/ 17 April 2018

Spooks inside Public Protector’s office

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has finally admitted that the State Security Agency (SSA) is heavily involved in the running of her office.

At a meeting of the justice portfolio committee in Parliament, the Democratic Alliance’s Werner Horn pressed Mkhwebane, who had previously worked for the SSA, on her office’s involvement with the agency. She indicated that at least one official from the public protector’s office is receiving training from the SSA and the security agency may have access to some of the office’s online systems, while her CFO was actually seconded to her office from the agency. 

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“I think we must now start to get worried about whether the over involvement of the State Security Agency in the operations of the office of the public protector is not potentially impacting on the ability of the office to perform its functions in an impartial manner,” Horn said to Mkhwebane.

The public protector’s office often deals with sensitive information from whistleblowers about potential government wrongdoing.

While Mkhwebane stressed that she wishes to maintain the “integrity” of the public protector’s office, she admitted that she had allowed the government agency to work with her staff and her acting chief financial officer was seconded from the SSA.

“Working for state security for three months, I knew there is additional capacity which can be availed. The Public Protector Act allows me to do that,” she said to MPs on Tuesday.

The public protector’s office is facing financial turmoil. MPs heard that the institution has a R29-million shortfall and will need at least R25-million more to carry out its mandate. Part of the reason why there has been so much spending is because of a “significant rise” in the number of court challenges since the courts ruled the public protector’s remedial action is binding.

Mkhwebane says that it is financial constraints that made her turn to the SSA when the previous chief financial officer resigned.

“I wrote to National Treasury requesting the CFO [at state security], I have even proof. The minister ended up responding to say they don’t have the capacity to assist. In fact, the director-general signed that,” she said.

Mkhwebane then said she approached SSA directly to ask for its CFO to be seconded, saying it was on the basis of “knowing there might be additional capacity” that would be of use to her office. The SSA agreed to second their CFO.

Security concerns and independence

Mkhwebane herself detailed the access to information which her office and investigators are privy to when they run an investigation.

“We have your ID, your bank accounts, your balances, what you are paying, what you are not paying,” she said.

Horn asked Mkhwebane if the SSA was vetting candidates who applied to be investigators at her office, and would therefore be mostly likely to access sensitive information.

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The Public Protector did not respond directly to the question, instead saying: “That person who is an investigator needs to have that credibility and needs to know that this information I cannot just avail willy nilly.”

The exact depth of SSA’s involvement in the public protector’s office is not yet clear. In her response to MPs Mkhwebane said that the agency was training the security manager at the public protector office. 

The security manager has access to the office’s information security services and is, according to Mkhwebane, being trained by SSA on how to use this system and determine what information should be classified.

It is unclear if SSA has access to the system, but it would likely put the government agency in closer contact with the personal and leaked information that Mkhwebane’s office receives.

The reason her security manager was receiving training from SSA, she said, was because Skills Training Education Authority (Seta) would charge for the service and the public protector’s office would incur more costs.

But Mkhwebane also defended the decision, saying that it was fair to use the expertise of SSA, particularly its systems analysts.

“It’s their core mandate to do that, to make sure that all systems which are utilised in government are secured and as we are being trained on what information is critical as an institution whether do we need to classify our info or we don’t need to classify our info, that’s the training the person is supposed to be attending,” she said. 

Suspicion has been mounting about SSA involvement in the public protector’s office as Mkhwebane met with the agency during her investigation into the Ciex report on the Absa apartheid-era “lifeboat”.

Non-government organisations have added their concerns, stressing that the office of the public protector has a duty to remain independent and impartial.

Mkhwebane did not seem concerned that the independence, security of her office and its sensitive information may be compromised, but she instead said that she would maintain the integrity of the office and ensure there were no leaks.

“State security is not involved in investigations,” she said.

“It is there as an institution, a constitutional department which is provided for. Why not use them if they’ve got the resources to deliver the services?” she concluded.