelligence on the boat’s condition and numbers on board might have prompted a
change in the surveillance schedule, Rear Admiral Bonser of Coastwatch replied:
In this case, with, as I have said, the imprecise information
about departures – the departure after departure that does not eventuate, the
comprehensive surveillance that was in place out there and the fact that we did
not have a confirmation of the departure and that the vessel was not yet
overdue – no.
The Committee is not suggesting
that intelligence assessments should have discounted the past patterns in the
general boat intelligence when analysing the SIEV X reports. Clearly this was
an important means of assembling a profile on the tactics and movements of
these vessels, upon which analysts could determine the probability of a boat
The Committee does wonder,
though, if there are not dangers inherent in an embedded analytical focus that
struggles to accommodate diverging items of information that do not fit the
pattern. There is an element in the handling of the 20 and 22 October AFP
reports of the shadow of past patterns (rather than any ‘surrounding noise’)
obscuring the potential significance of the new features that emerged in those
Intelligence Handling – Systemic Problems?
In chapter 8, the Committee
identified several instances where the chain of reporting of intelligence broke
down or was dysfunctional. Three instances relate to the AFP intelligence of 20
The failure to provide DIMIA with that
intelligence on the same day as it was received and expedited to Defence;
The failure to raise the substance of that intelligence
at the daily meeting of the PST on 20 October, even though it was of direct
bearing to the meeting’s discussion of the impact of expected arrivals on
facilities at Christmas Island; and
Coastwatch’s omission of the personal assessment
of an AFP officer that overcrowding placed SIEV X at increased risk.
The fourth instance of
questionable handling of intelligence occurred on 22 October when Coastwatch,
in forwarding on to AusSAR a sanitised version of an AFP report that SIEV X was
overdue, omitted the earlier intelligence that the vessel was overcrowded and
had up to 400 passengers on board.
In this chapter, the Committee
has found that intelligence breakdowns occurred. However, the Committee cannot
conclude whether intelligence reporting reached a state whereby Australia’s
response could reasonably be expected to have been different.
Having said that, the Committee
is concerned at what appear to be systemic problems in the intelligence system
with the border protection strategy. As an element of the whole of government
approach to illegal immigration, the intelligence system was extensive and
involved many links in the chain of communications. In view of the breakdowns
with handling intelligence identified in this report, it appears that the extended
lines of communication have posed problems with the coordination and sharing of
operational intelligence across multiple agencies.
These problems possibly reflect
the administrative weaknesses in the whole of government approach to managing
border protection intelligence that the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO)
identified in a recent review.
The Committee notes the ANAO proposal that DIMIA and its partner agencies
identify ‘better practice offshore coordination processes and reporting
arrangements and adopting this across all missions’. In the Committee’s view, similar
reforms may be required at the cross agency level with the onshore coordination and sharing of intelligence.
In summing up the SIEV X
episode, the Committee is faced with one critical question: was there enough
information available to warrant someone acting to rearrange the maritime
surveillance pattern and perhaps deployment of RAN vessels, with a view to
reaching the vessel before it sank or saving more survivors while they were in
The argument that they should
have so acted rests on the intelligence that came to light in the AFP report of
the morning of 20 October (that is, after SIEV X had sunk). This report
indicated that SIEV X was small and overcrowded, with up to 400 passengers on
board. However, this report was not passed onto two key bodies (DIMIA and the
daily PST meeting), while other elements contained in the AFP intelligence –
that some passengers had disembarked because of overcrowding and that the
vessel might be at increased risk at sea – did not reach Defence.
Against this, however, sits the
evidence that at the time there remained strong doubts that the vessel had
departed (doubts that were well founded in past experience); that there had been
no report that the vessel was overdue; that there had been no distress alert
issued; that none of the usual indicators that might warn of a vessel in
trouble had been received; and that there were no specific coordinates about
its likely location available. The intelligence report that the vessel was
small and overcrowded was not exceptional. Nor was the source of the report
seen as credible, at least by HQNORCOM. Another vessel, SIEV 6, had transited
successfully to Christmas Island despite intelligence warning that the vessel
might be in risk. A further reason counting against the case for altering the
search pattern was that a comprehensive surveillance operation was in place.
On 20 October, intelligence did
suggest that the vessel had left a location in South West Java and, if concerns
had triggered a response, it is possible that a search could have been mounted
based on these coordinates. As it turned out, that information was incorrect,
so that a search may not have found the vessel.
On the basis of the above, the
Committee cannot find grounds for believing that negligence or dereliction of
duty was committed in relation to SIEV X.
Nonetheless, the Committee is
disturbed that no review of the SIEV X episode was conducted by any agency in
the aftermath of the tragedy. No such review occurred until after the
Committee’s inquiry had started and public controversy developed over the
Australian response to SIEV X.
While there were reasonable
grounds to explain the Australian response to SIEV X, the Committee finds it
extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a
theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three
days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and
decision making circles. It is particularly unusual that neither of the
interdepartmental oversight bodies, the Illegal Immigration Information
Oversight Committee and Operational Coordination Committee, took action to
check whether the event revealed systemic problems in the intelligence and
Rather than adopting a business
as usual approach following the disaster, a review of intelligence and
operational processes should have been carried out promptly, particularly in
light of the breakdowns in the intelligence chain that have emerged during the
inquiry. The Committee considers that the episode points to two issues that the
relevant agencies or IDCs ought to consider with a view to enhancing the
intelligence process in cross-agency operations:
The extended chain of intelligence reporting in
whole of government approaches to managing border protection and its impact on
the effectiveness of intelligence, particularly the assessments function, in
informing operational decisions; and
The capacity of intelligence analysis and
assessments to recognise new information that does not fit established
patterns, to interrogate it in a manner that is attuned to alternative
implications and to probe more deeply when information of concern emerges.
At the general operational
level, the Committee also considers that more should be done to embed SOLAS
obligations in the planning, orders and directives of ADF operations. The
Committee has noted elsewhere in the report that international and legal
obligations to protect safety of lives at sea constrained Operation Relex’s
mission of ‘detecting, deterring and returning SIEVs’, and that the Committee
is impressed at the RAN’s serious commitment to this imperative. Nonetheless, the Committee has a
degree of concern about the extent to which this imperative figured in the
mission tasking of other arms of the government architecture supporting
For instance, HQNORCOM informed
the Committee that ‘the priority intelligence focus within HQNORCOM was, and
continues to be, the determination of when and where SIEVs will arrive in
Australia’s contiguous zone’.
Although HQNORCOM also indicated that SOLAS-related information was
incorporated in intelligence reports where relevant, a question remains in the Committee’s
mind over the degree of priority
intelligence officers and other decision makers attached to these
considerations in relation to the primary focus of detection and deterrence.
In view of the
whole-of-government context in which Operation Relex fitted, the Committee is
also concerned that the paramountcy of SOLAS imperatives may not be as well
recognised or imbued among non-military personnel as they are among the ADF.
One example illustrates the basis for the Committee’s concern. As noted elsewhere,
an unusual feature of the SIEV 4 crisis was the intervention by Mr
Moore-Wilton, the Secretary of PM & C, in the Navy’s handling of boat’s
rescued passengers. According to Admiral Barrie, Mr Moore-Wilton attempted to
direct the Navy to keep all those rescued on board the HMAS Adelaide. In Admiral Barrie’s words:
On the night of
Monday, 8 October COMAST telephoned me to advise that SIEV4 was sinking, life
rafts from HMAS Adelaide were in the
water and there was an operational emergency. Over 200 people would need to be
rescued from the water. I was also advised that the Commanding Officer of Adelaide had called for urgent
assistance from Christmas Island. Shortly thereafter I had a telephone
conversation with Mr Max Moore-Wilton, secretary to the Department of Prime
Minister and Cabinet. He told me to make sure that everyone rescued went on
board HMAS Adelaide. I said to him
that we could not guarantee that and safety of life was to be the paramount
consideration. In this emergency, if people had to be rescued and landed at
Christmas Island that would have to happen.
Admiral Barrie informed the
Committee that the exchange between he and Mr Moore-Wilton was ‘heated’,
indicating the degree of tension in not only the discussion between the two but
also between the SOLAS commitment of the Navy and the apparent expedience of Mr
In the Committee’s view, this
case is disturbing not only as an example of a high-ranking bureaucrat
attempting to encroach on the chain of command during an operation, but also
because it highlights the risk of SOLAS considerations being subverted by
external agendas in joint civilian-military operations.
The Committee believes that
international and legal safety obligations should be given prominence in all
mission tasking orders for ADF operations. Obligations such as those of a SOLAS
nature are especially important in law enforcement operations involving
non-combatants. The Committee notes the forecast of Admiral Barrie that the ADF
will be increasingly asked to execute this style of essentially civilian
operation in concert with civilian agencies.
It is crucial that civilian and uniformed personnel engaged in such operations
are reminded of the safety of life obligations that all Australian government
agencies and personnel are required to fulfil. To promote awareness of these
obligations, operational orders should refer to them explicitly in writing and
accord them the priority required under international and domestic law.
It is accepted that senior
commanders have good reason to assume that amongst their personnel SOLAS
obligations can be taken as read. However, the Committee considers it to be
prudent that such obligations are codified in operational concepts and orders.
The Committee recommends that
operational orders and mission tasking statements for all ADF operations,
including those involving whole of government approaches, explicitly
incorporate relevant international and domestic obligations.