Daggers in the cloakroom of power

The State Security Agency, headed by Minister David Mahlobo, wants to give parliamentary staff polygraph tests. (David Harrison, M&G)

The State Security Agency, headed by Minister David Mahlobo, wants to give parliamentary staff polygraph tests. (David Harrison, M&G)

Since Parliament announced its plans to re-vet all employees, media releases have announced that there have been no complaints from staff.

Not so. There are a lot of unhappy people employed by Parliament, going off for fingerprinting and labouring to finish their confidential security forms in time.

For the record, there are complaints from staff. Or at least one.
I have written to my manager, recording a complaint and explaining why I was not going to take part in Parliament’s re-vetting process. This was after spending the weekend poring over my security clearance form.

I had my four months worth of bank statements and the passport photo to append, and had phoned five increasingly disbelieving friends (friends, not relatives, as the form explicitly stated) for their ID numbers, laboriously explaining that they may be contacted by members of the State Security Agency (SSA) – what we used to call Boss. 

I had filled in the names, identity numbers, addresses and so on of my spouse, my children and my living relatives when I stopped to ask myself: What exactly was I doing?

We had been told that next would come a one-on-one interview with a security agent. A polygraph would be required. In short, we had been told by the SSA that we’d be seeing a lot of them in the weeks to come.

Why? All they could offer as an answer was that the secretary to Parliament, Gengezi Mgidlana, had asked the SSA to re-vet all parliamentary staff and put all its other work on hold for this priority project.

I explained to my boss that the increased role of the security forces in our country was bothering me. It didn’t fit in with a transparent, accountable and credible Parliament and, honestly, I thought all this talk of a security threat posed by unnamed foreign states was a load of nonsense. A free press, an active and organised civil society and a few other basic rights come with a democracy.

If I thought our beloved country really faced a security threat, I hope I would do whatever was required to defend it. But I suspected the threat was one being experienced by the ruling party as its support steadily declines. For myself, I was employed to serve Parliament, not the ruling party.

Oh, and I added that I didn’t like the way my human rights were being violated. Too many people had paid too high a price in the struggle to get rid of apartheid to go back there.

I had felt even more uncomfortable when the SSA requested staff at the introductory briefing to remove the batteries from their cellphones before the process of introducing vetting could get under way.

All Parliament’s employees are subjected to a security check when they are appointed. That makes perfect sense. It is an agency of the state. But then no one who had not passed would have been at the briefing.

As a content manager in the Parliamentary Communication Service, I was quite sure that no confidential material would be allowed anywhere near me. Anyway, my job is to inform citizens about what their Parliament is doing, not keep that information from them.

The first briefing started off innocuously, with staff being advised to keep their desks clear of papers and store all documents under lock and key. All pretty straightforward stuff.

The pace picked up with a presentation about the threat of global cyberterrorism. Staff were reminded that over-the-counter gizmos could intercept any private conversation. So far, so good. Former CIA employee Edward Snowden had already told us more.

But then it moved on to a slide show demonstrating the dangers of foreign security agents and their recruitment methods. The danger, we were told, lies mainly in social media. Staffers were reminded that working for Parliament made them perfect targets.

There were a few mutterings about constitutional rights, but maybe staff members were expected to be willing to set aside some old-fashioned freedoms for the sake of the security of our democratic Parliament.

There were lengthy question-and-answer sessions in the programme. What if Parliament considers one’s friends unsavoury or our finances precarious?

The issue of dual citizenship did bring a collective frown to the faces on the panel. Clearly, dual citizens could have confused loyalties.

“How many hackers are hacking as we speak?” was a presumably rhetorical question. Right now someone could be hacking into our documents from Canada. Canada? Why would anyone in Canada’s security agency be interested in an average, mid-level parliamentary staffer like me?

Okay, perhaps not Canada then. Maybe a foreign security service that we haven’t even discovered yet, we were told.

Surely anyone serious about penetrating South Africa’s Parliament would know who is likely to have access to sensitive information. Shouldn’t the SSA be applying their securo-minds to coding information so it is not so easily penetrable by amateur sleuths?

The dangers of fraternising with “unknown” individuals were raised. They could be used to get close to unsuspecting bearers of inside information. But this did not seem to alarm parliamentary staff unduly. Individuals known to go through partners rapidly were considered more of a health than a security risk.

Parliament employs more than 1 500 people. Our intrepid state security forces had already thought ahead. Staff were told that the SSA had received assurances that the police and, if necessary, the military could be called in “to ensure state interests were protected”.

Staff would be told if they had passed. If they were unhappy with the results of their security check, they could appeal to the minister and try again, although it was not specified how security genies, once released, could then be recorked.

What if they got it wrong? To minimise the possibility of error, a 360° assessment was promised. Our friends may be interviewed, but we were sternly told not to brief them. Individual sessions with SSA staff would follow, and a polygraph test.

Assurances were given that all vetting would be done strictly within the law, but the confidential Z204 security clearance form looked alarming.

Employees were reminded to submit their matric certificates. Too many people are getting away with bogus matrics these days.

Question 10: Have you had contact or suspected contact with foreign intelligence services? Own up, those old enough to have once made contact with the then banned ANC.

But the panellists seemed at pains to put staff at ease. We were reminded that we live in a democracy now, and as long as we do not present a national security risk, we were fine.

The SSA would be moving into Parliament. They had already secured office space. To make the process easier, an officer would be on site to start fingerprinting. Staff did not even have to make a detour to their local police station.

That was well received. After all, no one who works at Parliament should have to risk encountering a criminal. They tend to place security in our country at risk.

Moira Levy is a content manager in Parliament’s communications service.

Parties fight over the ‘securitisation’ of Parliament

Parliament’s re-vetting process has become a point of political contention between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance, with the governing party accusing the DA of maliciously attacking the secretary of Parliament for ordering the enhanced security checks.

This is after the Sunday Times reported that Parliament has launched a campaign to flush out the institution’s officials suspected of being whistle-blowers. Re-vetting, initiated by parliamentary secretary Gengezi Mgidlana and involving the State Security Agency (SSA), was the main tool used to root out the “suspects”, the newspaper reported. It mentioned meetings held between parliamentary staff and intelligence officers in which employees were told that certain nongovernmental organisations and journalists were spying for foreign governments.

Unidentified staff members also claimed that they were discouraged from becoming whistle-blowers because that would undermine parliament. In addition to this, Parliamentary employees who hold dual citizenship were told either to renounce their citizenship of a second country or risk losing the security clearance needed to work for the institution.

To ensure that all possible leaks were prevented, parliamentary sources claimed that intelligence officials warned they would not hesitate to screen text messages, emails and WhatsApp communication. As part of tightening security on information, Sunday Times sources said the SSA representatives were “considering security-vetting all journalists in the parliamentary press gallery, and that a review panel for journalists was being considered”.

But Parliament denied using the re-vetting process to root out whistle-blowers, saying vetting is a normal practice. “Parliament’s security policy requires all employees to undergo vetting and all staff appointments are subject to positive security clearance,” a statement from Parliament said. 

Vetting took place in 2005, and “Parliament’s senior managers were again vetted in the fourth Parliament. As security clearance certificates are valid for 10 to 15 years, most certificates of staff have either expired or will expire this year.” But some of the employees’ clearance certificates were still valid when Parliament initiated the current re-vetting process, according to staff members.

Though Parliament said that no complaints have been received from staff or their trade union about the re-vetting process, it has since emerged that at least one senior employee has complained in writing and that there are more who are opposing what they see as the “securitisation” of Parliament. – Mmanaledi Mataboge

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