The South African intelligence community is worried that that no foreign services will trust them with sensitive information again because of the Spy Cables leak that exposed their reports and cables, according to an expert.
US intelligence author and historian Matthew Aid spoke to defenceweb about the recent “Spy Cables” released by Al Jazeera. The classified documents from intelligence services, including South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA) covering the period 2006 to 2012, were anonymously sent to Al Jazeera and The Guardian and apparently show foreign espionage is “booming” with more than 140 representatives of foreign intelligence agencies operational in South Africa.
One of the revelations was that Israel stole blueprints for the locally designed and manufactured Rooivalk combat support helicopter as well as Mokopa missile blueprints and other documentation from state owned company Denel.
“Long, sometimes bitter experience, has led the US intelligence community to treat the Mossad sometimes as a threat in the economic intelligence field,” Aid said. “The Mossad and the Israeli SIGINT [signal intelligence] agency (Unit 8200) are amongst the most aggressive collectors of foreign commercial secrets in the world. For example, the Israelis have for decades engaged in a pattern of systematic theft of U.S. high-technology items, most with military applications.
“There are some cables in the WikiLeaks cablegate files leaked by Chelsea Manning about Israeli theft about a decade ago of the proprietary trade secrets of a German company that made reconnaissance satellites. In other words, stealing these sorts of secrets is quite common for the Israelis, who are extremely opportunistic when it comes to ferreting out high-tech secrets that it can grab. And once they have your secrets, they never apologize (even after being caught) and you never get your materials back.”
Denel Dynamics’ Mokopa missile was designed to be used in the same role as the US Hellfire missile, which Israel can easily buy. The question is, why steal it then?
“Because the Israelis are, to put it diplomatically, cheap. A former Israeli diplomat once told me ‘Why buy something when you can steal it and give the blueprints to an Israeli company to manufacture for far less?’
“I am sure that the SA intelligence and security services do keep a close eye on Israel, especially what the Mossad station in Pretoria is up to. I am also sure there is a small SSA station inside the South African embassy in Israel. Remember that up till now we have seen only a tiny fraction of the documents currently in the hands of The Guardian and Al Jazeera,” Aid said.
“I think the significance of this cable is that SA intelligence does extensively cooperate with Mossad despite the lingering anti-Israeli feeling in Africa. I wonder though to what degree the SA government knows about the full nature and extent of SA intelligence cooperation with Israel. The fact that SA intelligence spied on Iranian diplomats and front companies operating in South Africa does not surprise me at all given the importance of the U.N. economic sanctions targeted against Iran and the related counter-nuclear proliferation effort designed to hinder Iran’s nuclear weapons effort, all of which is important not just for the U.S. but the world as a whole.”
When asked about the likelihood that China was responsible for a break-in at SA’s nuclear research facility, as alleged by the most recent leaked cable, Aid said, “I honestly don’t know what to think about the alleged Chinese involvement in the security breaches at the Pelindaba nuclear research centre. There is much we members of the public don’t know about these security incidents, which the SA government has never satisfactorily explained. The alleged Chinese involvement in these incidents, while interesting, does not make much sense to me. What is it the Chinese were hoping to learn from inside Pelindaba that they could not more effectively learn by less intrusive or politically explosive means? I am just not that convinced that Chinese intelligence is that reckless when it comes to intelligence gathering overseas.”
While the Spy Cables saga has clearly shown serious weakness in the intelligence service and the defence industry, the view from Washington about South African’s capabilities in the field seem to be positive. “The South African intelligence and security services are largely viewed in Washington as the best in all of Africa, i.e. the most professional and the least politicized. From the foreign intelligence standpoint, SA intelligence has the most modern collection capabilities on the continent, particularly in the area of signals intelligence (SIGINT); and the service’s analytic capabilities are respected in Washington on regional topics. It is worth remembering that the US intelligence community does not devote a lot of resources to Africa, so we are largely dependent on regional friends and allies to make up for our own deficiencies on the continent.
“My experiences in the US, Europe and the Middle East is that when secret agencies get dragged into the limelight after they have been caught engaging in skullduggery, such as the Nisman murder case in Argentina, the spies invariably retreat behind their cloaks of secrecy, arguing that any public disclosures of information about what they have been engaged in would damage their sources and methods, and perhaps more importantly, their liaison relationships with other foreign intelligence and security services. Right now I would bet that the SA intelligence community is desperately afraid that no foreign services will trust them with sensitive information again because of this huge leak of their reports and cables.”
Matthew Aid is the author of Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror and The Secret Sentry, a history of the National Security Agency (NSA).