Spy Watch

SA Intelligence service scores massive own goal

State Security Minister David Mahlobo
Minister Mahlobo.jpg

South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA) has been hit by a massive ‘own goal’ –  probably perpetrated by one of its own – with the agency itself the primary target rather than external geopolitical aims.

That is the most likely reason for the massive leak of a treasure trove of secret documents from the agency, which ended up in the hands of the international TV network Al Jazeera, according to expert intelligence analysts we consulted.

Its roots are probably also to be found in internal power struggles, misuse of the SSA and management instabilities associated with the SSA, rather than in events in the global geopolitical arena.

The random nature of the subject matter covered by the leaked documents that have come to light suggests that whoever leaked the documents – apparently thousands of them – did not have a single or selected number of external targets in mind. Rather, the leak was the method chosen to, in the first instance, embarrass or expose the SSA itself.

The full truth about the who, why and how of the leak will probably never be fully known and the possibilities are almost endless. But the spread of what has come to light up to now, from Israel’s relationship to the US, spying on behalf of Korea, Iran’s nuclear aspirations and China’s interest in South Africa’s nuclear technology, to a assassination plot against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma suggests that the leaked documents are mined for information by subject as they appear on the geopolitical agenda, rather than specific issues per se being the motive of the leak.

If this assessment is correct the fall-out of the incident is going to be with us for some time and the embarrassment to linger for quite some time. Most, if not all, intelligence services of all countries that have exchanged communication with the SSA since 2006 must be very nervous.

Should have seen it coming

A document, an image of which was published by Al Jazeera on its website, tells the story of how the SSA as far back as 2009 was already alerted by an internal assessment of its own vulnerability in the face of extremely lax security procedures.

The document, which according to sources with solid inside knowledge and experience, carries the hallmarks of authenticity, starts off with the following sentence: “Consistent concerns about information security risks in the government are assessed as a major risk of long-term duration” (their emphasis).

The document, among other things, revealed:

Outsiders had “virtually uncontrolled” access to officers’ communications equipment, posing a “major risk to the integrity of sensitive and classified information”; 

  • Extremely lax general security control measures included the vetting of people recruited and employed;
  • These weaknesses were exploited for “fraudulent purposes and financial gain”;
  • “Such deficiencies render statutory institutions vulnerable to fraud and corruption, and worse, to espionage and malicious infrastructural disruption”;
  • Some private security companies working for foreign embassies, government ministries and companies played a greater role in the transmission of intelligence. They recruited former intelligence officers and didn’t operate under the same constraints as the national services; and
  • Private intelligence organizations thus potentially provide a perfect conduit for foreign intelligence services and organizations hostile to the state”.

The last point might explain how the documents ended up in Israel where they were apparently handed over to Al Jazeera. This fact indicates that someone or a group of people skilled at covering their tracks were behind the leak. It also placed the platform of the release of the documents outside of the enforcement reach of South African security legislation.

Seeds of what happened

The seeds of what happened now were probably sown in 2006, when a period of deep involvement of the South African intelligence community in the domestic political, competition for positions of power and influence and factional struggles was unleashed.

At the time a new surveillance policy and procedure manual for the SAS was produced, including the basis and procedures for intelligence operatives to obtain permission to conduct both physical and electronic surveillance of targets.

The result was an environment in which it was made easy for the agency or elements in its midst to get involved in domestic surveillance. And even then clauses were included that put the director-general of the SSA in a position where he/she “may approve any deviation from the provisions of this policy at his/her discretion considering the best interests of the service”.

So deep has the involvement of the service become in domestic affairs that, for example, in December last year the National Union of Metalworkers of SA complained that there had been several attempts to recruit their shop stewards to spy on the organisation.

It has become a fairly common occurrence for real or fabricated intelligence documents to emerge in public that seem to be aimed at discrediting one or the other faction or person, and various political leaders have in the recent past complained that they are being spied on.

History of intelligence shenanigans

In the wider state security establishment there have been several renaming/restructuring exercises and several shake-ups of the top management, including the SSA itself and intelligence arms of both the SA Revenue Service (SARS) and the SA Police Service (SAPS), as well as the Police special unit, the Hawks.

A succession of national intelligence ministers has also come and gone – in tandem, it would seem, with specific political developments on the domestic political scene and specifically within ANC structures.

The appointment, for example, of the current State Security Minister, David Mahlobo, by President Zuma last year took everyone by surprise. He was relatively unknown, with no security or intelligence background and his previous highest position was in the Mpumalanga provincial administration as head of the Department for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

There have been suggestions that his appointment was the reward for helping key business people close to Zuma to gain access to KwaZulu-Natal provincial government contracts, and that these business people later generously funded the ANC during the last election campaign.

The history of the mixing of politics and intelligence activities include:

  • When the then head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Bulelani Ngcuka, was on the verge of charging Zuma with corruption. False ‘evidence’ was produced that he was an apartheid spy, a charge a commission of inquiry found to be without any truth;
  • In 2006 the Directorate of Special Operation (DSO) produced a Top Secret document known as the Special ‘Browse’ Mole Consolidated Report, which sought to discredit Zuma after he had been fired as deputy president by then President Thabo Mbeki;
  • In KwaZulu-Natal an alleged intelligence report recently surfaced claiming there was a plot to poison the ANC’s provincial chair, Senzo Mchunu;
  • The interception of the telecommunications activities of businessperson and former Mbeki ally, Saki Macozoma; and
  • In November 2011 the New Age news paper with its close ties to President Jacob Zuma claimed/reported that Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula believed a short extramarital affair he had was actually a politically motivated ‘honey trap’ set up by ‘rogue elements’ in the SSA; and the list goes on and on.

More important as a possible explanation of the reason or reasons behind the latest leak fiasco, is the leadership and administrative instability that has plagued the agency, especially since Mr Zuma took over leadership of the ANC and the country.

That the agency has become highly politicised by the ANC has been admitted in just about so many words by Minister Mahlobo. When announcing the redeployment of three senior SSA heads of divisions in September last year, a mere two years after they were appointed, he said they were political appointments and were being redeployed by the ANC.

The agency itself came about in 2009 as a result of a massive restructuring of some of the state’s key intelligence/security instruments into a single entity. The SSA was created by the amalgamation of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), South African Secret Service, South African National Academy of Intelligence, National Communications Centre and the NIA-owned Electronic Communications Security (Pty) Ltd.

Since September 2008, when Siyabonga Cwele replaced Ronnie Kasrils as responsible minister, the agency has had three different directors-general. It has also seen the return of other senior staff members, like Bob Mhlanga and Gibson Njenje who were fired by President Thabo Mbeki after accusations of being entangled in the ruling party’s factional power/succession struggles.

There was also the appointment of Zuma confidant, Moe Shaik, as head of the foreign branch of the agency, and former home affairs director-general Jeff Maqetuka as director general of the South African Secret Service.

Making enemies

It is these developments and the atmosphere within the intelligence community that goes with it, that had Mr Kasrils recently saying that the intelligence agencies had become the “football of the ANC leadership”, concluding: “When you have … paranoia, you won’t trust anyone. That is why you will have to get rid of people so soon after appointing them.”  

It is also the sort of environment in which key people’s careers and ambitions get destroyed – a world in which deeply-felt grudges are born and powerful enemies made.

This might hold the key as to the reason for the massive leak that has just about destroyed the credibility of the State Security Agency.

by Piet Coetzer, Stef Terblanche & Garth Cilliers

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