SA’s spies run for cover

2015-03-01 06:00

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Within hours of Al Jazeera releasing the first reports about the leaked so-called spy cables, South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA) sent a chartered jet to “extract” at least four senior intelligence agents from their posts in Africa.

A source in the SSA told City Press one agent was based in Cameroon and the other three were elsewhere on the continent.

A second source confirmed “at least four” agents were “extracted” within hours of the spy cables being released by the television network, which is based in Qatar.

“The guys were contacted early on Monday and told to be ready to be extracted. It happened very fast,” a source close to the SSA said.

“The leaks caused chaos in the SSA, and especially among the agents abroad. Some of the guys have been building and living their legends for years and years.

“Their cover is now blown. People within governments will be able to work out who the South African agents are. These operatives have been doing their work and now they’re compromised?...?It’s a gigantic f**k-up,” a former spy close to SSA told City Press.

An investigation by SSA operatives and crime intelligence agents to find the source of the leak is now under way.

This week, Al Jazeera’s investigative unit released hundreds of pages of secret intelligence documents written by the SSA and foreign intelligence services, including Britain’s MI6, Israel’s Mossad, Russia’s Federal Security Service and intelligence agents from South Korea.

The cables revealed how intelligence was shared between the SSA and international intelligence agencies, including the CIA in the US.

The documents also revealed:

  • .South African intelligence worked with Zimbabwean authorities to monitor and exchange information on “rogue” nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). This also entailed the identification, profiling and assessment of NGOs and media engaged in “subversive” activities, including information on their financing;
  • ?Iran had engaged a number of academics to help promote the reformist views of its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Also revealed were their nonofficial covers for information gathering and influence, which included Iran Air, Islamic Republic News, Iran Shipping Lines, the Mustadafin and Janzaban foundations and other front companies, including a carpet shop and a guesthouse;
  • South Africa was asked to spy on Greenpeace boss Kumi Naidoo and two other activists before they attended a G20 summit in Seoul;
  • ?Serial theft of personal and laptop computers in important arms of the state, as well as the loss of vital tender information and the accessing of state information for corrupt and fraudulent activities; and
  • A host of other information, including how Chinese agents allegedly broke into the Pelindaba nuclear power station to get information on pebble bed modular reactors, as well as how national intelligence spied on defence intelligence to get information on a satellite operation between South Africa and Russia called operation Condor.

Yesterday, SSA spokesperson Brian Dube said: “The allegations of a withdrawal of foreign-based operatives from their postings is without basis and is strongly dismissed as yet another attempt at information peddling.

“We will not be drawn into speculation about those who might be behind the purported leak and their motives. The minister is on record indicating that a full investigation is under way.”

However, intelligence sources told City Press this week that the leak was believed to have come from inside the SSA.

A source with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of state intelligence said: “The guys abroad are dead certain there had to be a leak inside SSA. It’s not possible to hack into SSA’s database and access the wide scope of information that has been leaked.”

Another high-level intelligence source said it had been established that all of the spy cable information originated in South Africa. It has also been established that it was not obtained by hacking into the SSA’s IT system.

A senior intelligence agent within the SSA said the careers of many agents had now been ruined.

“The SSA has, over many, many years, relied heavily on human intelligence. The Americans have increasingly placed reliance on technology and cyberspying [as Edward Snowden’s leaks revealing widespread spying on American citizens by the US’s National Security Agency showed].

“Our guys are real people with real relationships. Their cover is now blown. They’re completely compromised. That’s it. Tickets. Game over.

“They were extracted for their own protection and to come back to base for damage control. I reckon some of them will never be able to work again,” the senior agent told City Press.

Other intelligence sources told City Press this week about a mad scramble to identify the source of the leak and perform damage control.

“The guys at SSA are extremely uncomfortable?... nobody knows if other cables will be released. We don’t know how deep this goes and we don’t know what’s coming next. Some of the guys are shattered,” a former spy told City Press.

A high-level meeting took place on Wednesday in Johannesburg between senior and long-serving members of the SSA and the police’s crime intelligence unit. The purpose of the meeting was to establish who could have leaked the spy cables and what their motives may have been.

An SSA source with knowledge of the meeting said: “Everyone is a suspect for now.”

A senior crime intelligence divisional head said the SSA asked the unit to help establish where the leak came from by speaking to crime intelligence agents, their handlers as well as informers across the country.

City Press understands crime intelligence officials raised concerns that the leak could have come from outside the country and their ability to crack the case would be hampered because they were restricted to dealing with domestic threats only.

“SSA has been tasked with looking at establishing the [facts about] leakages internationally to prevent further breaches, as well as dealing with anyone responsible for those,” the divisional head said.

Ordinary agents working for the SSA and crime intelligence were excluded from the meeting because they operated on their own and reported only to their handlers. Their managers did not want them to be able to identify each other as spies and have their covers blown.

Intelligence agencies are also looking into the possibility that the spy cables could have been leaked to cast the SSA, and its ability to control its information, in a bad light. Among the possibilities being investigated is that the leak may have been designed to deflect attention from the SA Revenue Service’s so-called rogue spy unit.

An SSA source said this was one of the possibilities discussed at Wednesday’s meeting.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s spy agencies are troubled by factions, power struggles, politics and clashes with crime intelligence.

A senior crime intelligence officer told City Press there were battles between the unit and the SSA: “At some stage, we were handling some investigations only to find that SSA agents were also investigating the same case. In some instances, we arrested their members and, at times, they arrested our members.”

However, Dube said: “The allegation about so-called turf wars is not new, but a recycled claim that doesn’t deserve our attention. Law enforcement agencies have clear mandates set out.

“We continue to work together with a great measure of success within the security cluster and various other coordinating structures.”

Although an SSA agent was allegedly extracted from Cameroon, the west African country does not loom large in the leaked cables.

The documents do reveal that in 2011 a Cameroonian agent passed on a request for the SSA to confirm whether opposition leader Mila Assoute had visited South Africa and, if so, who he met with in the country.

It was clear, the documents revealed, that Assoute and other opposition leaders were being monitored by Cameroonian intelligence.

However, the SSA liaison office’s comment was that Assoute had not committed any offence that would justify giving such information to the Cameroonians. Erika Gibson, Abram Mashego, additional reporting by Susan Comrie

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