Don’t say ‘trust us’, rather be trustworthy ...

2015-03-11 15:27

It’s official: The State Security Agency has launched an investigation into the source of the spy cable leaks. Regardless of the outcome, we can be sure the events of last week have sharpened some people’s appetite for the Secrecy Bill to become law.

It is telling that despite the great public value of the “spy cables” disclosures, any one of these news reports would be an act of “espionage” in terms of the Secrecy Bill, carrying penalties of up to 25 years in jail. No protection for the journalist or the whistle-blower.

In fact, it will take more openness, not more secrecy, to insulate our intelligence agencies from the fallout of leaks-driven journalism.

Minister of State Security David Mahlobo said: “Any leakages of classified information undermine the national security of any state.” But what about leaks that reveal abuses of power and help us to hold secretive state bodies to account?

We might ask what makes these abuses of power possible.

The State Security Agency publishes no annual report or budget – even in a redacted form. As a rule, its parliamentary oversight body meets behind closed doors. The agency appears to overclassify documents wildly – even its annual spending on pot plants and flowers, as City Press reported last year.

And increasingly, we see worrying signs that the agency has taken an unhealthy interest in the activities of political groupings, including unions, civil society, and possibly even political parties.

Internationally, there is an emerging consensus that transparency is a crucial ingredient in state security matters. But our intelligence structures have not taken the people of South Africa into their confidence. Even the basic assessments of our perceived threats and priorities for national security remain secret. Limited transparency would introduce a layer of public oversight that is sorely lacking today. Even the vast, overpowerful and unaccountable CIA publishes some of these things.

Analysts also warn that such excessive secrecy can lead to an echo-chamber effect in the governance of state security priorities. For this reason, we should be careful not to take all claims in the spy cables documents at face value. Paranoia, poor intelligence and political manipulation might come into play.

For example, the State Security Agency ’s leaked assessment of security vulnerabilities in the South African government in 2009 showed an apparent confusion of real, perceived and perhaps exaggerated threats. A full page is devoted to the apparent “threat” of naturalised foreigners being employed as civil servants.

If state security structures misidentify or exaggerate potential threats, the world may seem like a scarier place than it is. This may feed an agenda to expand the powers and resources of intelligence agencies, including through the deeply regressive powers in the Secrecy Bill.

So now we hear this is a nation under siege: there are threats across the country, in Pretoria, in Parliament, in the presidency – and on the ground where activists engage in service-delivery protests and hold local powermongers to account. Where the real threats to national security end, and the perceived threats to state interests begin, is hard to say.

But when called on to give even the most basic details – to allow these claims to be tested or subject to public debate – the response is simply “trust us”. Or, as the case may be, “no comment”.

This is the same State Security Agency that saw hard hats in the National Assembly as such a threat that it “blocked the signal” at the state of the nation address. The same security agency whose previous minister identified the Right2Know Campaign as an espionage threat in 2011 (calling us the “proxy of foreign spies”). The same security agency that reportedly tried to recruit National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa shop stewards as informants last year and allegedly offered financial rewards to political journalists this year in exchange for inside information on the Economic Freedom Fighters.

It is no longer enough to say “trust us”. Rather be trustworthy.

» Hunter is an organiser with the Right2Know Campaign

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