Intelligence debate gets venomous


African National Congress (ANC) Member of Parliament (MP) Vytjie Mentor has branded Frank Chikane, director-general in the Thabo Mbeki presidency a liar over a newspaper article in which he wrote that intelligence agents routinely violated the law and the Constitution.

Mentor, the fiery chairperson of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises, accused Chikane of betraying his position and breaking the law by claiming that “comrades” readily shared classified information with unauthorised officials, the South African Press Association reports. In what SAPA called “a lengthy tirade”, she said that he seemingly also foresook his duty as director-general if he had failed to put an end to unlawful practices that came to his attention.
“I think Reverend Chikane himself is busy breaching the law. Because he was chairing the foresight forum of directors general and I don’t think that he has exited out of service for two years already. In fact I don’t think, as much as he is a reverend, everything he is saying is the truth.
“I am saying this from the point of fact that I sit in the joint standing committee of intelligence of Parliament and I can say for sure that most of the things that he is saying in that newspaper are untrue,” she said.
“And thirdly, he had derelicted duty if he was the director general in the presidency and under his directorship, sitting above all directors general, including the director general in intelligence, if he knew, he saw, he witnessed these things happening and he did nothing about them.
“In fact I want to go and search for legal recourse for somebody who sits in the state, becomes privy to confidential, secret and top-secret information by privilege of the position he is occupying, exits service and immediately through articles of the newspapers talks to the country and the world about information he received by virtue of being in the highest office of the land. I don’t read his nonsense because he derelicted duty and he is telling untruths…. I rest my case.”

Her attack came in a meeting of the ad hoc committee on the controversial Protection of Information Bill where members on Wednesday began redrafting the legislation that had contributed to a massive outcry from the legal profession, human rights activists and the media.

In response, Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Dene Smuts demurred that Chikane was being defamed and should be given an opportunity to defend himself before the committee.

Mentor then retracted her statement that Chikane was a liar, but insisted that his article, which appeared in the Cape Times on Monday, was not truthful. It was Smuts who had initially brought up Chikane’s article, citing his comments as an argument for including a so-called public interest defence in the bill and introducing harsher sentences for agents who leaked state secrets for political gain.

Activists, former ministers and media have pleaded for a public interest defence which would allow journalists and whistle blowers who make classified information public under pain of heavy prison sentences to argue that they did so for the public good, SAPA said. But State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele has been adamant that it should not be part of the law.

Said Smuts: “There must emphatically, yes, be a public interest defence written which people can use in court. We will have to have a public interest defence because of the way intelligence has been conducted and abused in this country.” She added that MPs must reconsider the punishment prescribed for agents who unlawfully share classified information, or classified information to hide crime or corruption or spare any person or agency embarrassment.

As the bill stands, the maximum sentence they face is five years in prison compared to 25 years risked by journalists who obtain or publish top secret information. “That revelation also throws into sharp relief some of the offences,” she said. “If we know that it has been the case that people working under secrecy have been freely divulging information, presumably both classified and about state security, we need to look at these two clauses differently.”

The DA and ANC agreed on Wednesday to remove the nebulous notion of “national interest” as a cause for classifying information from the bill, as well as provisions for protecting commercial information. Cwele called for the two clauses to be removed in September after the bill was criticised as a return to apartheid era suppression. Opposition parties are adamant there must be further changes.

Cecil Burgess, the chairman of the ad hoc committee, confirmed yesterday that the bill will not be finalised this year. He said the lifespan of the ad hoc committee, which comes to an end on November 16, would be extended for a third time. “It will be extended. Yes, it will then go into next year,” he told SAPA.