Tragedy's tide turns back on us
22 June 2002
AT first, the story looked to be as simple as it was tragic. In October last year, a small, leaking and grossly overloaded wooden boat carrying almost 400 asylum-seekers capsized and sank on the way from Indonesia to Christmas Island. It took 20 hours for Indonesian fishermen to stumble on the tragedy. By that time 353 people, mostly women and children, had drowned.
Back home, we woke up to heartbreaking tales from the 44 survivors. We heard about the five-year-old who said to her father before she disappeared under the waves: "If I die in the sea, don't leave me here alone."
And there was the young mother who kept her two-year-old son clutched to her breast, only to discover later he was already dead.
And there were the unforgettable front-page pictures of the three young girls who had slipped out of their mother's arms and drowned.
Now, a growing body of evidence is emerging that points to the unpalatable possibility that Australia could have done more to prevent the deaths of these girls and 350 others.
The same question was asked eight months ago, in the hothouse climate of a federal election campaign dominated by the issue of asylum-seekers - could Australia have done anything to prevent the tragedy of the boat dubbed Siev X?
The answer was a resounding no. John Howard said the boat had sunk in Indonesian territorial waters and therefore was not Australia's responsibility. What's more, the Australian navy - which was monitoring the approaches to Christmas Island - said it knew nothing about the boat until the CNN network reported it had sunk. The message was clear - there was nothing Australia could have done.
Eight months later, a different and disturbing story is slowly emerging.
It is a story that casts doubt on the original claims made by the Prime Minister and by the navy in relation to Siev X.
But more importantly, it begs the question of whether the navy had a duty of care to monitor the movement of a vessel that its own intelligence had described as being "grossly overloaded" and at risk of requiring "rescue at sea".
This week, Mr Howard backtracked on his key claim that the boat sank in Indonesian waters and therefore was off-limits to Australian surveillance and possible rescue.
The Government now says it does not know where the boat sank. Mr Howard only retreated to this position after it was revealed his own People-Smuggling Task Force was told last October the boat sank in international waters, and therefore was well within the range of the "comprehensive surveillance" of the area by the navy.
The story of Siev X has leaked out in dribs and drabs since April. through the painstaking inquiries of a Senate estimates committee.
The committee's questions were driven initially by sensational suggestions by a former diplomat, Tony Kevin, who said the Government, in seeking to deter would-be asylum-seekers, had encouraged the navy to turn a blind eye to the fate of Siev X.
It is a grave claim, and one that is not supported by the available public evidence. Neither does any evidence support the equally grave implication that the navy knew Siev X was sinking, and refused to help.
However, what has emerged this month through new testimony, new intelligence and fresh documents, is that the navy and the Government knew far more about Siev X - including its unseaworthy state - than it admitted at the time.
It also knew - thanks to daily intelligence reports from October 18-20 - that Siev X had probably already left Indonesia en route for Christmas Island.
Despite this, the navy chose not to change the pattern of its surveillance to search for the overcrowded vessel.
The key question is why? Why did the navy not actively search for the overloaded Siev X before it sank?
The story of the Government and the Siev X begins in secret cables last August, when it was learned that people-smuggler Abu Quassey was arranging a boat departure to Christmas Island.
Although intelligence relating to possible departures of boatpeople from Indonesia was notoriously unreliable, Coastwatch received in mid-October a sudden spate of intelligence reports about the imminent departure of Siev X.
On October 18, Coastwatch reported intelligence provided by the Australian Federal Police that the boat had set sail the previous day.
The minutes of the Prime Minister's People-Smuggling Task Force on that day described this intelligence on Siev X as "multi-source information with high confidence level".
Ominously, the minutes also said: "Some risk of vessels in poor condition and rescue at sea."
This intelligence turned out to be relatively accurate - the Siev X departed from southern Sumatra in the early hours of October 18.
However. because the report of Siev X's departure could not be confirmed beyond doubt, and because the navy had received false reports of boat departures in previous months, the service took no specific steps to search for it.
At 2pm the next day - October 19 - Siev X took on water in rough seas and sank, leaving its human cargo struggling in the sea.
At 9.30am the next day - as survivors were still clinging to the wreckage of the boat - Coastwatch received another intelligence report, which confirmed that Siev X had already set sail.
What's more, this report said the Siev X was small and overcrowded, with about 400 people on board. The AFP officer reporting the news personally told Coastwatch he feared for the boat's safety.
However, on this morning both Coastwatch and the navy made the crucial judgment that there had still been no "definitive assessment that the vessel had departed Indonesia".
As a result, Coastwatch did not alert search-and-rescue services, and the navy declined to send either a ship or a P3 Orion surveillance aircraft to monitor the waters further north of Christmas Island, which Siev X would have to cross.
Instead, the navy kept its ships and planes close to Christmas Island - a decision that effectively meant Siev X would not be detected until it had virtually arrived at its destination.
Explaining the decision, incoming navy chief Chris Ritchie says the navy's strategy at the time was to lie in wait for incoming boats rather than go out and meet them.
"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," Vice-Admiral Ritchie told the Senate committee earlier this month.
It was only two days later, on October 22, that Coastwatch received further intelligence that finally convinced officials that Siev X had already set sail.
By this stage, the People-Smuggling Task Force was under no illusions about the likely fate of Siev X. Its minutes of October 22 read: "Not spotted yet, missing, grossly overcrowded, no jetsam spotted, no reports from relatives."
On that morning, Coastwatch told Australian Search and Rescue that Siev X was overdue. However, the rescue service concluded that because no one had received a distress call, or had knowledge of the vessel being in difficulty, no search-and-rescue activity was required.
Despite the grim predictions of the taskforce and the final confirmation that Siev X had actually sailed, the navy still refused to take any extra steps to search for the boat.
The next day, the navy belatedly discovered from news reports on CNN that Siev X had sunk four days earlier.
The navy defends its inaction over Siev X on the grounds that it was impossible to know how much weight to place on the intelligence it received about the boat.
"Coastwatch received information that the vessel was expected to depart, or had departed, Indonesia on four different dates in August, anywhere within a seven-day block in September and on five separate dates in October," Rear-Admiral Mark Bonser told the Senate committee.
Defence sources rightly point out that it is always easier to join the dots of intelligence with the value of hindsight.
However, given the cluster of reports in mid-October about the departure of the Siev X and its clearly unseaworthy state, should we have reasonably expected the navy to have deduced that a humanitarian disaster might be about to occur on its doorstep?
Why did it not send a single ship or P3 Orion plane to check on the fate of the Siev X?
The Defence Department has been stung by the revelations about its knowledge of the Siev X, and officials are preparing a detailed and unclassified chronology of what they knew about the boat, and when.
It is clear the full story of the ill-fated Siev X has not yet been told. It is time it was.