Spy Watch

SA security establishment’s bad run of own goals continues

What happened to SA satellite?

South Africa’s security and intelligence community, particularly the State Security Agency (SSA), seems to be caught up in a cycle of scoring ‘own goals’.

A year ago in an article headed, President Obama announces reforms to improve the image of American spying activities, we made reference to the South African National Defence Force’s (SANDF) highly secretive Project Flute, also known as Project Condor.

Said to be the brainchild of General Maomela "Mojo" Motau, when he served as head of Military Intelligence, it was a highly secretive project to put a surveillance satellite in space. 

The article was written at a time that revelations by Edward Snowden, a US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, dominated international headlines. It revealed how the US government was using technology to spy on millions of ordinary American citizens and people around the world, including the heads of state of American allies.

There were also domestic concerns that ordinary South Africans might be targeted by the Americans.  


Then the South African public was recently stunned when information on the local ‘spy front’ was leaked to the media:

  • First there were reports on the existence of an intelligence unit at the South African Revenue Service (SARS). It, among others, clandestinely collected information on specifically targeted individuals; and
  • Then there was the disclosure of leaked secret SSA documents to the Al Jazeera news service.

One of these documents revealed how South Korea requested SSA to spy on Greenpeace director and South African citizen, Kumi Naidoo.

Another dealt with Project Flute. It gave a glimpse at the confusion, rivalry and lack of direction and leadership in the SA security establishment.

This situation is shown to have, ironically, gotten progressively worse under President Jacob Zuma’s presidency. He headed the ANC in exile’s own intelligence which, in itself, was a good example of what happens when intelligence services are misused.

Project Flute

The little information publically available indicates there was trouble with the contract awarded in 2006 to the Russian company Mashinostroyenia to build a satellite for the SANDF at an estimated cost of R1.2 billion.

During 2007 South African authorities froze funding of the project after it was realised that full control over the satellite and its data would remain in Russian hands, leaving South Africa entirely dependent on the Russian manufacturer for the satellite’s operation.                                                                                                      

The Russian manufacturer threatened with legal action.

As information about the project and the problems experienced became public, the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) spokesperson on defence matters, David Maynier, began asking uncomfortable questions in parliament. He demanded an official investigation.

But government drew a veil of secrecy around the project. It remains unclear whether a satellite was launched in December 2014, as claimed by some sources.

Confusion and rivalry

Incredibly, it seems that even the SSA was kept in the dark about the project.

This either indicates incompetence by the SSA or the effectiveness of Military Intelligence to keep their secret under wraps.

It could also be the result of the, not uncommon, interdepartmental jealousy and rivalry and a reluctance or unwillingness to share information.

If there is any truth in the rumours linking corruption, and murder, to Project Flute it is obvious why Military Intelligence is so keen to keep the project secret.

An article, headed “In search of a satellite, Project Flute?” in African Armed Forces, refers to speculations that the mysterious and fiery death of the Secretary of Defence, January Masilela, in a car accident in August 2008, was no accident: “According to sources close to the program Masilela smelled a rat as early as December 2006 when he launched an investigation into the deal. As the accounting officer for the SANDF’s expenditure he was probably worried that the deal would follow in the footsteps of the multi billion rand arms deal’s sordid repercussions, but about that one can only speculate now.”

The findings of the Masilela investigation are still a secret.

Despite all this, according to one of the many documents leaked to Al Jazeera, the SSA was only informed of Project Flute in 2012 by a South African agent with access to the Russian government and military intelligence.

The document records the agent, code-named Agent Africanist, reported that the satellite once operational would place, “South Africa in a position to conduct aerial surveillance in Africa, potentially right up to Israel for strategic military purposes”.

It also reports on a longer term aim to eventually integrate the Russian and South African satellite surveillance programmes to provide wider coverage for both countries.

He also identified South African and Russian military intelligence (GRU) as being the “key role players” in relation to Project Flute with “… currently … 30 Russian technicians working in South Africa in close co-operation with South African authorities on the project.”

More baffling          

If funding of Project Flute was frozen because of concern about the one-sidedness of the contract in favour of Russia, it becomes more baffling why the SSA has spent almost R10 million to have 90 of its employees trained in Russia between May and November in 2012.

Besides the fruitless expenditure, the same training could have been conducted in South Africa at a fraction of the cost, according to a source with inside knowledge of the programme, quoted by the Sunday Times. The Russians have also allegedly recruited “at least four local spies, which means we are sitting with double agents”.

If four SSA members have been recruited, the programme from an intelligence service perspective was a dismal failure. Four double agents can only be described as a disaster. With 90 people having been on the training expedition, it might also be only the ears of the hippo.

It is normal and acceptable to have intelligence personnel trained abroad, but to minimise the risk of foreign recruitment, numbers are always limited.

Herculean challenge

The SSA is now facing a herculean challenge to restore credibility both locally and internationally. 

Foreign agencies will now be extraordinary careful in dealings with the SSA and some may even sever links or limit contact to the minimum.  

Still, it seems as if the SSA remains unperturbed and indifferent about it all. In the light of the latest announcement that the SSA is going to investigate the bizarre and outrageous allegations on a dubious website, African Intelligence Leaks, it even seems hell-bent on destroying what little is left of its credibility. 

According to David Mahlobo, Minister of State Security, the SSA will investigate the allegations that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and some political leaders, including EFF leader Julius Malema, former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and head of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) Joseph Mathunjwa, are agents working for the American CIA!

The posts on 12 February this year tie in neatly with a claim last year in December by Deputy Defence Minister, Kebby Maphatsoe, that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is a CIA plant. 

Initially the Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, was quick to officially distance the government from the claim. But now it seems there has been a change of heart. In responding to this latest development Richard Poplak wrote in Daily Maverick, “So here it is, all the evidence you ever needed: the government of South Africa has gone insane.  ...  This would be hilarious if it wasn’t so terrifying; it would be terrifying if it didn’t, once again, elucidate everything we already know about the 2015 iteration of the government. Rotten. Morally bankrupt. Schizophrenic. And like any true paranoid, foisting their sins upon those against whom they’ve sinned.”

(Next week we will take a closer look at some of the possible reasons for what has lately been happening in South Africa’s “house of spooks”.)

by Garth Cilliers

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