Australia’s security fears in 2000 focused on hostage taking at Sydney Olympics, cabinet papers show

The year 2000 is remembered mostly for Sydney’s hosting of the Olympics in an atmosphere of relative peace and harmony.

This was the last year before the term “war on terror” would become entwined in virtually every government decision as a result of the 11 September 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the United States, according to the cabinet historian Chris Wallace.

The pre-eminence of security in decision making will no doubt be obvious in the 2001 cabinet papers release next January.

But in the more benign environment of the year before, the 2000 cabinet papers, released by the National Archives of Australia on Friday, show security concerns were confined mainly to the possibility of a team being taken hostage at the Games, as had occurred in Munich in 1972 when nine Israeli team members were taken hostage by the Palestinian Black September group.

The possibility of chemical, biological or radiological attack was also considered by the Howard government as it planned to host “the best Games ever”.

Some of the briefings from the security agencies occurred orally and the notes from the national security committee of cabinet are minimal. But the overall picture is of moderate concern.

In the lead-up to the Olympics in September 2000, cabinet adopted a formal counter-terrorism policy, sent a team of security experts to the US to meet with its National Security Council and considered lessons gained from an emergency services exercise, Ring True.

But as the documents show, the main planning was for a hostage-taking event targeting athletes and not the mass casualty attacks against civilian populations that became the hallmark of al-Qaida a year later.

In hindsight, the focus may have been too narrow.

In March New Zealand had uncovered a possible plot to blow up the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in Sydney during the Games. In the course of an investigation into people smuggling by organised crime syndicates Auckland police conducted a series of house raids and found that one home in Mount Albert had been converted into a virtual command centre, complete with a conference table and maps.

A Sydney street map was found with the site of the reactor and access routes to it highlighted.

The cell consisted of about 20 refugees, mainly from Afghanistan. There were strong indications that at least some members of the cell had previous military training and there was speculation in the NZ media that the group was linked to Osama bin Laden.

When the plot became public in August in the New Zealand Herald, Australian and NZ officials played down the seriousness of the threat to the research reactor, some 25km from the main Olympic stadium.

But New Zealand’s public comments about the threat clearly rankled the Australian government.

After an oral briefing to cabinet by the then-director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Dennis Richardson, cabinet asked the Department of Foreign Affairs to convey to New Zealand that it “viewed its statements as unhelpful” and “would appreciate prior consultation on any substantive future statements by the NZ government on matters bearing on Australian domestic security”.

But as to what intelligence the Howard government had received about actual threats, the cabinet papers offer only tantalising hints.

A paper from the national security committee of cabinet in August 2000, entitled Progress of Commonwealth Security Preparations, shows focus was on the threat of hostage taking.

It notes that Asio advised that in terms of a terrorist act, the US, Israel and Turkey were most at threat from existing terrorist groups in Australia. The threat level was assessed as “medium”.

Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the UK, Germany, India and Sri Lanka were also identified as at threat from groups but these were assessed as having no or low capability of operating in Australia.

Asio warned there was a much higher likelihood of “hoaxes and protests, for the most part peaceful,” the cabinet papers say.

The papers discussing exercise Ring True, which occurred in May 2000, reveal it involved two scenarios staged at the Homebush baseball stadium in Sydney and at Bruce Stadium in Canberra.

“The exercise was comprised of related siege-hostage situations” while the New South Wales situation involved “an additional challenge of a chemical incident”, requiring help from all elements of the NSW emergency services, the documents reveal.

The exercise had been “reassuring” and the security issues were now well understood, cabinet was told.

But Ring True did expose “certain deficiencies” as to the details of how commonwealth assistance, “which is obviously of high political sensitivity”, would work in practice.

The main issue was coordination.

Although NSW police had control over security at the Olympics, in a hostage situation the cabinet documents said the commonwealth and ADF commanders should maintain control over “a deliberate assault” and “the possible use of lethal force by the ADF”.

Quick Guide

Australian politics in 2000

Show

Late 1999

Unauthorised arrivals of asylum seekers by boat rise sharply.

January

Australian troops return from then-East Timor (now Timor-Leste). 

February

East Timor edges toward self-government. The United Nations provides administration and defence.

February

Revelations that residents at Melbourne’s Riverside nursing home were given kerosene baths sparks an aged care scandal.

April

The commonwealth strikes an agreement with the Northern Territory on mandatory sentencing.

24 May

Joint counter-terrorism exercise Ring True conducted to test security for upcoming Olympic Games in Sydney.

28 May

250,000 people walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of reconciliation with Indigenous Australians.

29 May

The government of Fiji is overthrown in a coup.

5 June

The Solomon Islands prime minister is taken hostage in a coup.

8 June

Nearly 500 asylum seekers escape from Woomera detention centre. More unrest in other centres follows. 

1 July

The GST is introduced in Australia.

September

The World Economic Forum is held in Melbourne.

15 September

The Sydney Olympic Games begin.

November

Floods in NSW force the evacuation of 600 people.

November/December

COP 6 climate talks held at The Hague.

The submission noted that “media handling will be critical”. The attorney general was already designated as the commonwealth spokesman but the submission suggested a high-ranking spokesman from Defence and possibly the prime minister should be on hand.

Defence pushed back.

“Defence as a practice does not comment on special operations capabilities. Defence’s position, like that of its allies, is that defence force involvement is de-emphasised after a CT activity, while primacy of the civilian authorities is emphasised.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs said it wanted to be notified as soon as possible about the nationalities of hostages, warning that other countries would want to make media statements and it would need to handle a delicate situation.

The commonwealth earmarked an additional $129m to meet the estimated total cost of $517m for the Games’ security.

This was to pay for 3,200 ADF personnel stationed in Sydney, including an additional tactical response group and 70 navy clearance divers.

More than 30 aircraft and helicopters were on standby while a Royal Australian Navy ship was stationed off the coast of Sydney to deal with any terrorist threat that entered territorial waters.

The US promised air cover contingency beyond 100km and had promised to provide pharmaceuticals in case of a chemical or biological attack, as well as a transportable morgue, if needed.

But the Howard government balked at the NSW government request for ADF personnel to search bags at venues, saying NSW should cover this.

The papers also reveal the US had requested an exemption to Australia’s strict rule preventing foreign security staff from carrying weapons during the Games.

The paper argued that if an exemption were granted to the US, others such as the Israelis would want an exemption too. The papers do not reveal how Australia resolved this issue.