Espionage goes back thousands of years, to the days of Moses and his multitude on the move, and can also be found in the writings of Chanakya (or Kautilya, often called “the Indian Machiavelli”) as well as Sun Tzu.
Of course, there’s the old joke of it being the world’s second-oldest profession with fewer moral scruples than the first, not to mention countless portrayals of spooks in novels and movies with varying degrees of accuracy. After all, as a former intelligence officer once said, the James Bond character would not only have been fired, but likely not hired in the first place because his incessant drinking, womanizing and gambling made him an ideal target for recruitment or compromise by rival agencies. Besides, getting himself photographed so many times, giving his “Bond, James Bond” to all and sundry along with pulling off “spectaculars” would’ve seen any real-life spook blown and condemned to a desk or forced retirement in a government nuthouse long ago.
The truth about spooks is more mundane. They are curious people, driven to succeed to such an extent that they’ll do anything to win, able and willing to lie convincingly (and with devastating effect) to enemies and potential recruitment targets alike- yet are sworn to be brutally honest with their masters. Apparently former general Petraeus went very pale when he attended his first meetings as CIA director because subordinates were neither meek nor awed by his rank and had no problem bursting his bubble with frankness that would’ve seen ordinary soldiers court-martialed.
These men and women range in character from loving theatricality to being so unobtrusive that you won’t know they’re there, are highly educated (word is CIA hires analysts who have at least one PhD) and dedicated to serving their country.
Sometimes their offices are high-tech or sumptuous, and other times look like abandoned houses in which they’re squatting, but the exterior only serves to mask their true purpose, which is to do war by way of deception, gather, analyze and grudgingly disseminate information.
To these ends, they are plugged into just about every system one can think of- banking, travel, business, politics, healthcare, the military, etc. and if they don’t have the necessary experts on their payroll, you can bet the skin on your back they’ll find whoever they need very quickly.
However, it’s what they do in support of a nation’s agenda that scares the hell out of people and sometimes does great harm. It’s not as if these men and women are innately vicious, psychopathic or narcissistic (such people are usually screened out during the recruitment process), but once given the tasking order, they do nasty stuff without much in the way of thoughts about the destruction they’ll leave in their wake, because the mission is paramount. These people will peddle children to pedophiles (it happened to a victim of MKULTRA), run drugs to finance wars (Air America in Vietnam and the “Dark Alliance” with the Contras reported by the late reporter Gary Webb), destroy reputations and lives along with livelihoods of innocents (I’ll get to that later), as well as take sides in political matters.
This post is not about the American, British or Russian intelligence structures and their defects. Rather it is about the South African “intelligence community”, which while more publicity-shy, has nevertheless done some things which made it into the public eye and in at least one case which I shall discuss, did great harm to and nearly destroyed a man for no good reason.
From 1994 until 2014 or thereabouts, the South African intelligence apparatus was divided into the South African Secret Service (SASS), National Intelligence Agency (NIA), police’s Crime Intelligence and defense force’s Military Intelligence. The SASS had responsibility for foreign intelligence operations and its own internal security (mole hunts), the NIA did domestic spying, Crime Intelligence stole (and still steals) taxpayers’ money while pretending to gather information about criminals’ enterprises and activities, while Military Intelligence (the Great Oxymoron) tried to find out what was going on in SA military areas of deployment. There were subordinate entities such as the National Communications Centre, the National Academy of Intelligence and Comsec (Pty) Ltd. Comsec (Pty) Ltd. was private company owned by the South African government tasked with state communications security as its abbreviated name implies, while the Intelligence Academy turned out intelligence officers and analysts, and the NCC sucked up every bit of radio, microwave, telephone and e-mail traffic it could get its hands on, whether it was local or sent overseas.
As of 2014 though, SASS and NIA along with sub-entities have been amalgamated “into a KGB-style monster” as I once called it, namely the South African State Security Agency.
South African Police Service’s Crime Intelligence is still under SAPS and Military Intelligence (divided into the Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence Divisions) is still answering military bells, but that doesn’t matter because in the end they all serve the ANC and its constantly fighting factions instead of the departments they fall under or the citizens of this country.
Problems associated with intelligence services’ involvement in ANC and government squabbles became apparent during the so-called “E-mail Saga”, which cost the career of Billy Masetlha, then-Director General of the National Intelligence Agency. For the purpose of giving a bare-bones explanation of that sorry episode, I quote from a report of the Institute for Security Studies, titled “South Africa: Smoke waiting for the fire?”, available at https://issafrica.org/iss-today/south-africa-smoke-waiting-for-the-fire.
To whit, “The saga revolves around the unlawful interception of phone calls and the conduct of illegal surveillance of prominent business people, high-level ANC members and the parliamentary office of an opposition party, which occurred during the course of Project Avani. Project Avani was a Political Intelligence National Stability Assessment Project legally constituted under the provisions of the National Strategic Intelligence Act, 1994 (Act 39 of 1994) and the Intelligence Services Act, 2003 (Act 65 of 2003). The mandate of the project was “to gather, correlate, evaluate and analyse intelligence in order to identify any threat or potential threat posed by the presidential succession debate, foreign services interests therein, the impending Jacob Zuma trial and poor service delivery impacts and dynamics to the security and stability of the Republic and its people” (1) . Initially the project did not identify any specific targets and was conceived of as a 360-degree scan of the political horizon.
Although the project was legally constituted, the Minister of Intelligence denies having given consent it, and it was planned and implemented by the Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Masetlha claimed in his affidavit, presented to the Pretoria High Court at the end of 2006, that the project was carried out in response to a request from Cabinet for an investigation into the public unrest directed against local authorities and the causes of such unrest. Sources close to Masetlha revealed in 2005 that he was instructed by President Mbeki to use the NIA to find evidence against Jacob Zuma and those backing him (2). There is at present no legal obligation to obtain authority from the political head (the Minister for Intelligence) for operations such as this. Consequently, although both the Minister and the Inspector-General of Intelligence (IGI) agree that the operation was legitimate, the Minister “terminated it after discovering its consequences” (3).
During the course of Project Avani physical surveillance operations were launched against at least three civilians, and voice communications of at least thirteen people were intercepted. On 5 September 2005, Minister Kasrils received a complaint from Saki Macozoma, member of the ANC National Executive Committee and a leading South African politician turned businessman, that he and his family had been harassed by the NIA between 29 and 31 August 2005. Two days later the Minister received an interdict from Mr Macozoma’s lawyers to stop the NIA from further disturbing him and his family. On 20 September 2005, the Minister formally requested the Inspector-General to investigate the allegations made by Mr Macozoma.
The IGI found that the physical surveillance operation of Mr Macozoma was not authorised in terms of existing NIA operational policy, was deployed without proper justification and, therefore, lacked legitimacy (4). However, according to Barry Gilder, Coordinator of the National Intelligence Coordinating Committee (NICOC), physical surveillance requires authorisation only from either a Director-General or a Deputy Director-General, (5) which means that Masetlha was operating within his authority to order physical surveillance. Furthermore, the interception of voice communication by means of the National Communications Centre (NCC) was found by the IGI to be, not only a gross abuse of the facilities of the NCC, but also illegal as the requisite authority of a judge for the interception of such communications was not obtained. The NCC focuses primarily on the interception of foreign communications and should not have been used for the domestic interception of bulk voice communication. At the time, however, Masetlha was the Acting Executive Director of the NCC.
The conduct or misconduct of surveillance associated with Project Avani is further complicated by what became known as the e-mail hoax. Masetlha is accused of having fabricated a conspiracy through the “interception” of e-mails, which supported the notion of a grand conspiracy against former Deputy President, Jacob Zuma, the Secretary General of the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe and Billy Masetlha. Masetlha outsourced the interception of e-mails of selected targets to a private third party, which is a statutory convention of intelligence operating procedures, and effectively placed the e-mail surveillance outside of the oversight regime (6). Furthermore, the authenticity of the e-mails was not examined as part of Project Avani. The conspiracy agenda fed to Project Avani by the e-mails outlined two groups working to assume political control through subversion. The first group, known as the Xhosa Faction, was alleged to be led by Mr Macozoma and included members of business and government. Their primary objective was to assume political and economic control and to destroy any who impeded the implementation of their solution (7). Those targeted for “destruction” included Zuma, Motlanthe and Masetlha.”
This operation and resulting can of worms date back to 2005, but once again, there’s another story which goes back a few more years to the misconduct of another intelligence agency, and in that case the victim was not only denied access to legal counsel, but has ever since (and in spite of repeated requests) been denied justice and/or the opportunity to testify under witness protection before an open session of the relevant South African parliamentary portfolio committee (equivalent to a Congressional Oversight Committee) about what happened and the deaths which stemmed from those events. Yet again, that story will follow later on.
As I wrote earlier, SASS are only supposed to operate outside the country, but in 2010, when the Soccer World Cup was held in South Africa, a Secret Service operative was arrested in his Port Elizabeth hotel room after being accused of rape. Rape is one of the most heinous crimes known to man, but what was troubling and went unquestioned by everyone (including journalists) except me, was just what the hell a SASS spook was doing on a domestic operation in flagrant contravention of the National Strategic Intelligence Act 39 of 1994 and Intelligence Services Act 65 of 2002.
This being South Africa and intelligence matters being handled the way they are, nothing more was heard about the spook and no further mention made of the alleged rape victim or what happened with her case.
For its part, the NIA were no slouches either in the dirty tricks department. Not long after some prominent ANC members left the party to form the Congress of the People or COPE, members of the newly constituted and registered COPE told journalists that NIA operatives had offered them money to provide information on the inner workings of their party. Now that’s tantamount to having the FBI soliciting intel on the Democratic Party for its own ends and those of the Republican Party, and you can just imagine the hell that would be unleashed if something like this ever happened and came to light. I mean, the turmoil around Richard Nixon’s resignation after Watergate would pale in comparison. But this is South Africa, and nothing further was heard of that either.
Of course, civic-minded Americans would ask by now “Where’s the oversight?”, and they’d be right to do so. Yes, the South African parliament has a multi-party Standing Committee on Intelligence, but their briefings and deliberations are highly classified and not open to the public except on extremely rare occasions, such as the only televised excerpt I know of then-Minister of Intelligence Siyabonga Cwele testifying about matters relating to the burglary and arson attack of a NIA satellite office in Durban, from which computers containing sensitive intel were stolen.
Furthermore, SASSA did not have an Inspector General of Intelligence for nearly two years, between 2015 and around two months ago. This meant the Foreign Branch (as SASS is known these days) and Domestic Branch (former NIA) ran around like a combination of the Cowboys gang which Wyatt Earp took on and a voyeuristic La Cosa Nostra, engaging in surveillance of political and business figures, attempting to use civilian third parties to buy a “frequency grabber” (suitcase-sized cell phone interceptor that sucks up every cell phone’s activity in a radius of 7 kilometers) from the Israelis and tapping the phones of at least two journalists (Sunday Times’ Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter) who made a living exposing ANC-led government corruption, as well as allegedly providing illegal e-mail, SMS (text) messages and recorded phone calls to parties involved in divorce proceedings.
Now that’s without adding to this nefarious mix the smear campaigns against politicians who dare to challenge Jacob Zuma and his faction through the leaking of “dossiers” and allegations of treason, and Domestic Branch involvement in surveillance and corporate espionage against minor tobacco manufacturers who are in competition with the big firms.
Regarding the Inspector General of Intelligence’s post, one would think politicians would be scrambling to put somebody permanently in charge to ensure the spook shops don’t get out of control, but you’d be wrong. Not only did it take them nearly two years of having people occupy the post in an acting capacity and thus lacking authority, but when it finally came to interviews, xenophobic and paranoid fools masquerading as Members of Parliament even went so far as to insinuate that the loyalty of one candidate was questionable because he has South African, Zimbabwean (well, used to be Rhodesian in that guy’s day) and Canadian citizenships.
As I wrote in an unpublished (gee, I wonder why…) letter, “one would need to ask why Stellenbosch professor and holder of two PhDs Bruce Watson’s loyalty is being questioned (he’s running for SA Inspector General of Intelligence) just because he has three passports-South African, Zimbabwean and Canadian- by virtue of his parents’ actions and his life.
Do DA MP Hendrik Schmidt and ANC MPs Charles Nqakula and Dumisani Gumede honestly think the professor spies for the South African SSA, the Zimbabwean CIO and Canadian SIS simultaneously just because he has triple citizenship, or do they think he might?
Well, what a man might do is very different from what he does or can do (spying for two or worse, three services simultaneously would drive anybody mad), so the Honourable Xenophobic Paranoids might want to think about that a little more!”
Keep this in mind, because it has a bearing on the true account of abuse by an intelligence service I will tell you about in a follow-up article because it’s a pretty long story…
What is the bottom line of Part 1? For better or worse, it is that by and large the South African intelligence community increasingly serves the narrow interests of those involved in ANC factional battles, often to the detriment of South African society and the country’s national security. At the same time, if there’s no proscription (what Americans call statute of limitations) on espionage and high treason (is there such a thing as low or mid-level treason?), and if it’s a criminal offence to make prank calls to emergency services or knowingly give police false information, why are there no consequences for those who willingly and knowingly falsely accuse opposition politicians, some civic groups and even former Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela of being spies for Western intelligence services?
The answer is depressingly simple. First, lack of separation between the ANC and the government it leads along with character weaknesses in South Africa’s top spooks and dysfunction in the oversight mechanisms, as well as the greed, ambition and fear for the security of individual positions- have rotted the head of the intelligence fish and the malaise has spread to the rest of the body.
Second, how top government figures against whom intelligence services are used get treated is very different from how ordinary citizens are treated.
Third, by siding with political factions and providing questionable “product”, the South African intelligence community not only contributed to the dirty nature of South African national politics, but will eventually find itself party to things such as the NKVD, KGB, East German Stasi and Romanian Securitate used to do- grab people in the middle of the night and torture them along with their families in order to serve narrow political interests that will eventually bring down the regime in an orgy of anger that may very well extinguish the last light shining on the deepest and darkest continent of Africa.
In Part 2, I shall deal with what is known about some NIA, SAPS Crime Intelligence and Military Intelligence misconduct, as well as relate the story of one man’s destruction because he tried to stop corruption, abuse and the three uninvestigated deaths which all of that caused at the time, which events would later lead not only to at least 30 more deaths, but the near destruction of South Africa’s formerly legendary military capabilities.