What the ‘spy cables’ taught us

The documents reportedly leaked from the State Security Agency, and published by Al Jazeera this week, provided much insight into the workings of human intelligence, albeit not much to make the world of spycraft seem glamorous. Here is some of what we learned:

• Front companies are usually invisible, but the well-known automotive chain Tiger Wheel & Tyre (TWT) was apparently used to settle, in part, the bill of a Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency) agent in South Africa.

The company has since been bought by the American Carlyle Group, which has close links with the United States political establishment, alongside Old Mutual.

In response to questions, TWT, Old Mutual and previous TWT owner Ethos Private Equity all said they took such allegations seriously, but would not engage in or condone spying. None was receptive to jokes about spies and fast cars.

• South African spies are not afraid of plagiarism. Just one document, the “geopolitical country and intelligence assessment” for Israel, quotes liberally and verbatim – but without attribution – from the CIA’s World Factbook, the work of the international affairs department of Columbia University in the US, an Egyptian writer and Wikipedia.


• South African spies have variable spelling skills and are prone to finger trouble when typing. One document refers to an official as “the dorector general”, and another to Iranian embassy staff who “where questioned” and then “where sent home”.

The language problems are mostly innocuous, but can sometimes be dangerously confusing. In one instance an agent writes of a Cameroonian opposition leader being “under the radar of the Cameroonian intelligence services”, although the context suggests that should be “on the radar”, the direct opposite.

• Some foreign spy agencies maintain the ugly habit of sending their “cables” in capital letters, having presumably not been informed that the telegram is no longer a commonly used communication tool.

• Spies have the same kind of slightly panicky love/hate relationship with all the newfangled social media, as corporations once did, although with a slight lag. Zimbabwe and South Africa were, as of 2012, both concerned about the “threats and opportunities presented by social media networks”.

• Assassination plots, or at least the fear of such plots, are still very much in vogue. The documents refer to plans or threats to kill President Jacob Zuma, African Union chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and the prime minister of Lesotho.

• South African spies love hotels. Though there is talk of safe houses, meetings often take place in hotels, both upmarket and downmarket, even in cities where there are many secure buildings (without a bar service) to choose from.

• Foreign spy agencies like using national air carriers as unofficial fronts for operations. Both Iran Air and Israeli airline El Al are mentioned as being used for “unofficial cover” in operations. There is no mention of cash-strapped South African Airways entering that line of business.

• Several countries South Africa deals with are happy to extend the definition of “security” far enough to spy on political opponents and monitor organisations that can cause political embarrassment, but hold no credible threat to life and limb. South Africa tends to be admirably restrained in complying.

• Secret agreements between countries can contain enough loopholes to give a contract lawyer a headache. In 2012 South Africa and Rwanda agreed that changes in top employees at their respective spy agencies would not hinder co-operation – unless they do. The countries also agreed to settle “amicably” any dispute in the interpretation of the agreement, but makes no provision whatsoever for a mechanism or method to settle such an impasse.

• If all the allegations made were true, you would stumble across foreign military training camps all over South Africa. Whereas Pakistani extremists are said to only like travelling through South Africa, both Tamil and Islamist groups are alleged to conduct paramilitary – or straight-out terrorist – training in South Africa.

• Iran was looking to South Africa for help on “tactical jamming” in 2005, 10 years before Zuma’s State of the Nation address suffered the blocking of cellphone signals.

• Spies have cool names for their bureaucratic paperwork. Some documents are so secret that recipients are required to burn or shred them six weeks after receipt. Those recipients are then required to complete a “declaration of destruction” form to confirm they have done so.

• Some secret documents come with feedback forms, which ask “clients”, or recipients of reports, to rate the strategic value, quality, timeliness and general contribution made by the report. There is, however, no check box for “this document saved democracy”.

• Suspicions of both Jewish and Muslim businesses in South Africa linked, respectively, with the security apparatus of Israel and Iran, show that each group has trouble breaking with stereotypes when selecting covers. Dodgy Muslim characters are said to operate carpet shops and import/export businesses, whereas Israeli nationals are considered active in information technology and telecommunications.

• People do actually just walk into a foreign embassy to offer information, typically in search of a cash reward or diplomatic help. The documents reveal such instances at the British, US and Israeli embassies in Pretoria, and possibly those of Canada and Sweden too.

• In an ironic twist, a 2009 security appraisal noted the “inadequate protection of the storage and retrieval of information (sensitive and classified)” as a trend that “underline[s] security vulnerabilities”. Although the provenance of the leaked documents is unknown, it was almost certainly such inadequate protection that allowed them to become public. It also notes that security managers sometimes do not report breaches because they fear the consequences.

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Phillip De Wet
Guest Author

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