Saga of suspicion in Cape bugging fracas

A saga of suspicion and distrust, spiced by high-level computer hacking, emerged in evidence to the Desai Commission on Tuesday.

Former Western Cape community safety MEC Hennie Bester described how he and provincial cabinet colleagues once met in a high-security ”bunker” in the legislature building.

They sat on plastic-coated aluminium garden furniture, apparently installed because magnetic listening devices would not stick to it.

And screwed to the wall was the controversial WatchDog, a device which can both detect electronic bugging and monitor conversations.

”I remember seeing it there. It looked like something you programme your garden irrigation with,” he said.

Bester told Judge Siraj Desai that he thought it was ”a bit odd” to be meeting in the specially-adapted strongroom. However, at that time there had been an environment of intense political distrust and attempts were being made to overthrow the Democratic Alliance provincial government.

”It was a time of unbelievable suspicion and distrust, as times like those tend to be,” he said.

”We had discussions very often about whether we were being placed under surveillance or not. It was a common theme.” He said he was aware that arrangements were made for the provincial offices to be swept for electronic bugs by private contractors.

Asked why a private firm would be used rather than a government counter intelligence agency, he replied: ”To be quite honest our suspicion was we were being surveilled (sic) by agencies of the national government.”

Bester said that at one point, then-provincial director-general Dr Niel Barnard urged that the province withhold all co-operation with the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) until it gave an assurance in writing that it was not bugging the provincial government.

Bester said he and his colleagues in the province had had serious reservations about the NIA’s political impartiality. He outlined a bid to set up a strategic planning and information management unit in the province.

Though the unit was never implemented, hired consultants, some of them former National Intelligence Service operatives, were tasked to gather information and make recommendations in key areas such as combating crime.

The products the province received from state intelligence agencies were in many cases not up to standard. His department could get more accurate information on the ongoing gang warfare on the Cape Flats from reading daily newspapers than the intelligence community provided.

After a resurgence of vigilante action, including necklacing, he had asked the agencies for information on why it was happening. ”Up to the day I left office, I hadn’t got the information,” he said.

”How can government come up with a strategy if it hasn’t got decent intelligence information?”

Bester, now leader of the official opposition in the Western Cape legislature, also confirmed that senior figures in the DA in the Western Cape did debate whether to accept money from German businessman Jurgen Harksen.

He said that though at least one of his colleagues favoured the proposal, to the best of his knowledge no money was actually accepted.

”There was no decision (to take money). I took a very strong view on that,” he said. Harksen is facing a string of fraud and tax charges in South Africa and Germany.

Head of human resource management in the Western Cape administration, Bertie le Roux, told the commission later on Tuesday that the R26 000 WatchDog was apparently bought and installed in the safe room because it was a cheaper option than conducting regular sweeps of all offices.

He confirmed evidence given to the commission on Monday that there had apparently been no proper authority for the purchase of the device, which was discovered by the NIA after it did a sweep of the legislature in March this year. Le Roux also told the commission of senior officials’ ongoing concerns about security, eavesdropping and leaks from cabinet meetings.

He said hacking into the computer system of Barnard’s office did take place in late 2000, and was traced to a staff member in the office of the head of internal audit.

He was unsure of the outcome of the investigation into the matter, but anti-hacking software had since been installed in the DG’s office. – Sapa

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Ben Maclennan
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