This is a lightly edited text of the evidence of Rear Admiral Marcus Bonser to the children overboard inquiry on May 22 …
BONSER, Rear Admiral Marcus (Mark) Frederick , Director General, Coastwatch, Australian Customs Service: I intend to first outline the role and the operations of Coastwatch and then describe Coastwatch’s role in the SIEV operations after 3 September 2001, when Operation Relex took effect. I will then turn to the specific incidents relevant to Coastwatch activities that have been focused on during the course of this inquiry, namely the SIEV4 and what has become known as SIEV-X, and I will detail my knowledge of them and the Coastwatch involvement in them.
… The Coastwatch division of Customs manages and coordinates Australia’s civil maritime surveillance and response program using a combination of contracted aircraft, Australian Defence Force patrol boats and aircraft and seagoing vessels of the Customs National Marine Unit … The primary function of Coastwatch is to conduct coastal and offshore surveillance in order to generate information on potential or actual breaches of legislation as they relate to Australia’s maritime zones. This information is passed back to relevant client agencies in order to allow those agencies to make informed decisions on whether further action is warranted and, if so, the nature and extent of that action. This information includes, as a matter of course, the content of signals traffic relevant to maritime surveillance from Defence assets operating on behalf of the civil maritime surveillance and response program. Where appropriate, Coastwatch also coordinates the response to a maritime incursion or incident.
The centre for Coastwatch operational activity is the National Surveillance Centre, located in Customs House in Canberra. The National Surveillance Centre is a secure facility, accommodating the Coastwatch operations directorate and providing highly secure links to a range of government agencies. It provides a 24-hour, seven-day a week oversight for all Coastwatch operational activity and an analytical capability that draws together information from a range of sources to inform surveillance planning and operations. Under normal operational arrangements Customs Coastwatch has the lead in all civil maritime surveillance and response matters, with Defence providing support through its Fremantle class patrol boats and PC-3 Orions as required and when available. This is not the case under Operation Relex arrangements, which I will outline later in my statement.
… Following the arrival of the SIEV KM Palapa 1 off Christmas Island on 25 August 2001 and the subsequent rescue of its crew and passengers by the MV Tampa, the Australian government instituted new arrangements for the detection of and response to SIEV arrivals. Under Operation Relex, Defence took on the lead role in all SIEV related activity within an area of operations that stretches from Gove in the east, west to Christmas Island and south to Port Hedland on the Western Australian coast. From that time, Coastwatch ceased surveillance activity off Christmas Island and concentrated on the residual national surveillance program around Australia and the provision of support for Defence in the Operation Relex areas in the Timor and Arafura Sea approaches.
Within the Relex area of operations, Coastwatch and the Customs National Marine Unit operate in support of Defence. This represents a reversal of the arrangements that normally apply to civil surveillance matters in Australia’s maritime zones.
… I have read the submission to this committee by Mr Tony Kevin, and the Hansard record of the evidence he provided to the committee on 1 May 2002. I intend to detail my knowledge surrounding the vessel known by this committee as SIEV-X. However, I would first like to make a general comment on the nature of information provided to Coastwatch in relation to SIEV departures. Information in relation to possible boat departures from Indonesia is often imprecise and subject to frequent change. It is not unusual for a vessel’s projected departure dates and times to change on an almost daily basis over a period of days or even weeks. Even given an apparently firm departure date, the time of arrival in Australian waters can vary depending on the nature and speed of the vessel, the sea conditions and whether or not the vessel makes a break in its journey to Australia. For example, 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. 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. Information provided to Coastwatch is used therefore as a guide for informing surveillance activities rather than the foundation on which these activities are programmed.
Coastwatch originally received information as early as August 2001 that Abu Qussey was allegedly in the process of arranging a boat departure of illegal immigrants, probably to Christmas Island. In the ensuing period, 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. The normal practice was for this advice to be passed by secure phone call to the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre and Headquarters Northern Command. The information was then normally passed on by them to the Defence commands involved in Operation Relex. Additionally, Coastwatch included a precis of the relevant information in its daily operation summary message. This classified opsum was addressed to the Defence commands and agencies involved in Operation Relex.
On 19 October, the vessel codenamed SIEV6 was intercepted by HMAS Arunta off Christmas Island. At this time, Coastwatch and Defence had advice of potential arrivals from at least six people smugglers, including the indications about a possible Abu Qussey departure. The organiser of the SIEV6 was identified on 20 October. The next indicator about the Abu Qussey vessel was on Saturday 20 October 2001, when Coastwatch received telephone advice from the Australian Federal Police that a vessel was reported to have departed from the west coast of Java the previous day. The information included advice that the vessel was reportedly small and overcrowded. The full detail of the advice is classified. This information was passed by telephone from Coastwatch to the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre and to Headquarters Northern Command. The Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre and Headquarters Northern Command included this information in classified intelligence reports, both of which were issued to Defence operational authorities on 20 October 2001.
On Monday, 22 October 2001, AFP provided further advice to Coastwatch that corroborated the previous advice about the departure of the vessel and that, by now, the vessel should have arrived in Australian waters. Coastwatch agreed that the vessel was potentially overdue, although it noted this was not unusual and might be due to a range of factors, including diversions. In the normal course of operations, Coastwatch informs AusSAR about any vessels that have been sighted and may be in difficulty or distress. When Coastwatch has confirmation of departure dates for a SIEV and when it is known to be overdue, Coastwatch also provides this advice to AusSAR. SIEV-X met these criteria, based on the additional information received from the AFP on 22 October and, therefore, Coastwatch contacted AusSAR.
On Tuesday, 23 October 2001, advice was received from the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre that a SIEV had sunk. Later that day, CNN reported the sinking of a SIEV and the rescue of 45 survivors. That evening, Coastwatch assessed the sunken SIEV to be the vessel allegedly organised by Abu Qussey. That concludes my opening statement.
Senator Cook, Labor, Western Australia Chairman: …I announce for the record that this morning we made a decision to release a series of documents, being corrections to evidence by various witnesses to this inquiry. One of those documents was a document from Admiral Smith. The committee has made a decision to recall that document and rescind its decision to release it, subject to that document being properly cleared. I put that on the record.
Senator Bartlett, Democrats, Queensland: … You are monitoring signal traffic, but Defence also has access to that separately from you so you do not need to pass that on to it?
Bonser: That is correct, yes.
…Bartlett: You have spoken about the photographic abilities of the Orions. Firstly, do all the Orions that are doing surveillance operate under Coastwatch or are there others that operate through the Air Force?
Bonser: No, the Air Force operates the Orions. They provide some air hours with the Orions in support of the Coastwatch civil surveillance program. The Coastwatch contracted aircraft that I referred to have photographic capability with TV, infra-red cameras and digital hand-held cameras.
Senator Faulkner, Labor, NSW: Yes, but are you able to get access? There are two different sets of planes, aren’t there? There are the RAAF planes and there are the Coastwatch planes, effectively. That is right, isn’t it?
Bonser: That is correct.
… Bartlett: How much RAAF activity is there in the Operation Relex area, in terms of surveillance?
Bonser: There is a RAAF P3 flight daily at the moment.
Bartlett: So if they pick up some potential SIEV, they do not necessarily let you know – they may just pass that straight on to Relex?
Bonser: They would certainly pass it on through the Defence chains of command, and I would expect that we would see that information.
Bartlett: Sorry? You would expect that you would receive that as well?
… Bartlett: And the legal authority for SOLAS situations rests with Search and Rescue?
Bonser: That is correct, Senator.
Bartlett: Was that the same before and post-Relex? Is there no difference there?
Bonser: Nothing has changed.
Faulkner: How do you describe the Coastwatch role and responsibility, Admiral? For those of us who are not experts in this area, could you give us a very brief summary of the Coastwatch role and responsibilities during the period that Operation Relex applied?
Bonser: Coastwatch’s responsibilities and operations in all areas outside the Relex area of operations remained the same as they had been beforehand. Within the Relex area of operations the only thing that had changed was that the lead authority for conducting any response and the surveillance for detecting and intercepting SIEVs had transferred from Coastwatch to Defence.
Faulkner: How did the relationship then work between Coastwatch and Defence? I think we understand that Defence becomes the lead agency. How does this affect your day-to-day operations? How do you relate to the lead agency? How does that work?
Bonser: In the normal course we have a very close ongoing day-to-day relationship with Defence because, prior to Relex, Defence provides support to Coastwatch. That is provided through Fremantle class patrol boats that are available for response to sightings and also the P3 aircraft that supplement our own surveillance aircraft on occasion. When Relex came into being, the lead agency changed and instead of Defence providing support to Coastwatch, Coastwatch provided support to Defence in the form of surveillance. All of the mechanisms we had in place for operating with Defence in support of Coastwatch simply went to allow us to transfer to that new arrangement quite smoothly and we proceeded with that as a matter of course.
Faulkner: Do you operate effectively, for the purposes of Operation Relex, under the direction of Defence?
Bonser: No. We operate in support of Defence and we provide surveillance support, which is coordinated with their surveillance, but I am not under any direction from Defence and I report through Customs.
… Bartlett: In terms of the general process, you get intelligence and Defence may get intelligence that a vessel is potentially leaving – and you have indicated in your opening statement that you receive information about vessels potentially in the process of arranging a boat departure. Presumably Defence is made aware of that as well, either through you or separately. In fact, I presume separately – you are not usually passing on intelligence information to Defence, I guess.
Bonser: Quite often the information is going to both of us in parallel. Sometimes it comes to Coastwatch, and we pass it on.
Bartlett: Wouldn’t you normally say that you had better fly out there and have a look to verify that it is out there somewhere? Wouldn’t Defence ask you to do that?
Bonser: In the main, the indicators are not precise enough to be able to specifically target a point in the ocean. The surveillance that has been put in place is quite comprehensive and covers a broad area, and it is intended to pick up the boats as they pass through the area.
Bartlett: If you had received information that a boat was potentially departing, wouldn’t you send a plane somewhere in that vicinity? Or would you pretty much cover it all as a matter of course anyway?
Bonser: The whole general area is being covered by what is probably the most comprehensive surveillance that I have seen in some 30 years of service.
Bartlett: Were any photographs taken at all of this particular vessel of controversy – the SIEV-X?
Bonser: Not to my knowledge.
Bartlett: So there is no observation at all of that vessel, despite – according to your own statement and even more detail in some of the other information that we got – there being regular intelligence reports that this vessel was departing or had departed or was believed to have departed?
Bonser: There were many and varied and often changing indicators of that particular vessel’s departure, but it was never cited or detected.
Faulkner: Let us go back to the photographs. You said not to your knowledge. So there was no Coastwatch generated photographic surveillance of SIEV-X?
Bonser: Coastwatch was not flying within 1,000 miles of the area where that particular vessel was allegedly proceeding.
Faulkner: And you are not aware of any possible RAAF surveillance photographs of SIEV-X?
Bonser: No, I am not.
Faulkner: I am not saying there are. I am just trying to be clear on this because we were talking a little earlier about the fact that there are effectively two agencies involved in the aerial surveillance from aeroplanes: You and the RAAF. You can categorically assure us about Coastwatch surveillance planes that there are no photographs?
Faulkner: But is it an open question as to whether there are any RAAF surveillance photographs in relation to SIEV-X as far as you know?
Bonser: I would not think it was an open question because I have absolutely no knowledge of any detections of that vessel at all. It is really a question you would have to ask Defence.
… Faulkner: You know of no such RAAF surveillance activity or photographs? That is right, isn’t it?
Bonser: I know of none.
Faulkner: And it is very likely that, if it had occurred, you would be aware of it?
Bonser: Yes, it is.
Bartlett: In your opening statement you said that in the normal course of operations you inform Search and Rescue about any vessels that have been sighted and may be in difficulty or distress. Could you define `difficulty’ any more precisely than that? How do you assess whether something is in difficulty? Is it when it looks likely to sink? Is it when something is just out of the ordinary?
Bonser: It is something that appears unusual – perhaps a vessel that looks like it has broken down.
Bartlett: In this case, you got information that a small vessel, with 400 passengers on board – obviously extremely overcrowded, much more so than any of the other SIEVs – had appeared in our waters. Would that count as an unusual event? Did you notify Search and Rescue about that one?
Bonser: Given the imprecise nature of the information we had, the fact that we did not have a confirmed departure date and that there was a very comprehensive surveillance operation in place, no, Senator.
Bartlett: There was a comprehensive surveillance operation?
Bonser: The comprehensive surveillance that was in place. At this time, all we knew was that there had been a possible departure.
Faulkner: What are your inputs to this, Admiral?
Bonser: The information comes from a variety of sources – in this case, the primary information came from the AFP.
Faulkner: In the case of SIEV-X, were there other inputs, apart from the AFP?
Bonser: Around that time, not that I am aware of, Senator.
Bartlett: Did you pass that on to Search and Rescue, or RCC, which is the same thing, as I understand it?
Bonser: At that time, no, because it did not meet the threshold of being a confirmed departure or, indeed, being overdue. That information did not arrive until 22 October.
Bartlett: But you did pass on that information to Relex?
Bonser: Yes, all that information was passed on to all the Operation Relex authorities.
Bartlett: Obviously, as part of all the SIEV interceptions, there were at least three safety of life at sea situations; the Tampa example, which I realise is pre-Relex, is another. For example, with the Tampa situation, did awareness of that come about through a Coastwatch sighting or interception?
Bonser: It was a Coastwatch sighting of the original SIEV, which appeared to be broken down and later showed a distress signal. Coastwatch reported that information, as we normally would, to AusSAR.
Bartlett: And then there was AusSAR or Search and Rescue or RCC – they’re all the same thing, aren’t they?
Bonser: Yes, they are part of the same organisation.
Bartlett: They put out a general alert, which the Tampa picked up, and went to the rescue. In this case, the information you passed on to Relex, but not to Search and Rescue, was not based on any sightings; it was simply unconfirmed intelligence.
Bonser: That is correct, Senator.
Bartlett: Going back to your statement, … you inform Search and Rescue about any vessels that have been sighted and may be in difficulty or distress. Do you actually wait until a sighting? If your intelligence information was `We think this boat is heading off and it’s looking pretty dodgy’ would that be enough for you to pass it on to Search and Rescue or would you wait until you had more solid confirmation about it?
Bonser: We work on the threshold basis of there being some form of confirmed departure and some assessment that the vessel is actually overdue if we do not have any distinct indications of a vessel being in any form of distress or difficulty.
Bartlett: So if you never got a confirmed report that it had departed, how did you come to the assessment that it was overdue and then pass that on?
Bonser: That was based on separate information that we received on 22 October that corroborated the original advice of a possible departure and confirmed for us that this vessel had most probably departed. On the basis of that we were able to assess that it was, indeed, overdue.
Bartlett: So it got up to a higher degree of probability, in effect?
Bonser: It reached that threshold, yes.
Bartlett: What is the threshold – 80 per cent or 75 per cent?
Bonser: That we had a confirmed departure and that, indeed, the vessel was now overdue.
Bartlett: You had a confirmed departure and confirmed information that it was heading our way?
Bonser: And on the basis of that that it was now overdue, yes.
Bartlett: So that information came through AFP as well?
Bonser: Yes, it did – on 22 October.
Bartlett: You said you got advice on the 22nd that it was overdue and you notified Search and Rescue. On the 23rd, you got advice from Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre that a SIEV had sunk. Later that day, CNN (reported) the sinking and the rescue of survivors. Was that the first time you or any of the Australian operations were aware of survivors being located – hearing it through CNN?
Bonser: Yes, it was.
Bartlett: So we have got a comprehensive surveillance operation, the strongest we have ever had, and CNN could find out what was happening before we could?
Bonser: In this case the vessel clearly was not detected prior to its sinking.
Faulkner: Do you know why not?
Bonser: No, I do not.
Faulkner: Have there been any inquiries at all – internal Commonwealth inquiries – into this issue since the sinking that you are aware of?
Bonser: I do not know of any.
Bartlett: You have not been asked to provide information for any inquiry or report?
Senator Jacinta Collins, Labor, Victoria: Can you tell us where it actually sank?
Bonser: No; I do not know. I can only go off what I have seen in media reports that indicate it was somewhere between the Sunda Strait and perhaps 80 miles south of Sunda Strait, or 80 miles south of Java.
Bartlett: Is any of that in the area under your surveillance? Eighty miles south would be in areas that you have under surveillance?
Bonser: I believe so, but that area was under surveillance from Defence and not Coastwatch. You would really have to talk to them about that.
Bartlett: Surveillance by Defence through what?
Bonser: During Operation Relex.
Bartlett: But how were they surveilling it?
Bonser: They had ships with helicopters and aircraft there.
Collins: You are saying that Coastwatch was not surveilling that zone at that period of time?
Bonser: No. From 3 September, Coastwatch had moved away from Christmas Island. We were operating in the Arafura and Timor Sea approaches to Australiathe Kimberley and Arnhem Land coasts.
… Faulkner: Are you aware that Admiral Smith provided additional information -a correction – to evidence presented at this committee?
Bonser: Yes, I am.
Faulkner: Have you read the admiral’s letter?
Bonser: I have now seen that, yes.
Faulkner: Were you asked to provide any input for the admiral’s letter?
Bonser: No, I was not.
Faulkner: Or Coastwatch?
Bonser: No, other than to provide copies of operation summaries, which we provided to Maritime Command.
Faulkner: So Coastwatch did provide some input for it?
Bonser: Coastwatch was asked if it could provide copies of our operation summaries for the period, which it did.
Faulkner: When were you asked to do that?
Bonser: Bonser That was either late last week or early this week.
Faulkner: Who asked you?
Bonser: Someone on the staff at Maritime Headquarters asked my chief of staff.
Faulkner: Was it explained to your chief of staff why those operational summaries were required?
Bonser: I presume that it was because they were preparing some clarification of Admiral Smith’s previous evidence, because prior to this – about a month ago – I called Admiral Smith’s office after I had seen a letter to the editor that he had written in the Canberra Times, to say that I thought there were some inconsistencies between his evidence and the flow of information as I knew it, and I thought they ought to check a range of other messages.
Faulkner: Could you go through those inconsistencies with us in detail?
Bonser: The primary one was the comment on when the first time that notification of SIEVX occurred, which was not consistent with the flow of information as I knew it. I believe there was earlier information that was available.
Faulkner: What earlier information?
Bonser: That is the information that was provided by Coastwatch from AFP on a variety of dates in October, including 20 October. That was relayed to Defence intelligence staff and repromulgated by them to the Defence operational authorities.
Faulkner: You saw Admiral Smith’s letter in the Canberra Times. That is what drew this matter to your attention?
Bonser: That triggered it for me, yes.
Faulkner: Did you contact Admiral Smith directly?
Bonser: I tried to contact Admiral Smith. I got on to his office. He was overseas at the time, so I spoke to his chief staff officer (operations) and his chief of staff. I advised them that I thought that there were some inconsistencies with the flow of information as I knew it and that they ought to refer to a certain range of messages. I did not say what the inconsistencies were, just that there were inconsistencies, as I saw it, with respect to the flow of information.
Faulkner: Was this communication done telephonically?
Bonser: That is correct.
Faulkner: How did this matter progress in the lead-up to Admiral Smith’s letter?
Bonser: I made that call on 16 April. Subsequently, on 22 April, I was speaking with Admiral Gates, who was running the CDF/Secretary task force and coordinating defence matters in this regard. I also brought it to his attention that I believed there were some inconsistencies.
Faulkner: Was there any written communication there with Admiral Gates?
Bonser: No, there was not.
Faulkner: Was that communication telephonic or face-to-face?
Bonser: That was face-to-face (on 22 April).
… Faulkner: What happened then?
Bonser: The other person that I advised on 10 May was the Chief of Navy. I advised him that I had the view that there would be inconsistencies between Admiral Smith’s evidence and mine when I appeared at the Senate committee, and he should be aware of that. He acknowledged that fact.
Faulkner: Is it fair to say that the issue of concern here was that you might be asked questions today which Admiral Smith had canvassed, and that inconsistencies would become apparent?
Bonser: That is correct. I wanted to give people the courtesy of telling them that.
Faulkner: So, in a sense, you were being proactive about it. You were concerned about what might happen at today’s hearing, effectively, as opposed to any evidence you may have given in the past. Would that be right?
Bonser: No, I was not concerned about any evidence I may have given.
Faulkner: What was the response on 16 April from Admiral Smith’s staff?
Bonser: My message was acknowledged.
Faulkner: It was just on the telephone, wasn’t it?
Bonser: That is right, and I was thanked for the advice.
Faulkner: On the telephone?
Faulkner: There was nothing in writing with Admiral Gates? Again, it was a face-to-face conversation that you had with him?
Bonser: Yes, it was.
Faulkner: Was the admiral able to indicate to you what sort of action he might take as a result of that?
Bonser: I think he just said to me that he would speak to Admiral Smith.
Faulkner: Did you get any feedback from any of that communication?
Bonser: Not straightaway, no.
Faulkner: What was the feedback?
Bonser: I received a phone call from Admiral Smith on 16 May to tell me that he was writing to the secretariat of the committee and providing clarifying information. He did not provide me with the detail of that information.
Faulkner: … On 10 May, after your call to Admiral Gates, why did you determine it was necessary to talk to the Chief of Navy about this?
Bonser: I wanted to ensure that the Chief of Navy was aware that there may be inconsistency in the evidence and confirm that he was aware of it.
Faulkner: But you were only concerned about Admiral Smith’s evidence. Was there any other evidence you were concerned about?
Faulkner: Just Admiral Smith’s?
Faulkner: Did you have a worry that speaking to Admiral Gates was not sufficient?
Bonser: No. I just wished to make sure that the Chief of Navy had been given the courtesy of being told, and I thought I should do it myself.
Faulkner: Did the Chief of Navy indicate to you what action he might take as a result of that communication you had with him?
Bonser: I think his words to me were, `If there is any ambiguity, it needs to be clarified’.
Faulkner: Did he indicate how that should be done?
Bonser: No, he did not.
Faulkner: Admiral Smith contacted you on 16 May to indicate that he was taking the course of action that we are now aware of, which is the letter that he has written to the committee?
Bonser: Yes, that is correct.
Faulkner: Were there any other contacts with either Defence personnel or others about this matter?
Bonser: Only in a discussion I had with Air Commodore Blackburn, who is Admiral Gates’s deputy in the task force, where it was confirmed for me that the task force had received a copy of Admiral Smith’s clarification. That occurred yesterday.
Faulkner: So that happened just before today’s hearing.
Bonser: That is correct.
Faulkner: That is the sum total of it?
Bonser: That is the sum total.
… Bartlett: From my memory of accounts of it, people when they were rescued had been in the water for at least 24 hours. You did not detect any radio communication amongst any boats or other aircraft in that period of time or even when they were rescued by fishing vessels? Did you pick up any communications indicating that they had been rescued?
Bonser: No. Coastwatch does not have that capability.
Faulkner: No, but other agencies would have, wouldn’t they?
Bonser: There are other agencies that do that and I have seen no indications that anything was intercepted of that nature.
… Cook: Have you requested of those other agencies a check to see if anything they retain indicates that messages or broadcasts were intercepted by them?
Bonser: No, I have not.
… Faulkner: The only agency report that you received in relation to the whole SIEV-X issue was the original intelligence from the AFP. That is as I understand the evidence that you have given us.
Bonser: … There were no other indicators.
… Collins: On 14 October SIEV-X was referred to in one of your operational summaries. On 17 October it was referred to in one of the operational summaries … on 20 October we get the report that there had been a departure with 400 passengers on an overcrowded, small ship. According to your evidence this morning, on that occasion that information was passed on by telephone rather than the earlier simple inclusion in an operational summary report. Why was that?
Bonser: There is no difference between any of the reporting. The normal practice for Coastwatch for advice that came in to us was for it to be passed by a secure phone call to the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre and Headquarters Northern Command.
Faulkner: That is what you said in your opening statement.
Bonser: That is correct. That information is then normally passed on by them to the Defence commands involved in Operation Relex. In addition to that, Coastwatch includes a precis of the relevant information in its daily operations summary.
Faulkner: Yes, but I think that, as a first step, Senator Collins is canvassing whether normal practice and procedure were followed in the instances that are referred to in relation to SIEV-X. In paragraph 36 you outline the normal practice. That is fine and it is understood and appreciated. The next step along the way, before we get to where Senator Collins is going, is this question: was normal practice followed in relation to SIEV-X? I appreciate that that may be the normal practice but did it happen?
Bonser: Yes, normal practice was followed.
Collins: So, on an operational summary report that included the summary on 14 October about the potential departure of SIEV-X, a phone call had been made to NORCOM on that occasion?
Bonser: I would assume so. I would have to go back and check that exactlytake it on noticebut that is the normal practice and I would have expected that that would have happened.
Faulkner: That is the point of my question and of Senator Collins’s questions. We are trying to go beyond what is a very helpful description from you of how your agency undertakes its normal activities. That is helpful. The issue goes to the individual instances that are outlined in Admiral Smith’s clarifying statement of whether normal practice actually did apply. Your answer to Senator Collins’s follow-up question was qualified.
Bonser: As far as the reports on SIEV-X go, certainly on 20 and 22 October normal practice was followed … I would have to confirm the detail of previous reports but I would be quite confident that normal practice was followed.
Collins: What concerns me, though, is that it has been put to us that there was no confirmed departure up until the 22nd.
Bonser: That is correct.
Collins: Yet on 20 October we know that Coastwatch made a call and followed through with a report about intelligence – which is presently classified – indicating that a departure had occurred, that there were 400 people on a small ship and that some people had refused to embark because of the overcrowding. I want to know what constitutes a confirmed departure. If that much information cannot form the basis of some level of confirmation, what is required?
Bonser: That was the fifth report we had had in that particular month about that boat departing.
Collins: But with that level of detail?
Bonser: 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 downthere is no real confirmation of the boat actually departing or the fact that it has left the archipelago.
Collins: After this report of the 20th, from intelligence gathered on the 19th, there is nothing else reported until the 22nd.
Bonser: The only new information after that arrived on the 22nd, as far as I am aware.
Collins: Do we know why that was the case?
Bonser: No. Coastwatch was not collecting the information, so I do not know.
Collins: This is a question for the Federal Police, is it?
Bonser: I presume so.
Faulkner: Yes, but you are the link between the AFP and Defence, aren’t you?
Bonser: In this instance we were, yes.
Faulkner: That is normal practice, though, isn’t it?
Faulkner: So it is not just this instance, is it?
Bonser: No, that is correct. AFP information normally comes through Coastwatch.
Faulkner: So the AFP provides intelligence information to you. Normal practice for you is to pass it on to NORCOM and the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre. Is that what it is called?
Bonser: Yes. That is correct, Senator.
Faulkner: In fact, you outline in your opening statement what NORCOM and the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre might do with that information. But I accept that is a process and that, at the end of the day, you are not responsible for that. Because of concerns about the SIEV-X issue, would it be possible for you provide to the committee, in each of the instances outlined in Admiral Smith’s letter, when the AFP intelligence material was received by Coastwatch, how and when it was provided by Coastwatch to NORCOM and Australian Theatre? Maybe that would help us.
Collins: It does, except for one issue – that is, if the report that was passed on to Defence on 20 October was accurate, what further intelligence would you have expected to confirm it, other than a potential aerial surveillance of the ship?
Bonser: 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.
… Bonser: With respect to the information that we received on 20 October, that was received from the AFP at 9.30. It was passed on to the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre at 9.50, and we saw them disseminate that information by message at 10.00. At 10.05, we briefed Northern Command on that information by telephone and we saw them repeat that information to the Defence Operational Authority in message traffic that had a date/time group of 12.03 … On the 22nd, we received the information from AFP at 10.03. The assessment was made that the vessel was overdue and AFP were contacted about what information could or could not be conveyed. They requested a stay of the notification while they put together some suitable words. That was provided to us at 13.50. After they authorised release of that at 14.05, Coastwatch advised AusSAR using the words that were provided by AFP.
… The standard addressee list was from Coastwatch Canberra and it was sent to Commander Australian Theatre, Commander Joint Task Force 639, Maritime Commander Australia, Air Commander Australia, Commander Task Force 641, Commander Task Unit 646.2.2which is the `P3 world’Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre, Task Group 639.0 and the 92 wing detachment at Learmonth, and for information to Australian Defence Headquarters Operations in Canberra, Headquarters Australian Theatre, Maritime Headquarters, Headquarters Air Command Air Operations and my Regional Coastwatch Base.
Faulkner: Was there no input to the People Smuggling Task Force that was operating at the time?
Bonser: At the meetings of the People Smuggling Task Force input was provided from all of the agencies. I did not see much of that. I presume some of it was provided outside of the meetings. At the meetings that I attended, I normally provided a brief overview of how many boats might be expected in the next period, but it was simply an overview based on the rather imprecise information we had at the time.
… Senator George Brandis, Liberal, Queensland: At the time that the report came through saying that the vessel was overdue, was any estimate made in that report as to how overdue the vessel was?
Bonser: No, only that we would have expected that it would have reached Australian waters by then.
Brandis: So it was not a matter of it being a day overdue, two or three days overdue or a matter of hours overdue; it was just an unqualified report in that respect.
Bonser: Yes, it was.
Cook: So this was from an intelligence source; it was not from surveillance that we knew that it was overdue.
Bonser: That is correct. We received additional intelligence information that corroborated the previous report of the departure. That confirmed that we had most probably had a departure and, on the basis of that, that the boat should have probably arrived and was therefore overdue.
.. Collins: .. What did you say about the advice on the 22nd that provided confirmation?
Bonser: The advice we received corroborated the previous report that a boat had possibly departed.
Collins: So it was additional intelligence?
Bonser: It was additional information that confirmed for us that a boat had most probably departed and, on the basis of that, was therefore overdue.
… Faulkner: Do you know if the question of the SIEV-X was actually discussed at the People Smuggling Task Force?
Bonser: I am aware (from other customs officers) that the subject was raised at the meeting on 22 October. I do not know what was said because I was not at the meeting; I was in Cairns on that day.
… Faulkner: And when did you become aware of that?
Bonser: I was advised while I was in Cairns that the additional information about the boat had arrived and that Coastwatch was going through the process of clearing the information with AFP, to provide that information to AusSAR. My chief of staff at the time advised me of that and also advised me that they were going to pass on that information at the IDC (the task force) on that particular day.
Faulkner: Was your chief of staff present at the IDC then?
Bonser: He would have been present on that day along with the DCEO of Customs, Mr Drury.
Faulkner: Are you aware of SIEV-X being raised at the IDC before the 22nd?
Bonser: No, I am not aware of that at all. (Bonser then says that as far as he knows, it was not discussed at the task force before October 22 or after that date.)
… Faulkner: I think this is relevant to our inquiry, so would you be able to take it on notice for me please as to when any matters in relation to SIEV-X were discussed at the People Smuggling Task Force and what the role of Coastwatch was in those discussions – they may have been generated, for example, by Coastwatch or they may not. If that detail could be provided for any matters relating to SIEV-X, I would appreciate it. You will obviously need to go to the officers who represented your organisation at the time.
… Bonser: I will take it on notice and provide what I can.
… Bartlett: Just going back one last time to 22 October, Rear Admiral Bonser, you advised Search and Rescue that the vessel was overdue because SIEVX met the criteria that you had confirmation of departure dates and it was known to be overdue. According to Admiral Smith’s information, you notified via an opsum to Admiral Smith that the vessel was overdue possibly due to poor condition of the boat and the large numbers on board. The Rescue Coordination Centre also independently reported to Admiral Smith that the vessel was overdue. But it does not seem that Search and Rescue or anybody else actually requested anybody to do anything about it, to go and look for it. They did not ask you to go and look at all to see where it was and whether it was in difficulty?
Bonser: What Search and Rescue then implemented you would have to ask them but, as far as Coastwatch are concerned, we were still conducting all of the surveillance that we had had in place which was specifically dedicated to finding just those boats.
Bartlett: But they did not give you any specific request or direction or anything to go and look over in this area? Based on your earlier evidence, that is not necessarily where you go anyway.
Bartlett: And they did not seem to do so with the Relex people either. You have said before that, as far as you are aware, there has been no report or even any form of informal investigation into this situation. This was a circumstance where admittedly it was probably in international waters and closer to Indonesia than here, but we have been involved in fairly extensive efforts to rescue a single yachtsman or yachtswoman a huge number of kilometres from the Australian coast. We have had a few fishermen drown at sea and had coronial inquests and Senate inquiries when there were three or so. We have had massive inquiries when we have had two or three people die on the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. All of those circumstances have their own specifics and I am not trying to say they are all the same thing, but we have an incident in which 353 people drown and nobody has even made a general comment about whether there is some way we can perhaps stop this happening again or whether there is anything we can do better.
Bonser: I have seen nothing about that.
Cook: That is equivalent to about one jumbo jet going down with a full passenger load.
Brandis: Those questions assume that Australia has responsibility for the problem. We have yet to hear a syllable of evidence to suggest that we did have responsibility for the problem.
Bonser: I have certainly seen nothing to indicate that.
Collins: I did not hear a question that suggested there had been an Australian investigation. I think the question was whether there had been any investigation.
Faulkner: Is it true that there was input to Coastwatch from the AFP that effectively detailed, if you like, the size and the state of SIEV-X? Would that be fair to say?
Bonser: We knew that it was small and overcrowded.
Faulkner: And by `overcrowded’ would that mean that you would know that there might be around 400 passengers embarked?
Bonser: We had an indication of the numbers, yes.
Faulkner: Were you aware that some passengers were not able or were unwilling to be boarded?
Bonser: I understand that there was an indication in some of the advice that that was the case, that people either had not got on or had got off the vessel.
Faulkner: So there is no doubt, effectively, that you have got intelligence inputs here basically indicating that the vessel is barely seaworthy. Would that be right?
Bonser: We did not know that because we had not seen it. What we knew was that this vessel was reported as being small and overcrowded, and that was the information we advised to all of the relevant operational authorities.
Faulkner: Does the surveillance task change in that sort of situation, where there might be a possible safety of life at sea situation?
Bonser: 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.
Faulkner: You know the figure of the people who have embarked on it, so one assumes that it must be pretty close to going if there is that number of people who have embarked?
Bonser: But that number is not inconsistent with previous boats, either.
Faulkner: Yes, but if there is a possible safety of life at sea situationan unseaworthy vessel that is massively overcrowded and the like -and it is ready to go or about ready to go – does that change the surveillance task that you have?
Bonser: It would not have changed our surveillance task because we were not conducting surveillance in that area.
Collins: Let us say you had been. Let us say Coastwatch had been directly responsible for the surveillance in the zone, would Coastwatch have instigated surveillance after notification of the departure on the 20th?
Bonser: One of Coastwatch’s tasks is to conduct surveillance to detect all these boats before they reach Australia.
Collins: So the answer is yes?
Bonser: We would have done that, irrespective.
Collins: Of the safety of life at sea situation?
Bonser: Yes, which was what was happening here already. A comprehensive surveillance pattern was in place doing nothing but looking for these boats.
Faulkner: But it is not just a small, overcrowded, unseaworthy vessel, is it? It is full of SUNCs, as these people are described – an unhappy acronym – suspected unlawful noncitizens. That makes a difference too, doesn’t it?
Bonser: All of these boats are full of people.
Faulkner: Yes, but I am interested in how that affects the surveillance task.
Bonser: The surveillance task was in place looking for all of these boats throughout.
Collins: But what we have from Admiral Smith indicates that surveillance at the time was not as comprehensive as you seem to be indicating. Surveillance was brought back closer to the contiguous zone, as I understand Admiral Smith’s report – it was brought right back to the immediate area around Christmas Island.
Bonser: I do not know about that, Senator. I think it is something you would have to address to Admiral Smith.
Brandis: I would like to ask a question about the surveillance area as well. Are you aware of how close to the southernmost reach of the Sunda Strait the limit of Coastwatch surveillance was at this period?
Bonser: Coastwatch was not within 1,000 miles of Sunda Strait.
Brandis: Have you read Mr Kevin’s evidence? Mr Kevin’s conjectures that the vessel foundered some hundreds of miles south of the southernmost point of the Sunda Strait. Are you familiar with that evidence?
Bonser: I am familiar with the evidence, yes.
Brandis:Did the limit of the Coastwatch surveillance area ever reach even the point at which Mr Kevin conjectures that the vessel foundered?
Bonser: No, Coastwatch did not, because we were 1,000 miles away to the east. Defence was conducting surveillance around Christmas Island.
Brandis: Are you aware of the limit of the Defence surveillance?
Bonser: Bonser It was about 30 miles south of Indonesian territory.
Brandis: Thank you.
Cook: Where is that, for my benefit, in relation to Mr Kevin’s conclusion of where the boat foundered?
Bonser: It would be within the surveillance area.
… Collins: But, Rear Admiral, the point I was coming to a moment ago was that we were advised by Admiral Smith that on 19 October – when this vessel departed Indonesia and foundered, he claims, in the Sunda Strait – air surveillance assets and Navy service units were conducting layered surveillance operations and responding to SIEVs close to Christmas and Ashmore islands. So comprehensive surveillance was not occurring at that time; it had been pulled back close to Christmas and Ashmore islands. From what I understand you to be saying, that is not ordinarily the case.
Bonser: I was talking about the overall surveillance that was in place right across Northern Australia, which was, in my experience, the most comprehensive that I have ever seen. What was happening out at Christmas Island was purely defence assets; you would really have to ask them about that.
Collins: I am also trying to understand what happens with the flow of communication, because pre these arrangements it would have been an exclusively Coastwatch situation: Coastwatch gets the report, Coastwatch is alerted possibly to a safety of life at sea scenario, Coastwatch has its comprehensive aerial surveillance in place and would anticipate identifying if such a ship were foundering in that region. But in this scenario we have Coastwatch passing that information on to Defence, Defence saying, `No, our assets are busy elsewhere,’ and no aerial surveillance occurring, as it seems.
Bonser: I do not know about that; that is something you would have to ask those that were conducting the surveillance.
Faulkner: Who would make the decision? Accepting that this is outside the area, under the auspices of Operation Relex, that Coastwatch has surveillance responsibilities for – which is the point you make, isn’t it?
Faulkner: Just accepting that, who would make the decision in Defence, as you understand it – based on the material that you provide, the AFP reports and the like – that surveillance of this particular SIEV-X is warranted? Where would that decision be made? Would it be made at NORCOM; would it be made elsewhere? Can you assist us with that at all?
Bonser: I would expect that it would be made in that operational chain of command: between the Theatre Command, Northern Command and indeed the assets in location.
Faulkner: Once you pass on the intelligence material you have available, is there no follow-up from Coastwatch?
Bonser: Only to continue to provide any additional information that comes to us.
… Faulkner: If Defence decided that they were going to undertake surveillance of SIEVX, for example, would Coastwatch in the normal course of events have been notified?
Bonser: Probably not. We would have had information that they were conducting the surveillance in that general area with the assets that were available. We were not seeing the actual detail of the surveillance patterns, not that level of detail.
Faulkner: Do you think, in relation to SIEV-X, that there were process failures in terms of the role of Australian agencies? I appreciate you can only make a comment from where you sit and it is in that context I ask you the question.
Bonser: From what I have seen and from the information that has been passed on I would say no. All of the information has been handled properly and passed on.
Faulkner: So you think it is perfectly reasonable that Australian authorities should learn about the sinking of SIEV-X from CNN? You are quite satisfied that that is acceptable?
Bonser: If that is the only information you get, then that is all you have.
Faulkner: But it is not the only information we have got in this situation, is it?
Bonser: That is the only information that we have about the vessel sinking.
Faulkner: It might be the only information at that time about the vessel sinking, but it is not the only information you have about the vessel leaving. It is in that context I asked the question. I probably should clarify it. My question does not go specifically to the sinking of SIEVX; it is the whole exercise from the time 400 people embarked and the boat left Indonesia. If the government decided to inquire further into the events surrounding the sinking of SIEVX, given your extensive responsibilities in relation to Coastwatch, could you identify any process failures in relation to this particular SIEV?
Bonser: I cannot see any course of action that any Australian authority could have taken that would have prevented the sinking of the vessel.
Faulkner: Can you think of a situation where Australian agencies should have had a great more knowledge and detail about what occurred with this SIEV after it left Indonesian shores?
Bonser: No, I cannot.
Faulkner: Can you draw a distinction between the state of knowledge that agencies had of that SIEV and a range of the other SIEVs – some of this you have dealt with in your opening statements – particularly the number of SIEVs. I am using SIEVs 1 to 12.
Bonser: 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.
Faulkner: You have not been asked since the sinking of the SIEV, in your role at Coastwatch, for any investigation or inquiry into those events at all?
Bonser: No, I have not.
Faulkner: Does that surprise you?
Collins: Let me take you to one area where there are issues of a process nature regarding the reporting, and that is your statement “In the normal course of operations, Coastwatch informs AusSAR about any vessels that have been sighted and may be in difficulty or distress.” You are probably aware that the evidence we had from AusSAR was that they were never advised that there was a vessel in distress, even on 20 October. How could you get into that situation?
Bonser: Because there was nothing to indicate there was a vessel in distress.
Collins: You said that you advise AusSAR, in the normal course of events, when a vessel may be in difficulty or in distress, and you did so on this occasion.
Bonser: What we did on this occasion was to advise AusSAR that there was a vessel that was potentially overdue.
Collins: Your statement says: In the normal course of operations, Coastwatch informs AusSAR about any vessels that have been sighted and may be in difficulty or distress.” And you did this on this occasion. You said that SIEV-X met this criteria.
Bonser: SIEV-X was not a vessel that had been sighted and was observed to be in difficulty and distress. When Coastwatch has confirmation of the departure date of a SIEV, and then when it is known that it is overdue, Coastwatch provides that information to AusSAR. After we had received the additional information on 22 October, SIEV-X met that criteria, and that was why Coastwatch contacted AusSAR and advised them that there was a vessel that was potentially overdue.
Collins: This is where there is a lack of clarity. You are saying that you advise AusSAR when a vessel may be in difficulty or distress. That is why you advise AusSAR, isn’t it?
Bonser: When we sight a vessel that may be in difficulty or distress, yes.
Collins:So, in this case, you had confirmation of departure and you knew it was overdue. Presumably you felt that met the criteria of probably being in difficulty or distress, and so you would advise AusSAR?
Bonser: No. That met the criteria for a vessel being overdue, and so we advised AusSAR.
Brandis: Is this the situation? There are different categories of criteria that trigger the advice to AusSAR: one is the sighting of a vessel in difficulty or distress; and another and independent criterion is that a vessel is overdue.
Bonser: That is correct, and they are independent.
Brandis: In this case, it was the second and not the first of those two categories which triggered your advice to AusSAR. It is as simple as that, isn’t it?
Bonser: That is correct.
Collins: Then, when you get to the first of those criteria, what action is AusSAR meant to take? My question is: what is the point of advising AusSAR?
Bonser: And that is for which criteria, Senator?
Collins: The first, the `overdue’.
Bonser: For an overdue vessel – and you would have to clarify this with AusSAR – my understanding is that they would issue a broadcast alert, asking shipping to keep a lookout for a vessel that was overdue.
Collins: They tell us they only do that when they have information that there is difficulty or distress. They are not aware of this two-level criterion that Senator Brandis has put to you.
Brandis: No, not two-level criterion; two separate criteria.
Collins: Okay, two different criteria. It seems that AusSAR is not aware of these criteria.
Bonser: I do not know about that. You would have to clarify that with them.
Collins: I suggest that you look at the evidence they gave this committee. Their answer for not responding to a report from Coastwatch is that there was no indication of distress.
Bonser: And we did not tell them that there was an indication of distress. We provided the information to them that there was an overdue vessel.
Collins: What I am asking you is this: if it has this other criteria, which is vessel overdue, what is your understanding of what AusSAR does with it? What is the point of reporting overdue to them, if all they simply say is `We’ve done nothing, because there’s no indication of distress’? Why bother with this criterion?
Bonser: Because that has been a standard procedure and, in the past, there have been broadcasts issued asking for vessels to keep a lookout for overdue vessels.
Collins: That is additional information that was not provided to us from AusSAR. We need to get to the bottom of why they did not do that on this occasion, because they did not – and we do not know why they did not, but we do know that many lives were lost.
Brandis: I think it is clear that there was never a time at which this vessel was under surveillance.
Bonser: That is correct.
Brandis: There was never a time at which any report was received by Coastwatch that the vessel was in difficulty or distress.
Bonser: That is correct.
Brandis: There was never a definitive piece of information conveyed that the vessel had, in fact, definitely departed Indonesian shores; there were merely intelligence reports that the vessel may have departed Indonesian shores.
Bonser: That is correct.
Brandis: On the assumption that this vessel may have departed Indonesian shores on a given date, there was a report that the vessel was overdue, and that report came to you?
Bonser: Yes, it did.
Brandis: A report was received that the vessel had sunk, which report was received after that event had happened.
Bonser: Yes, that is correct.
Brandis: That was also a report in the public media on the international news programs.
Bonser: Yes, it was – in addition to the report we received on 23 October from the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre.
Brandis: As far as I can follow your evidence, there was never a time prior to the sinking of the vessel that Coastwatch received any information causing it to arrive at a conclusion that the vessel was in peril or distressed.
Bonser: That is correct.
Brandis: That is what I thought. Thank you.
… Bartlett: My understanding of the answers you gave part way through there is that you had a range of intelligence reports of possible departures here and there, but there was no confirmed sighting or confirmation of a departure date.
Bonser: The only time we received information that corroborated a departure and indicated to us that this vessel had probably departed and could therefore be considered overdue was when we received information on 22 October.
Bartlett: You are saying `probably’. What is the difference between probability and confirmation?
Bonser: We could not tell whether the vessels had really left or not until they turned up.
Bartlett: You said in your opening statement that you had told AusSAR about the confirmation of departure. Was it confirmed or wasn’t it?
Bonser: That was the best indication we had of a confirmation of a departure and, on the basis of that, we assessed that the vessel was overdue and advised AusSAR accordingly. I cannot really go into any further detail in public about the nature of that information or why it led us to that belief.
Bartlett: We can pursue that with the AFP. I am not trying to divulge state secrets, I am just trying to get an idea of what constitutes confirmation and when probable departure becomes confirmed departure.
Bonser: I think the nature of the information that was provided on the 22nd, if provided in camera, would make that clear.
Cook: … My understanding, based on the corrected evidence of Admiral Smith, is that SIEVX departed Sumatra, which is a small coastal town in west Java, and that was the last place it touched on its ill-fated voyage. After that, it sailed on and foundered somewhere. The evidence that you have given us and reiterated a number of times – and I thank you for that – is that you received information on 22 October that this vessel may be overdue. That information was received from the AFP, as I recall you saying. I went through this before. The sole source of information that the vessel was overdue was the AFP, as far as Australia is concerned?
Bonser: That is correct.
Cook: You first learnt that the vessel was overdue from the AFP?
Bonser: Yes, and that assessment was made based on the information we received from the AFP on 22 October.
Cook: Did you receive information from the AFP that the vessel was overdue or that the vessel had departed at a certain time and then, by your own calculations, conclude that it was overdue?
Bonser: It was both. Part of the information and the detail of the information would help clarify that. There was an assessment that it was overdue, and we agreed with that assessment.
Cook: That is the point I want to be clear about. The AFP advised you that the vessel was overdue and, when you did your sums about where it was likely to be, you confirmed in your mind that, `Yes, obviously it is overdue.’ Is that how it went?
Bonser: That is correct, Senator.
Cook: The point I am concerned about is that the originating idea that the vessel was overdue came to you. You did not calculate that or deduct that from other informationfrom raw material. You got that conclusion, you checked it and then reaffirmed that it was overdue.
Bonser: That is correct, Senator.
Cook: And then you were asked to wait before that knowledge was broadcast so that it could be put in an acceptable form of reporting by the AFP?
Cook: You will tell me if I am intruding into areas that are sensitive and ought to be protected, which `may’ be matters for us to consider in camera when I ask these next questions. The advice that the Australian Federal Police gave you after this interregnum of nearly four hours from the initial report about what you may notify as an overdue vessel was essentially the same advice, in the same terms, that they had given you earlier or was it advice that was not in the same terms?
Bonser: It was not in the same words – because of the nature of the original information – but it was in the same terms, that this vessel was overdue. The original information inferred that same conclusion.
Cook: All right. The RAAF were flying surveillance in the area where Mr Kevin concluded SIEVX sank. Were they flying surveillance at the time that this vessel may have been in that vicinity?
Bonser: I do not know. I do not know whether it was ever in that vicinity or, if so, when.
Cook: You are aware though, as you said in your opening statement, of what Mr Kevin has said, you have read his evidence before us and you have doubtlessly seen the maps or the charts that he has presented to us and would therefore know where his hypothesis leads in terms of where he believes the vessel sankthat is, in an air surveillance area of Australia.
Bonser: Yes, it would be, Senator.
Cook: For the ADF?
Bonser: Yes, if that is where the vessel sank.
Cook: Do you happen to know whether a PC Orion, if that was the type of aircraft used, is equipped with life rafts and things that it could drop from the air if it comes across a SOLAS situation?
Bonser: I know they can be, Senator.
Cook: You do not know whether the operating aircraft in the area were, though?
Bonser: I do not know the answer to that question.
Cook: Maybe it is a question we should ask Defence. How long after 22 October, when you had broadcast this information, did CNN report that this vessel had in fact sunk?
Bonser: It was the following day, 23 October. That was the same day that we received advice from the Joint Intelligence Centre that there had been a report that a vessel had sunk.
Cook: The report that the Joint Intelligence Centre was referring to was the CNN report or another report?
Bonser: I do not know. We received two separate reports: one from the Joint Intelligence Centre and we also saw what was on CNN.
Cook: You actually saw it on the screen?
Bonser:Rear Adm. Bonser I did not, but I heard about it.
Cook: Officers of your agency saw it on the screen?
Collins: But you do not know that they were separate reports?
Bonser: No, I do not know what the source of the Joint Intelligence Centre report was.
… Cook: Taking you back to your remarks in your opening statement about reviewing the Kevin hypothesis, for want of a better description, and Mr Kevin’s evidence, has Coastwatch done its own reconstruction of the events to test that hypothesis?
Bonser: We have looked at the information but it is so imprecise that you really cannot reconstruct much from it, I would have to say.
Cook: So you have done some sort of exercise.
Bonser: We have plotted estimated times of departure, possible speeds, different diversions and where the vessel may have gone but it is very difficult to reconstruct. The best we have been able to work out is that it was somewhere between the Sunda Strait and perhaps about 80 miles south of it that this vessel unfortunately sank, but we have not been able to determine exactly where.
Cook: Calculating wind speeds, drifts and currents and plotting where boats might be and those sorts of things would be an expertise of Coastwatch, wouldn’t it?
Bonser: We have some skills in it, but the experts are the search and rescue authority.
Cook: You have presented to us that the analysis you have conducted was, in a way, a back of the envelope sort of exercise, or that is the impression I have. Was it an exercise like that, or was it a more considered sit down with the charts, the calculators and the navigational instruments to try to work it out? Was it a fairly full-on exercise?
Bonser: We certainly would have looked at a chart, at estimated times of departure and at how far a vessel might have gone at certain speeds, but to get any precise information even of the courses that the vessel might have taken would have been pure guesstimation. We just had no detail about what the vessel did, or might have done, after it allegedly sailed to indicate even what direction it went in.
Cook: And the intelligence reports did not provide a clue to you as to that.
Bonser: All we had was that there was a possible departure on a date, and I think that was the fifth possible departure that month. We had no idea whether the vessel was actually departing the archipelago or going somewhere else in the archipelago.
Cook: Does this exercise that you have just described appear in writing anywhere?
Bonser: I do not know that we actually have any of that recorded. We would have sat down with the chart, but it may well have been rubbed off again by now.
Cook: Can you check to see if you have anything?
Bonser: I can check.
Cook: You leave me with a terrible void in trying to package this. I understand and respect what you say about there being so many variables here and how do you know where it may have foundered. If you have no information after it leaves port, the fact that another agency can tell you that it is overdue suggests that another agency may have some of that information. So I will give some thought as to whether or not we might want to go in camera on some of that evidence.
Senator Brett Mason, Liberal, Queensland: Admiral, I think you said, in response to questions from my colleagues, that you are familiar with Mr Kevin’s evidence on Hansard and perhaps also some of his opinion pieces. Is that correct?
Bonser: Yes, I have read some of them.
Mason: I will quickly put some of them to you in a second. Let us get a bit of context to our discussion this afternoon. On page 1327 of Hansard of 1 May 2002, Mr Kevin says – and this is the nub of the issue: “There is clear public knowledge now from Australian official sources that there was some Australian official foreknowledge of the circumstances that led to the deaths of these 353 human beings. This cries out for explanation and accountability.”
And on page 1325, he says: “Coastwatch Australia knew from an intelligence source when this boat had left, where from, its likely speed and that it was heading for Christmas Island.” Are you across that information?
Mason: They are the claims that Mr Kevin in effect makes as they relate to Coastwatch. The nature of the information has been discussed this afternoon, and I think Senator Bartlett referred to paragraph 32 of your opening statement, which reads: “Information in relation to possible boat departures from Indonesia is often imprecise and subject to frequent change. It is not unusual for a vessel’s projected departure dates and times to change on an almost daily basis over a period of days or even weeks.” I think you gave evidence that on five different occasions there were intelligence reports that SIEV-X was about to depart. Is that correct?
Bonser: That is correct – either about to depart or had departed. That was just in the month of October.
Mason: In paragraph 3 of Admiral Smith’s statement of clarification dated 17 May, he says: “The intelligence reporting from Coastwatch was used as indicators of a possible SIEV arrival in an area within a probable time window.” Do you agree with that?
Bonser: Yes. That is in fact the way that Coastwatch used the information as well – as indicators rather than any firm navigation evidence that a ship was in a particular position.
Mason:You have also given evidencein answer to a question by Senator Brandis, I think, that this vessel was never under observation by the ADF or Coastwatch. Is that correct as well?
Bonser: That is correct.
Mason: I will briefly put some of Mr Kevin’s assertions to you. This is from the Canberra Times opinion page, page 11, on 21 May. He writes: “So it’s a reasonable inference from Operation Relex practice that timely intelligence reached Canberra on October 18 or 19 saying that SIEV-X had left Sumatra on October 18 bound for Christmas Island and that it was a 19-metre fishing boat carrying around 400 people.” Is that right?
Bonser: No. We did not get an indicator – well, we got the fifth indicator that the boat had departed somewhere on the 19th. We received that on the 20th. We certainly did not know the dimensions of the boat.
Mason: So what would you say to the implication or insinuation that Coastwatch is responsible or partly responsible for the deaths of these 353 people?
Bonser: I find it personally affronting.
Mason: That is part of the assertion that is being made here by Mr Kevin.
Bonser: I completely disagree with it.
Cook: Is that assertion specifically made?
Collins: I am not sure that is a fair representation of the assertions either.
Mason: I think it is.
Cook: It is a fairytale.
Mason: Taking it to its conclusion, it is.
Collins: The AFP are an Australian agency, and they received the information on the 19th.
Mason: We can get to them. I am happy to examine
Collins: But a moment ago you represented it as Coastwatch.
Mason: No, I said Coastwatch and the ADF. I am aware of what I am saying.
Collins: We know you are aware of what you are saying. You are misrepresenting the case.
Mason: I am not misrepresenting it at all. We can debate this later. I am quite happy to call anybody you want and we will examine them as well and do that and the truth will come out.
… Mason: So you would say that the assertions made by Mr Kevin as they relate to Coastwatch are rubbish?
Collins: Which assertion is that?
Bonser: I disagree with them.
…Collins: According to Rear Admiral Smith, the one on 14 October was a potential departure as opposed to a departure, and the one on … 18 October was an actual departure. I am also curious as to whether those reports did in fact report movement of the ship – meaning that it did actually depart and then move to Suma – or whether it was a misreport, and any assessment you are aware of to that effect.
Bonser: I am aware that the report on the 17th was a movement from one port to another.
Collins: So the report of the 17th was a movement and the report of the 20th was a movement – we know that according to the corroboration we got on the 22nd.
Bonser: That is correct.
Collins: And the report of the 14th was a potential movement which did not end up being a movement.
Bonser: I believe that is the case, but I will have to confirm that.
Collins: I am also then interested in the earlier reports. I am interested in the accuracy of the reporting. I am interested in whether the reporting you had for August and September equally accurately reported movements of this ship. On the map, the ship moves around the strait area, eventually coming to Suma before it enters the strait, and then it founders somewhere.
Bonser: We would not have that information, because we do not know what the vessel did after it departed its final port.
Collins: No, I realise that. The case that is being presented to us is that we had a mixture of reports, and that clouded the picture. So we were not terribly confident of the report that we had on the 20th. Is that an accurate depiction?
Bonser: That is correct.
Collins: What I am seeking to understand is whether this confused picture of reporting is actually a fairly accurate report of a ship making its way down to close to the strait, which is the vicinity, ultimately, of where it ended up foundering. I would like to see the detail – so far as it does not compromise any sensitivity on intelligence purposes – of all of those reports: where the ship was, when it was being reported, precisely what it was being reported as possibly doing and whether it did in fact do that.
Bonser: That goes to the nature of the reports which are still classified and need to be declassified by the originating authority.
Collins: Yes and no. You could look at those reports and answer those questions without compromising the full detail of the report, I would have thoughtat least in many instances, maybe not in all.
Bonser: It would still have to be cleared with the originating authority.
Collins: Again you are saying this is perhaps more appropriately a Federal Police issue.
Bonser: To look at the information in detail, yes.
Collins: I also wanted to clarify what you indicated before, which was that you believe it foundered somewhere between the Sunda Strait and 80 nautical miles south of Java.
Bonser: I do not know where the vessel sank. All the reports that I have heard, which all come from what I have heard in the media, indicate somewhere between Sunda Strait and perhaps 80 miles south of Java.
… Collins: What component of that region falls within our aerial surveillance zone?
Bonser: My understanding is anywhere up to about 30 miles from Indonesian territory.
Collins: … So if we take it from the coast and 30 nautical miles down then that is where our zone of aerial surveillance would be.
Bonser: That was the area in which Defence was conducting surveillance. You would really have to clarify the detail of that with them. I understand that there was a stand-off distance from Indonesian territory for diplomatic reasons.
Faulkner: In Admiral Smith’s letter he talks about the Coastwatch assessment of the Abu Qussey vessel that assessed that the vessel could possibly arrive at Christmas Island late 18 October or early 19 October 2001. Who makes those assessments?
Bonser: That is done by analysis staff. They would base that broadly on the reports that they might get of departure dates and then estimate an arrival time based on possible speeds of these vessels, which are invariably slow. Sometimes these things do not even occur because the vessels divert to somewhere else.