South Africa’s secret service, the State Security Agency (SSA), has been caught with its pants down (to the great amusement of the South African public) by a flood of revelations about its clandestine activities revealed in the ‘spy cables’ – the reports from its own agents and those of several foreign secret services, leaked to the network Al Jazeera and other media groups.
Analysts and commentators are still wading through the barrage of documents, trying to decide whether or not they will be damaging to national security.
From subterfuge to the ridiculous, the leaked documents are covering the full spectrum of the sort of murky and sometimes bizarre stuff spies tend to do.
Al Jazeera had warned us that unlike the leaks of United States (US) intelligence technician Edward Snowden, which were electronic signals intelligence (‘SIGINT’), the spy cables deal with human intelligence (‘HUMINT’), which is ‘espionage at the more humdrum, day-in-the-office level.’
And so there has so far been ‘nary an Aston Martin nor a martini in sight,’ as Richard Poplak put it in the Daily Maverick. And so, on the rather ridiculous side, we read about Israeli spies in South Africa who allegedly hired prostitutes to embarrass their enemies, and the Algerian embassy feeling affronted because there weren’t any ‘no parking’ signs in front of their building as there are in front of other embassies.
Nevertheless the cables also deal with some pretty serious stuff, such as disclosing a plot, seemingly to have been staged from Sudan, to assassinate South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission and another by al-Qaeda for a suicide bomb attack against a Cape Town Jewish centre. There is also more cooperation than Pretoria would like us to believe between the SSA and Israeli and Western secret agencies to block Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons programme and support for terrorist activity in Africa.
There are mixed views about how damaging this is all likely to be to the SSA’s operations and to national security. Freedom-of-speech advocates and government opponents, not surprisingly, generally think it won’t be. Democratic Alliance member of Parliament and defence spokesperson David Maynier said he thought the leaks would embarrass the SSA rather than compromise national security.
Maynier told e.tv that over the last 20 years, particularly under President Jacob Zuma, the SSA had accumulated enormous power and he expected that the documents released over the next few weeks would reveal its abuse of power. ‘And for that reason it is important for the general public; because at the end of the day the State Security Agency is accountable to people, in Parliament.’
Right to Know (R2K), the South African freedom-of-expression advocacy group said that the initial releases of leaked documents, ‘seem to confirm that these leaks will reveal evidence of cover-ups, abuses of power and major intelligence failures of these structures,’ adding: ‘We expect the “Spy Cables” to be a very valuable exposure in the public interest, serving to peel back the veil of secrecy on the inner workings of our state security structures and add a much-needed shot of transparency.’ R2K noted that the publishers had redacted or completely withheld some documents, which prevents the identification of secret agents of the SSA and other secret services.
André Roux, a military expert and senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, suggests that no great harm had either been done or revealed by the cables released so far. Referring specifically to the cables about Israel acquiring military blueprints, missile systems and other intellectual property, he said not much harm had been done because the Israelis did not acquire the software for the system, which was more important than the hardware.
The SSA had in any case got the blueprints back, and had prosecuted and successfully convicted the South Africans responsible for selling them. And more generally, echoing other weapons experts, he said: ‘There is little national security importance related to technology which many other countries already possess. Israel has the Hellfire anti-tank missile … from the US, which has more advanced capabilities in certain aspects of the performance envelope than the South African missiles.’
However a former intelligence operative, who did not wish to be named, said despite Al Jazeera’s redaction of the names of secret agents in the documents, a large number of SSA operatives have been compromised and will have to be withdrawn from abroad. ‘The SSA is not a large organisation, especially those who are posted at the different embassies and interest offices. It is very easy to identify them…’
Another former intelligence operative, who also wished to remain anonymous (it goes with the turf) believes anyone who is surprised that the SSA is cooperating with its supposed political enemy Israel, to spy on the dodgy activities of its supposed political ally, Iran, would be naïve in the extreme. ‘That’s what secret services do.’
In fact some of the documents conversely reveal a very prickly relationship between the SSA and Mossad, though it appeared to have improved after the departure of former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, whose very public aversion to Israel seems to have irritated some of the SSA professionals.
Anton du Plessis, Managing Director of the ISS, says the leaks so far have not revealed anything very shocking, but further leaks could be damaging if they pointed to South Africa cooperating in any way with Iran to acquire weapons technology, particularly nuclear.
South Africa’s State Security Minister, David Mahlobo, yesterday condemned and launched a full inquiry into the leaks, saying it was illegal and had undermined the operational effectiveness of the work to secure South Africa and its borders. It had also undermined South Africa’s diplomatic relations. Mahlobo further said the government would look into social media reports alleging espionage activities linked to some politicians and the head of a Chapter 9 institution.
It’s just about anyone’s guess if the documents were leaked or hacked with a specific political purpose. It could be a disgruntled employee in SSA or someone with a domestic or foreign agenda in any of the many intelligence services involved. Du Plessis suspects that although the leaks seem mostly related to South Africa, the timing suggests that they might have come instead from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic political enemies. He faces Knesset elections on 17 March, and is due to address the Republican-controlled US Congress on 3 March to argue against what he regards as the overly-credulous nuclear deal that President Barack Obama’s administration is negotiating with Iran.
So the leaking by Al Jazeera of a Mossad report, which told Israel’s allies that Iran was not working to produce nuclear weapons just a month after Netanyahu said it was barely a year from being able to do so, is particularly damaging to his re-election bid. But Du Plessis believes that in the end, the spy cables will have their greatest impact domestically. ‘First of all, they will further fray public confidence in the country’s intelligence apparatus, already damaged by other scandals like the Richard Mdluli affair and the jamming of cellphone signals at the opening of Parliament.
‘And secondly, because the government may respond by further trampling on media freedom and use these leaks to push ahead with the Protection of State Information Act.’ This so-called secrecy bill was passed by Parliament last year, but President Jacob Zuma refused to sign it and sent back to Parliament for amendments. R2K shares Du Plessis’s fear that the SSA will ‘paint these leaks as a hostile act, and use this event to seek greater control over the flow of information,’ possibly even signing the secrecy bill.
Yet R2K believes that the leaks have instead illustrated just how important it is for the South African public to know what the intelligence services are doing. That suggests the real point of this whole saga. From the perspective of national security, these leaks – at least those so far, like the Wikileaks and the Edward Snowden revelations – have in broad terms simply revealed that the SSA is trying, more or less competently, to do what it’s supposed to do. That includes supping, if necessary, even with what its political masters might regard as the devil, to protect national security.
That’s really not so embarrassing after all. But if what is yet to be revealed – and which has so far just been hinted at – is that the intelligence agencies have instead abused their great powers for domestic political purposes, then they will have been justly embarrassed and ought to be chastised.
Written by Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa