Intelligence sharing, holes in boats or sugar in the fuel tank — just what did Andrew Wilkie mean when he called for re-energised “disruption operations” as a way of halting the people smuggling trade?

In a set of proposals designed to tackle people smuggling — others include an increase in refugee intake and a public information campaign — the ex-ONA analyst called for a return to the “disruption operations” of the Howard government. His proposal comes just days after the horrific sinking of a boat on the cliffs of Christmas Island, which claimed the lives of at least 30 asylums seekers.

But despite Wilkie’s vehement calls for a change in policy, he has so far refused to provide much detail as to what a “disruption program” would entail.

“You’ve got to stop the boats leaving Indonesia,” Wilkie told ABC Radio. “I’m not going to go into the detail of how you might do that. You can imagine any number of ways where you can disrupt their business, prevent the boats leaving port in ways that don’t put any lives at risk.”

According to the AFP, disruption involves “providing actionable intelligence to inform foreign law enforcement action and prevent maritime ventures before they depart for Australia”.

Jack Smit, spokesman from Project SafeCom, says that Wilkie’s disruption program could also mean something more sinister. He said that scuttling boats had been a clandestine policy of governments in the past to stop them coming to Australia.

“Disruption is a nasty business. There are stories around that boats have been disrupted and voyages disrupted,” Smit said. “We haven’t got any record of people drowning from these disruption operations but they are shocking policies.”

Submissions to a 2002 Senate  inquiry into the sinking of the SIEV X alleged that the disruption of people smuggling boats could involve a string of activities — including encouraging fuel suppliers not to supply fuel to vessels, not providing food for vessels to sail or putting sugar in the fuel tank or sand in the engine of a vessel.

AFP officials have not denied such activities occurring in the past. In a submission to the SIEV X inquiry, former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty said that, while that nothing unlawful or inhumane would occur as a result of disruption operations, he could not categorically rule out whether illegal and inhumane activities had occurred in the past.

“I have no knowledge at all of these things occurring, but it is like anything else I have no knowledge about: I cannot deny that it exists,” Keelty told the inquiry. He also denied that Indonesian operatives were being paid to carry out such activities, however he did say that the AFP had trained people involved in disruption.

At the time of the inquiry, Senator John Faulkner called for an independent judicial inquiry into Australia’s disruption activities in Indonesia, to “comprehensively investigate what has actually happened in the disruption program, what the outcomes of the program have been, the legality and propriety of the methods employed, and what accountability mechanisms ought to be instituted for the future”.  An inquiry put forward by the Greens in 2008 was eventually voted down by the Senate.

Professor Damien Kingsbury, from the Deakin University School of International and Political Studies, says that Wilkie’s proposal likely to refer to intelligence sharing between the AFP and their Indonesian counterparts.

“Sinking boats in Indonesian harbors is a risky undertaking,” he told Crikey. “You need some fairly certain intelligence that boats are being used for illegal activities, otherwise you’re committing an illegal activity yourself.”

Kingsbury said that the AFP may start running more investigations into who is running the people smuggling racket businesses, then look for ways to either stop them by using warnings or by seeking ways to lay charges.

Regardless of the political pressure facing the federal government, Kingsbury says that there may be issues in working with the Indonesian government — particular in relation to political will and corruption.

“Their attention to domestic terrorism is much greater and much more critical and in terms of the allocation of resources that’s where they are more likely to focus their attention,” Kingsbury said. “People smuggling is not nearly as important to them.

“For the foreseeable future there is going to be a problem with corrupt officials. Investigations would need to identify that corruption, which would dovetail nicely with their anti-corruption effort.”

CORRECTION: An original version of this story described Andrew Wilkie as an ex-ASIO officer. He is an ex-ONA analyst. Furthermore, Jack Smit did not contest that the AFP sunk boats belonging to people smugglers in Indonesian waters.