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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26365

Senator BRANDIS (3:57 PM) —When the reports of Senate committees are tabled they generally attract little notice. Even those which do usually do so because they are concerned with controversial matters of public policy. But this report—Bali 2002: security threats toAustralians in South East Asia—is different, because it deals with things which transcend politics in the sense that we ordinarily understand it. It deals with people's lives and with their deaths. It deals with an event which, even if only vicariously, touched every Australian: one of the most searing and awful moments in our history which will forever remain part of our nation's collective memory. For every member of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, the hearings have been a deeply emotional experience. It is with the victims of the Bali bombing and their families uppermost in our minds that we participate in this parliamentary debate this afternoon.

I said a moment ago that this event transcends politics—of course it does—and, fittingly, the committee did not approach its task in a political way. We strove to achieve bipartisanship and, at least as between government and opposition senators, we largely—although not entirely—succeeded in arriving at a common view and largely a common set of recommendations. The fact that this was possible is a great credit to the two senators who chaired the committee: Senator Peter Cook and, after his retirement from that role to take on another demanding committee assignment, Senator Steve Hutchins.

This inquiry has not been about point scoring, scapegoat seeking or pointing the finger of blame. It has been about finding out what happened and what we can do to learn to make sure that the intelligence failure which led to the terrible events on 12 October 2002 never happens again. I said `intelligence failure'. It was a term which was much used by witnesses. Yet the moment you utter that term it discloses an ambiguity. Of course, in one sense, there was an intelligence failure, because we did not anticipate the Bali bombing. Yet, as the committee accepted, it is simply not possible to hold intelligence agencies to an absolute standard. The fact that a terrorist event occurs does not necessarily mean that somebody in the intelligence services has not done their job properly. It may simply mean that a fact—perhaps merely a clue—was not picked up in time, or at all.

So government senators join with opposition senators in the core finding of this report, arrived at after an exhaustive canvass of the evidence over 10 hearing days and having heard from over 50 witnesses, that there was no culpable failure on the part of any Australian agency or official in failing to anticipate the Bali bombing. In the words of Dr Hugh White, the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, an independent witness with no position to defend and no axe to grind:

... there was no Pearl Harbor here—that is, there was no clear warning which, if identified and acted upon, would have provided an opportunity to prevent the Bali bombing. To that extent, I do not believe it is accurate to describe what happened in Bali as an intelligence failure in any sense.

But Dr White went on to observe, and government senators agree:

On the other hand, I do think, from what we know publicly, that some important lessons can be drawn from what happened about the intelligence capacities we have in relation to terrorism, the relationship between intelligence and policy and some of the policy operations we have in relation to terrorism.

Let me summarise some, though not all, of the key findings of the committee, in which government senators concur. It found that no Australian agency had any foreknowledge of the Bali bombing; that, to the extent there was an intelligence failure, it was not a systemic failure in the way in which our intelligence agencies operated or a failure to analyse the specific intelligence which they had; that there had been a growing awareness and appreciation within the Australian intelligence community—in particular from about early 1999—of the rising significance and militancy within South-East Asia of extremist Islamic groups, of their propensity to engage in terrorism and of the potential threat they posed to Westerners; and that in mid-December 2001 Jemaah Islamiah was first identified by Australian agencies as having developed a terrorist capability. I pause to say that one of the deficiencies which we discovered was the failure to identify Jemaah Islamiah as an organisation with terrorist capabilities until as late as December 2001.

We concur in the majority's view that the assessments made by Australian agencies of the terrorist threat posed by JI were always of a generic character. At no time was any Australian agency aware of a threat posed by JI specifically in Bali or in any other particular locality in Indonesia. We accept the majority's view that there were difficulties in the relationship between ONA and DFAT at critical times but that, nevertheless, those two agencies developed an increasingly close relationship as the new paradigm of international security focused on terrorism demanded ever greater cooperation between government agencies. We accept the finding that, at the most critical time in the months immediately preceding the Bali bombing, the agencies were carrying out analysis and delivering assessments that were optimal within the bounds of the information and evidence available to them.

We accept that, prior to the Bali bombing, neither DFAT nor ONA nor any other Australian agency was possessed of any specific or actionable intelligence that gave warning of an attack. Government senators observe that—as ONA itself conceded—of some 20 reports by the ONA between June and October 2002 concerning regional terrorism, not one mentioned Bali as a potential target. We accept that DFAT did not in this particular instance—nor does it as a matter of practice—temper travel advisories according to diplomatic considerations. There are many other findings which time does not permit me to direct my remarks to, but those are the core findings of the committee. They are findings of the majority, the opposition senators, which government senators concur in.

In closing, I want to make remarks about some individuals. I want to remark in particular on the witnesses, including the professional witnesses and the senior intelligence officers such as Mr Dennis Richardson, the head of ASIO, whose appearance before the committee was characterised by a candid, frank, self-critical honesty which deeply, I am sure, impressed us all. I want to thank all of my colleagues who sat on the committee and I want to acknowledge on our side the contributions of Senator Sandy Macdonald, the deputy chair, Senator David Johnston and Senator Santo Santoro. I want to acknowledge the tremendous work, under great pressure, of the secretary, Brenton Holmes.

We know that this report will not please everyone but we are quite sure that, as a result of this inquiry, Australia is in a significantly better position to ensure that such an event does not happen again. Sadly, in an ever more dangerous world, wicked men and women will do wicked things, and there can never be absolute certainty that men of goodwill will be able to stop them. But we can, and we must, always use our utmost vigilance. For, as an English statesman once famously said, `All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.'