Spooks haunt our democracy

Nothing demonstrates the power of secret information more starkly than the withdrawal of corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma.

The leaking of intercepted communications of Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy revealed how partisan to Thabo Mbeki’s cause he had become and gave the National Prosecuting Authority a reason to abandon the case against Zuma.

But the revelation of the McCarthy intercepts, showing that the intelligence services effectively spied on their own president, are merely the most blatant manifestation of the pervasive influence of spies on our politics.

The issue of who is more guilty of abusing the security services is still a matter of fierce contestation. That much is clear from our ground-breaking interviews with former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils and the man he sacked, former National Intelligence Agency (NIA) boss Billy Masetlha.

They were two of the most important protagonists in the secret (and not so secret) war that had gripped the nation ever since then national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka and his Scorpions became both a vehicle of and a target in the battle between the Mbeki and Zuma factions of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

The clouds had already gathered around the Hefer Commission in late 2003—a piece of political theatre supposed to vindicate Ngcuka and humiliate those accusing him of having been an apartheid spy—Mac Maharaj and Moe Shaik.

Instead the commission exposed the political impact of spies and spying as well as the way our security services might be abused despite their constitutional fig leaf.

After the 2004 election Mbeki conducted a mini-purge of the security services.
Out went intelligence minister Lindiwe Sisulu, in came Kasrils. Out went NIA director general Vusi Mavimbela, in came someone perceived as a reliable Mbeki loyalist: Masetlha — a remarkable error of judgement.

By August 2005 Masetlha was deeply embroiled in the ‘hoax email” saga. The emails were a bizarre concoction of fact and fantastic misinformation for which Masetlha still disowns responsibility. They purported to be intercepts of communications among Mbeki’s most prominent backers—businessman Saki Macozoma, Kasrils, then deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and her husband Bulelani—involving themselves with the Scorpions in an anti-Zuma plot.

By October 19 2005 Masetlha had made an official report to Mbeki, providing the president with the ‘real” evidence about the anti-Zuma conspiracy.

Masetlha was suspended the next day and later dismissed, after an investigation by the inspector general of intelligence accused him of misusing his powers to launch a politically motivated intelligence operation.

The so-called Zuma tapes have been leaked and provide some backing for Masetlha’s version. Both Kasrils and Masetlha claim to have acted in the national interest. Each, in effect, accuses the other of serious misuse of the security architecture to promote narrow and illegitimate political and financial interests.

Both men reveal events and attitudes that should cause concern. Kasrils’s admission that he vigorously engaged with McCarthy over the timing of the decision to recharge Zuma will add to perceptions of the political management of the whole case. Masetlha’s emphasis on the re-purification of the ANC as an antidote to the seductions of power appears naïve at best.

Untangling the truth about the abuses of core state institutions is vital, because this saga has struck at the foundations of our constitutional order. We have allegations of the manufacture of evidence; the influencing of and the spying on judges; the suborning of the national interest by foreign intelligence services.

Closer to home, it appears that journalists on this newspaper have been the targets of dirty tricks — simply because they were doing their jobs by investigating corruption and abuses of power.

Getting to the truth is all the more important because the architecture of spying is more powerful than ever.

Given the experience of the last few years one might expect policy-makers to be thinking about curbs on the intelligence agencies. Instead we now have a Ministry of State Security, we have a new Leonard McCarthy in the shape of Anwa Dramat — and key ANC strategists are saying that our national levels of lawlessness demand greater security encroachment, not less.

The temptation will be for the victors in these spy wars to simply appropriate for their own ends the tools supposedly abused by their predecessors.

One former senior intelligence official told the Mail & Guardian this week: ‘Intelligence is juicy to know; it’s addictive, it feeds the ego of the client. If that client has an addictive personality, then you’re doomed.”

It seems clear that this is a national addiction, thriving as much in the Zuma camp as it did under Mbeki.

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