Security Watch - opinion

Spooks in a jam over jammer

Ronnie Kasrils – cabinet must have known
ronnie_kasrils.jpg

The South African government’s explanations for the scrambling of communication signals from parliament simply do not wash.

To believe the explanations by especially the Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, of a mere “operational error” would be akin to believing that Santa Clause has a long white beard and lives in the North Pole.

According to Minister Mahlobo the jamming of cell phone signals was caused when the operator of the jamming device “failed to properly terminate the device and this impacted on proper access to some users of mobile phones”.   

Initially there were some frantic attempts to dodge and downplay the whole incident and nobody was willing or brave enough to take responsibility.

Only after parliament's legal representative, advocate Norman Arendse, identified the State Security Agency (SSA) as the responsible entity, was a media briefing called by the government’s security cluster in an attempt to resolve the growing outcry from opposition parties and the public.

Minister Mahlobo tried to convince the public that there was “unprecedented intelligence” indicating a real threat to parliament during the delivery of President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) that demanded drastic security measures.  

He also cited potential airstrikes from low-flying aircraft or drones as a reason for the use of a signal-jamming device in parliament.

This explanation does not hold water. While the signal was jammed in parliament itself, mobile phones were working outside the building where President Zuma and the Deputy President, standing in the open and at their most vulnerable, were receiving a 21-gun salute.

The response of Murray Hunter from Right2Know expresses the view of many South Africans: “The fact is that state security has spent six days evading, delaying and denying responsibility for the signal jamming, only to turn around and admit that it was, in fact, responsible, leaves this explanation feeling pretty bankrupt.”

Deliberate

The decision to jam the signal in parliament was clearly deliberate and part of a detailed plan designed for one reason only – to control the images and information from parliament to the outside world.

The speaker, Baleka Mbete, during a press briefing admitted that security measures were put in place in anticipation of disruptive actions of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). She also admitted that presiding officers knew that a certain “device” would be used as part of security measures, but was adamant that the media were not the targets, although she could, or would, not say at who it was aimed at.

Mbete’s acknowledgement contradicts the cover-up attempt by the Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services and former Minister of State Security, Siyabonga Cwele, saying that he “didn't know there was a jammer and we shouldn't speculate”.

His credibility evaporated when photos of the device appeared in the media.

The placement of the jamming device in full view of the public raises an interesting question: Was it another sign of the incompetence and unprofessional operational acumen of Minister Mahlobo’s men or was it deliberate to show South Africans and the media the middle finger?  

The chaotic scenes that played out in the National Assembly were the unfortunate result of freedom of speech and expression being suppressed. It is inconceivable that this could have happened in the parliament of a country that prides itself on being a constitutional democracy with one of the best, if not the best, and most liberal constitution in the world.   

The Democratic Party’s David Maynier is correct when he asserts that, “the threat to disrupt parliament, or even embarrass the president, clearly falls outside the counter- intelligence mandate of the South African security services”. 

Former Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils is more scathing and alarmist and rightly so when he concludes that South Africa risks becoming a police state if those responsible for the jamming are not punished.

According to him, “South Africa's constitutional authority and rule of law is at stake, and if those who are responsible for it are not punished the country risks becoming a police state”.

They must have known

President Zuma was correct when he told the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) that the jamming was uncalled for, but his claim that “we did not know about it” is simply not true.

A plan on this scale, which included masquerading policemen in civilian dress and rehearsals of the drills which included practice shooting at dummies carrying the faces of EFF leaders, could only have been approved at a very high political level.

Mr Kasrils, who certainly should know, confirmed that “no ordinary government official would have done so without orders from above”.

And how does one explain Deputy President Ramaphosa’s note to the State Security Minister and the sudden return of the signal shortly afterwards?   

What is certain is the fact that the attempts to persuade an already sceptical public became a futile self-defeating exercise that only undermined the credibility of the security establishment.

If the jamming of the signal was indeed just a ‘technical glitch’, then it is a sad reflection on the incompetence of the technical component of the state security apparatus.

The embarrassment it caused was immense.

Not only was the incident witnessed by many foreign dignitaries and ambassadors and the nation itself, but the minister of state security also declared that the SONA was identified as an event that required the highest level of security and “maximum security had to be effected”.

Minister Mahlobo’s assurance that, “in future the Department of State Security will ensure that its members in discharging their operational tasks handle their operations more diligently” carries little conviction. The SSA’s past history is littered with operational failures and with the exposure of the Spy Cables saga, the credibility of the ministry of state security and the SSA is at stake. 

Disregard

The people of South Africa and those interested in what is happening in South Africa are getting used to absurd explanations concocted by the ANC-led government and its spin doctors for their many mishaps. What is upsetting is the apparent disregard shown for the intelligence of the vast majority of South Africans.

This begs the question of why many governments, in this instance the ANC-led government, find it so difficult to tell the truth?

By telling the truth the South African government would have won sympathy and respect instead of criticism and ridicule, but sadly it is seemingly blissfully unaware that it is fast losing credibility or simply does not care.  

by Garth Cilliers

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