South Africa’s government scrambled on Tuesday to deal with the fallout of the worst intelligence leak in its two-decade democratic history.
The country was coming to terms with its new status as “the El Dorado of espionage”, in the words of an intelligence officer, after hundreds of dossiers, files and cables from the world’s top spy agencies to and from South Africa were obtained by the Guardian and Al Jazeera.
The State Security Agency (SSA) remained tight-lipped, but the Democratic Alliance (DA) called for an urgent briefing to Parliament, saying the exposé was likely to cause “considerable embarrassment” to the agency.
The DA called for the parliamentary joint standing committee on intelligence to be briefed on whether it was likely to reveal any wrongdoing on the part of the SSA.
It also warned that the leak could be used an excuse to press ahead with “draconian” legislation that campaigners say could have a chilling effect on whistleblowers and journalists.
David Maynier, the DA spokesperson for deputy minister of state security said: “There’s no doubt this leak is going to be deeply embarrassing. It’s too early to say for sure, but it could damage relations between the SSA and other foreign intelligence services that have been affected by the leak. It’s likely to erode the credibility of the SSA.”
The DA noted that the revelations so far include classified reports entitled Operational Target Analysis of Iran, from 2010, and Iranian Intelligence Activities in Africa, dated 2012.
Maynier said the documents showed there was internal conflict in the SSA over dealing with Iran. “Most worryingly, they show Iran was introduced to some high-end technology companies. I was shocked to see that.”
Control of information
There was now a risk of a severe official backlash, he added, potentially including the long-delayed protection of a state information bill, dubbed the “secrecy bill” , which could threaten whistleblowers and journalists with jail terms of up to 25 years. It has been revised numerous times and is now waiting for President Jacob Zuma to sign it into law.
“There is a concern that this could galvanise the president into signing the very draconian secrecy bill that would be used to crack down on leaks in the SSA and would have a chilling effect on MPs and the media,” Maynier said.
Civil society group, the Right2Know campaign, echoed the warning. “We fully expect that locally South Africa’s state security structures will paint these leaks as a hostile act, and use this event to seek greater control over the flow of information,” it said. “These leaks may even be used as a pretext to sign the protection of state information bill [the secrecy bill] into law.
“It is telling that this important act of journalism would easily fall under the secrecy bill’s broad and expansive definition of ‘espionage’, which carries penalties of up to 25 years in jail, and has no public interest defence.”
One cable reveals how the US coerced South Africa into spying on Iran. Intelligence agents stressed that they did not regard Iran as a threat, but they set up a covert operation to compile the names, addresses and personal habits of every suspected Iranian agent in South Africa. Some were alleged to use Persian carpet shops as fronts, prompting a front-page headline in the Times newspaper: “Ali Baba and the forty spies.”
‘Unreliable partner in intelligence’
Analysts suggested that the security breach means foreign co-operation with South African agencies would be likely to come under review for fear of other, potentially more damaging secrets coming to light.
Tony Leon, a former South African opposition leader and ambassador, said: “It’s deeply embarrassing at best. If it’s just because people have been able to break into encrypted data, that can be repaired. If it’s a consequence of spy v spy in a malicious factional leak, that’s a different dimension: South Africa will get a reputation as an insecure and unreliable partner in intelligence sharing.”
Many commentators turned attention to the source of the leak, which remains a mystery. Tom Wheeler, a former South African diplomat in Washington, said: “The big mystery now is, who released them? Who is responsible? What’s astonishing is that someone could get access to all this information and press ‘send’ and it went to the media. I get the sense that it must have been someone pretty senior and someone with a grudge. Maybe they had been sidelined and this was their way of getting back.”
Wheeler, a former ambassador to countries including Turkey, highlighted a cable that showed Iran sought assistance with its nuclear programme but advice was given that South Africa should not get involved. “I thought that was a very positive one,” he said.
The SSA is already under fire over the use of a mobile phone signal jammer in Parliament earlier this month at Zuma’s State Of the Nation Address. But some analysts suggested that the country’s standing would not suffer long-term damage.
Brooks Spector, a South African-based former US diplomat, said: “Is it embarrassing for South Africa? As much for them as anybody else that has happened to. If you remember the cases of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning in America, all of that stuff is embarrassing because the world of espionage and intelligence is supposed to not be visible and to operate in the shadows.
“Is it the death knell for South African intelligence? Of course not. They’ll pick up the pieces and move on. People will be more cautious about dealing with them for a while.”
He added: “We’re only seeing information that the holder of this stuff has chosen to reveal. In that information there may be motives as well, motives that we don’t know yet. It’s not a neutral set of leaks. That’s the point.”