Open secrets of spies in our midst

Less than a year into his portfolio, State Security Minister David Mahlobo has had a nightmare week. The release by Al Jazeera and the Guardian of secret cables from intelligence agencies from all over the world – including South Africa’s – have seen him called to brief President Jacob Zuma, as well as briefings with senior agents at the State Security Agency (SSA). The Mail & Guardian spoke to him about the spy cables and his investigation into what he terms the “purported leak”.

What does the release of the spy cables mean for the SSA?

It will be too early to say that. We have noted these reports and we are investigating them. These things include international intelligence services, so it is very tricky. We condemn it in the strongest possible terms. It undermines the operational effectiveness of intelligence and its mandate to secure the state and diplomatic relations.

What does your investigation entail?

First we need to find out if these are indeed our documents. If the answer is yes, then we will go on to find out who leaked them. It could be an operative … someone from intelligence or it can be a foreign government.

Once you find out who leaked the cables, what happens then?

Our main issue is to look for cracks if it leaked from the State Security Agency. And then when we identify that, we will have to look at the motive. The motive is important in understanding [why the cables were leaked].

Do you suspect anyone at this stage?

It is too early to tell.

Did you anticipate this?

This thing of intelligence being leaked is not a new thing. It happened with the case of [Edward] Snowden [the United States IT professional who leaked classified information from the National Security Agency to the media in 2013]. There were other issues in the West and now it’s involving us.

How seriously do you regard these leaks?

Serious matters of national security have been undermined. It has affected the country’s security. It has affected critical infrastructure, information and the interests of our country. It has also affected diplomatic relations.

Those reports show that states spying on one another is widespread. Is this a concern?

It is not a new issue that the international intelligence community interacts multilaterally [but] no ordinary person must engage in espionage. What spies do is done within the law.

But what if it is done outside the law?

The law is very clear and if it went against the law, we need to look at the relevant legislation and take very firm action.

Should South Africans worry about the state of the SSA?

This incident that has happened … let us look at it very carefully. We inherited an intelligence [service] from a fragmented past. We had the agents from the apartheid intelligence and those from the liberation movements. They were brought together to serve the country with dignity and professionalism. And the men and women of intelligence have served this country well.

How do we know that the spooks did their job well?

Look at the management of the transition [to democracy] … then we held important elections and it was all peaceful. Our agents look after a lot of infrastructure. Do you remember those rightwingers who wanted to kill ANC leaders in 2012 [during the party’s national congress in Mangaung]? Intelligence officers stopped them. They looked after the Soccer World Cup, the funeral and memorial of Mandela. Our people have done well.

Is the country safe under the SSA?

Yes.

So it’s all well and good then?

Intelligence must improve! We have to sharpen ourselves in terms of training and increasing our capacity. Then we need to improve the professionalism of the intelligence service. Also technology remains an issue. People use technology for their work but others use technology to sabotage states. Officers must be equipped to deal with today’s improving technology.

And then there is the issue of party politics playing a role in intelligence.

There was that issue of party politics interfering in intelligence work in the past. Not any more.

Do you believe the SSA is being abused for political reasons?

It is not happening because there are now accountability mechanisms in place. There is the office of the inspector general where people can complain and our conduct comes under scrutiny. In Parliament we have the joint standing committee on intelligence, which is a structure that keeps balance.

What happens when your agents are found guilty of untoward behaviour?

If someone transgresses we will not hesitate to take firm action. They know it, everyone knows it.

Are you aware that foreign spies are around and thriving in SA?

This is an open secret. South Africa is a global player; it does not function as a pariah state. We have foreign intelligence agencies operating within their [represented countries’] missions. It is declared, just like we have our people all over the world.

But surely it is different when foreign spies seem to be having a field day in South Africa?

The notion that foreign spies are having a field day in South Africa is neither here nor there.

Are South African intelligence agents being bullied by their foreign counterparts into doing things that are against our country’s democratic principles?

That question is an insult to the men and women who work for intelligence. They are regarded as the best in Africa. That is why we are asked to take missions internationally.

Will these spy leaks affect the push for the president to sign the ‘secrecy Bill’ into law?

These matters are separate. There are different narratives. The protection of state information Bill must be passed through soon. But it is different to this incident where a broadcasting corporation has intelligence information.

You spoke about stricter measures to mend cracks. How are you going to do this?

We are constantly checking the conduct of our own people. The regulations governing us [SSA] and the code of conduct are tight enough. There is adequate enforcement.

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