Chapter 2 - The 'Children Overboard' Incident
To help place the significance of Mr
Scrafton's evidence in context, this chapter
presents an abridged chronology of the 'children overboard' incident and the
events that unfolded subsequently. It summarises the chain of events from when
the incident was first reported to when doubts started to emerge in Defence about
whether the incident occurred, through to the abortive attempts that were made
to correct the record.
Apart from providing the historical background of the
incident, the chapter explains the importance of the video, photographs and Office
of National Assessments (ONA) report, all of which were used by the Howard
Government as evidence of the veracity of the children overboard story. The
next chapter discusses how Mr Scrafton's
evidence sheds new light on these three items of information, especially in
terms of the efforts to correct the record.
The chapter also examines a number of the unresolved
issues from the CMI inquiry, particularly as they relate to Mr
Scrafton's knowledge of events.
This chapter is based on the October 2002 report of the
Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident. That report examined the
matter in as much detail as was possible with the evidence available at the
time. The Committee recommends the CMI report to persons interested in the
detail of the children overboard story.
In the early afternoon of 6 October 2001, at about 100 nautical miles north of Christmas
Island, the HMAS Adelaide intercepted 'SIEV 4' (Suspected
Illegal Entry Vehicle 4), a vessel carrying 223 passengers and crew.
With a mission to 'deter and deny' the vessel and its
human cargo entry to Australian waters, the Adelaide
set about attempting to turn SIEV 4 back to Indonesia. Those on board SIEV 4
resisted these efforts to the point where a navy boarding party was inserted on
the vessel and set it on a course towards Indonesian waters. The situation
onboard SIEV 4 became increasingly tense, as a number of the asylum seekers grew
agitated and, among other things, started sabotaging the vessel.
Sunday 7 October 2001 -
man overboards and the video
At about daybreak on Sunday 7 October 2001, 14 male passengers jumped or were
thrown overboard from SIEV 4. These 'man overboards' occurred while the navy
boarding party was attempting to restore order on SIEV 4. At some stage, a man
was seen to be holding a girl over the side of SIEV 4, possibly threatening to
throw the child into the sea or onto one of the Adelaide's seaboats that was alongside the SIEV,
but eventually brought the child inboard. All 14 males were recovered and
returned to SIEV 4. No children were retrieved from the water.
The Adelaide recorded the entire episode on
its Electro Optical Tracking System (EOTS). This recording became known as the
'video' of the event.
It was during the tense tactical situation involving
the man overboards that the commanding officer of the Adelaide, Commander
spoke by telephone to his immediate superior, Brigadier Mike Silverstone, who was based
in Darwin. While talking
to his superior, Commander Banks
was simultaneously receiving multiple reports from his crew on the Adelaide and the boarding party as the man
overboards were occurring. Brigadier Silverstone described the charged and
confused situation that Commander Banks
was reporting on as a 'kaleidoscope of events'.
This conversation was the origin of the erroneous
children overboard report. Brigadier Silverstone believed Commander
Banks said to him that 'a child was thrown
over the side'.
Commander Banks, on the other
hand, maintained that he did not say this, telling the CMI Committee that 'no
children were thrown overboard [from SIEV 4], no children were put in the
water, no children were recovered from the water'.
In any event, following his conversation with Commander
Banks, Brigadier Silverstone telephoned a
number of senior officers to update them on the situation with SIEV 4. Under a
special arrangement to fast-track information on SIEV 4 to Canberra,
he first called Air Vice Marshal Alan Titheridge, Head Strategic Command in Canberra,
and told him that some of the passengers or SUNCs (Suspected Unlawful Non
Citizens) had jumped into the sea and children had been thrown overboard. The
CMI Committee noted that this special arrangement was not repeated for any
other SIEV incident. Indeed, Brigadier Silverstone informed the CMI Committee
that the requirement to brief Air Vice Marshall Titheridge early on 7 November
was the only reason for him ringing Commander Banks
in the middle of an operation, something that was contrary to his normal
Following Brigadier Silverstone's report to Air Vice Marshal
Titheridge, word that children had been thrown overboard travelled quickly
through senior decision making circles in Canberra
to government ministers and thence to the media. By 11.15 a.m. Mr Ruddock,
the Minister for Immigration, had told the media of a report that passengers on
SIEV 4 had thrown children overboard. He then relayed the same report to the
Prime Minister and Mr Reith,
the Minister for Defence, at 12.30 p.m.
Monday 8 October 2001 -
SIEV 4 sinks and the photographs
On Monday 8
October 2001, the day after the man overboards, SIEV 4 began to
sink rapidly while under tow by the Adelaide. In what Commander
Banks described as a 'controlled abandon
ship', SIEV 4's passengers and crew entered the water. All 223 were
rescued and embarked on the Adelaide. Commander Banks
went on to characterise the successful rescue in the following way:
The performance of the ship's company of Adelaide to make this rescue happen was unparalleled, and can best
be described by the simple superlative 'superb' ... A number of the ship's
company acted selflessly and several - seven, to be exact - entered the water
to assist and, on occasion, help rescue the unauthorised arrivals. The
photographs of A.B. Whittle and Leading Seaman Cook Barker are indicative of
that effort, but many more of team Adelaide contributed than just those seen
in the two much-publicised images.
As Commander Banks
indicates, the crew of the Adelaide photographed the sinking of SIEV
4 and rescue of its passengers. In the days that followed the two
'much-publicised images' of sailors Whittle and Barker assisting unauthorised
arrivals in the water became known - mistakenly as it turned out - as the
'photos' of the children overboard incident.
Public reporting of 'children overboard', doubts and attempts to correct
With the news of the incident emerging during the heat
of a federal election campaign, the Government was soon under political and
media pressure to produce evidence to substantiate the claim that children had
been thrown overboard. At the same time, however, doubts about the veracity of
the original report started to emerge within Defence. Amidst the public furore
about the incident, senior Defence officers began to grow concerned at the
absence of any written operational reports ('Opreps') from the Adelaide on the
The timeline that follows summarises some of the key
events that occurred from 9 October, including the release of the photographs,
the video and the ONA report. It shows that the initial search for evidence to
corroborate the story turned into attempts by some Defence officials to report
to government ministers, ministerial advisers and other officials that that
there was no evidence to support the story. It also identifies the extent of Mr
Scrafton's role during this period, based on
the evidence before the CMI Committee. For a fuller account, interested persons
are directed to the CMI report.
9 October 2001
- Commander Banks
instructed by senior officers to provide any information which would confirm or
corroborate the report that a child had been thrown overboard from SIEV 4.
- Commander Banks
calls on those of his crew with knowledge of the man overboard incidents on 7
October to make witness statements.
- Commander Banks,
in an unauthorised interview, tells Channel 10 that he has sent photographs of
the rescue to Defence headquarters.
- Defence sends the photographs to the Defence Minister's
office but without the captions identifying them as related to 8 October
- Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C)
requests Defence to check the veracity of the original children overboard
- ONA report 226/2001, mentioning that children had been
thrown overboard, circulated to the Prime Minister and other ministers and
10 October 2001
- Commander Banks tells
Brigadier Silverstone that no one could yet confirm that a child had been
recovered from the water.
- Rear Admiral Smith passes
on advice from Commander Banks to Rear Admiral Ritchie that the
Electro Optical film - ie. the video - shows no children being thrown
- Rear Admiral Ritchie
advises Mr Scrafton, the senior military adviser in the Defence Minister's
office, that the video does not show a child being thrown overboard, but
that Defence still believes that evidence would show up to confirm the
- Sixteen sworn witness
statements are taken from members of the crew of the Adelaide. The EOTS operator states that he saw SUNCs jumping
from SIEV 4 and that 'I believe one child also went overboard'. However,
he also states that 'all persons who dove overboard did so by there [sic] own accord'. No other crew
member's statement indicates that a child went or was thrown overboard,
although a number mention that a teenage boy jumped of his own accord.
- Commander Banks tells
both Rear Admiral Smith and Brigadier Silverstone that no children had
been thrown in the water.
- Strategic Command
supplies PM&C with a chronology on SIEV 4, containing a bullet point
note that states: 'There is no indication that children were thrown
overboard. It is possible that this did occur in conjunction with other
SUNCs jumping overboard'.
- The Defence
Minister's media adviser, Mr Hampton, is advised by Defence that there are
doubts about whether the photographs represent the incident of 7 October.
He is also told that Strategic Command understands that neither children
nor women were retrieved from the water.
- Defence releases the photographs
to the Minister's office which provides them immediately to the Press
Gallery in Canberra. The photographs depict two women and a girl in the
- Minister for Defence,
Mr Reith, follows with a radio interview where he 'officially releases'
the photographs and mentions the video, claiming they verify the children
- After the photographs
appear on the ABC’s 7.30 Report,
information about their incorrect attribution passes immediately through
the military chain of command to Admiral Barrie, the Chief of the Defence
11 October 2001
- Admiral Barrie
contacts Mr Reith and tells him that he has been advised that the
photographs do not represent the incident of 7 October.
- Brigadier Bornholt and Ms
give the same advice to Mr Scrafton. Later, Ms McKenry sends Mr
Scrafton the photographs with captions attached that show they are of the
- Commander Banks
forwards copies of the witness statements by email to Rear Admiral
Smith and Brigadier Silverstone, and the latter emails them to Rear Admiral
- Senior defence
officers conclude that there is no evidence to support the claim that
children had been thrown overboard. Rear Admiral Ritchie briefs
Admiral Barrie to this effect.
17 October 2001
- Admiral Barrie
informs Mr Reith that he 'had been told by the Chief of Navy [Vice Admiral
Shackleton] and COMAST [Commander Australian Theatre, Rear Admiral
Ritchie] that there were doubts about whether children had ever been
thrown over the side of SIEV 4'. The admiral goes on to say, however, that
he will stand by the original children overboard report until evidence is
produced to show that it was wrong.
31 October 2001
Silverstone informs Mr Reith, during the Minister's visit to the
Brigadier's headquarters in Darwin, that the video is unclear but does not
show children in the water and that there are concerns that no children
were thrown in the water. According to Brigadier Silverstone, Mr Reith's
responds, 'Well, we better not see the video then'.
7 November 2001
- Acting CDF, Air
Marshal Houston, in response to a media article raising doubts about the
authenticity of the photographs portraying the children overboard event,
tells Mr Reith that there is no evidence to suggest that women or children
had been thrown into the water on 7 October, that the photographs depicted
the rescue of 8 October and that the video was inconclusive in proving
whether women or children had been thrown overboard due to its poor
- The Prime Minister's
adviser for international affairs, Mr Jordana, contacts both PM&C and
ONA seeking evidence to support the children overboard report.
- In the evening,
PM&C informs Mr Jordana of rumours from Defence that the photographs
are not of the children overboard incident. Mr Jordana replies that the
Prime Minister's office is discussing this issue with the Defence Minister's
office and gives the impression that the 'matter is in hand'.
- The Director-General
of ONA, Mr Jones, faxes ONA report 226/2001 to Mr Jordana with a
covering note that says because the report was published on 9 October
it could not have been the source for statements by ministers made on 7
and 8 October about the incident. The note also indicates that ONA had not
been able to identify the source of the report, that it could have been
based on ministers' statements but may also have used Defence intelligence
and that ONA is still searching for the source.
- On instructions from
Mr Reith, Mr Scrafton visits Maritime Command in Sydney to view the video
and later during the evening, when the Prime Minister phones him, says
that the video is inconclusive.
8 November 2001
- Vice Admiral
Shackleton, Chief of Navy, comments on the incident to the media, saying
'Our advice [to the Government] was that there were people being
threatened to be thrown in the water and I don’t know what happened to the
message after that'.
- After a call from
Mr Hendy, chief of staff to Mr Reith, Vice Admiral Shackleton issues a
'clarifying statement' saying that his comments did not contradict the Minister
and confirming that 'the minister was advised that Defence believed
children had been thrown overboard'.
- The Prime Minister
delivers a speech at a National Press Club lunch, during which he releases
part of ONA report 226/2001 to support the Government's claims about the
children overboard story.
- Early evening, in
response to Mr Jordana's request the previous day, PM&C faxes reports
from Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), none
of which mentions children thrown into the water.
Unanswered questions in the CMI evidence
As the above chronology shows, the CMI Committee was
able to establish to a large extent what information was passed up the Defence
chain of command and when it reached ministers' offices. Where that Committee
encountered problems, however, was in determining what happened after this
information reached the ministerial level and what decisions and action, if
any, resulted from the receipt of information that cast doubt on the children
overboard story. The Cabinet ban on ministerial staff appearing before the CMI
Committee meant that at a number of crucial points ministerial offices became
the 'black holes' in the CMI report.
In relation to Mr
Scrafton, this problem was particularly
evident in three areas:
What he did with the advice from Brigadier
Bornholt and Ms McKenry
on 11 October about the photos and, moreover, what decisions were made in
the Defence Minister's office about the misrepresentation of the photos;
The nature and detail of his conversations with
the Prime Minister on the evening of 7 November; and
The nature of his involvement in, and knowledge
of, the discussions between Mr Reith's office and the Prime Minister's office
and the Prime Minister, which Mr Scrafton alluded to in his interview for
the Bryant inquiry but refused to disclose.
The CMI Committee went to some lengths to obtain
evidence from Mr Scrafton.
The Committee Chair wrote to Mr Scrafton
on three separate occasions inviting him to appear before it. On each
occasion, the reply came from ministerial offices rather than Mr
Scrafton himself. It was the Prime Minister's
chief of staff, Mr Arthur
Sinodinos, who replied to the first
invitation. His letter stated that, in accordance with a decision of Cabinet,
MOPS staffers would not appear before the Committee. On the second two
occasions the Defence Minister, Senator Hill, responded on Mr
Scrafton's behalf. On both of these
occasions the Defence Minister declined to allow Mr
Scrafton to appear, even to give evidence on
events that Mr Scrafton
had been involved with as a Defence department official after leaving the
Denied the opportunity to take evidence from Mr
Scrafton, the CMI Committee had to rely on
the record of his interview before the Bryant
inquiry. Mr Scrafton's
evidence to Ms Bryant
he did not pass on the advice about the
misrepresentation of the photos to Mr Reith;
he was aware of some discussion within the
office over issuing a retraction or correction about the photos;
a 'political solution' had been arrived at 'not
to raise' the issue publicly; and
he was unsure if Mr
Reith had been involved in these decisions.
On the basis of those statements, the CMI inquiry
criticised Mr Scrafton
for not taking it upon himself to ensure the Minister was informed of the
advice that the photographs had been misrepresented and for failing to advise
the Minister to retract the line that the photographs were evidence of the
children overboard report.
The CMI Committee also noted Mr
Scrafton's statement that he had spoken to the
Prime Minister twice on 7 November about the video and informed him that it was
inconclusive. While pointing out that it had been significantly hampered in not
being able to question Mr Scrafton,
the CMI Committee found it 'difficult to believe that it required two separate conversations
for Mr Scrafton
to convey to the Prime Minister the information that the videotape was
"inconclusive"'. The CMI
report went on to say:
The question of the extent of the Prime Minister’s knowledge of
the false nature of the report that children were thrown overboard is a key
issue in assessing the extent to which the Government as a whole wilfully
misled the Australian people on the eve of a Federal election. Its inability to
question Mr Scrafton
on the substance of his conversations with the Prime Minister therefore
leaves that question unresolved in the Committee’s mind.
The ability of this Committee to question Mr Scrafton
on not only his conversations with the Prime Minister but also his knowledge of
discussions within Mr Reith's office and with other senior officers involved in
the 'children overboard' affair, has provided an opportunity to re-examine a
number of unanswered questions from the CMI report. In the next two chapters,
the Committee discusses the extent to which Mr
Scrafton's evidence casts new light on those