Public protector's office swept for bugs and other creepy-crawlies after leaks

New regime: The offices of public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane (above) and her deputy were swept by the State Security Agency. (Madelene Cronje)

New regime: The offices of public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane (above) and her deputy were swept by the State Security Agency. (Madelene Cronje)

First she flipped the TV channel from eNCA to the Gupta-owned ANN7, then she ditched the catchy report names such as Secure in Comfort and Derailed. Now Busisiwe Mkhwebane has allowed another novelty to creep in at the office of the public protector — debugging by the State Security Agency.

The debugging follows two criminal complaints lodged by Mkhwebane about leaks relating to hot-potato investigations — the State of Capture report and the preliminary report into apartheid-era bank bailouts.

This appears to be the first time, in the past seven years at least, that spooks have been unleashed on the office of the public protector.
The Mail & Guardian has established that a team from the State Security Agency (SSA) visited Public Protector House in Pretoria one evening last month.

They were there to carry out a pre-arranged sweep or physical inspection of the executive office, a section of the building where the offices of Mkhwebane and her deputy, Kevin Malunga, are situated.

Although this newspaper was told that a group of about a dozen people arrived with “large equipment and ladders”, this could not be verified.

But public protector spokesperson Oupa Segalwe confirmed that the “debugging” was carried out at the request of the institution’s own security division.

“Feedback was received from the SSA, advising that both the public protector’s and deputy public protector’s offices had been debugged,” he said.

Segalwe did not respond to a question about whether Mkhwebane had authorised it, although the M&G has been told that it could not have been done otherwise.

This signifies a drastic departure from the attitude of Mkhwebane’s predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, whose office declined a previous request for the SSA to conduct a security check on the premises last year.

“State security was not welcome at that office under Thuli. She felt strongly about protecting the independence of the PP’s office because it deals with sensitive information, confidential whistle-blowers that need to be assured of protection,” said a former senior official.

Segalwe said the SSA team was asked only to help with “an assessment of threats and potential threats” to information security. The SSA was the only body competent to perform this function, he said.

Malunga was “consulted” prior to the assessment and he gave his consent, said Segalwe. The M&G was unable to obtain comment from Malunga.

Segalwe did not say why Malunga’s office needed to be debugged, but said that the operation was part of “a holistic internal information security awareness programme that is being rolled out across the institution”.

It is unclear what this entails, but it has been established that the SSA has also been roped in to conduct security checks and the vetting of all staff, including “secretaries and interns”.

Despite claims that this was unprecedented, Segalwe insisted the public protector’s office has “always” used the SSA’s services, but he did not indicate whether this previously included debugging — and what timeframe “always” refers to.

Segalwe said the public protector’s office has not had a “career security person” managing security until a vacant post was filled this year.

The provisional report on the bank bailouts was sent out in late December to affected parties by the lead investigator in the case, Livhuwani Tshiwalule, along with a notice for the parties to respond to the provisional findings.

It was sent to the presidency as head of the government, the Reserve Bank, Absa bank and the treasury — a copy landed up with the M&G, which published details of the preliminary findings in January.

Tshiwalule, who has maintained he followed procedure when he sent out the preliminary report, resigned late last year.

The M&G has been told that he was questioned by police investigating the alleged leak — and that there are concerns that he may also be under investigation by the SSA.

Tshiwalule could not be reached for comment.

Segalwe, when asked whether the SSA operation was linked to this matter, said: “It was not a public document and should never have fallen into a journalist’s hands as it only serves to jeopardise the investigation.”

He said the circumstances of the leak were now the subject of a criminal investigation and that everyone who has had “contact” with the report has been asked to assist investigators. 

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