Taxpayers’ money disappears into a black hole

2014-10-20 13:45

The State Security Agency is more unaccountable than any other institution – and that must change

If the world of spying is encased in a hallway of mirrors and make believe, so the legislation that safeguards it is an opaque cloak protecting it from outside scrutiny.

The State Security Agency (SSA) is a vast state institution with its headquarters on the outskirts of Pretoria near the Rietvlei Dam.

It employs hundreds, probably thousands, of people, has its own training academy, and has offices, agents and informants across the country.

Its annual budget of almost R4?billion is hidden in the National Treasury – where it is not debated in Parliament and not open to public oversight.

It’s almost as if we’re expected to have blind faith that those entrusted with the safety of our country will rise above the squandering and excess seen in other parts of the civil service.

The problem is that the stealthy world of intelligence breeds opportunities for financial deceit – especially for those in positions of authority who sign on the dotted lines.

We’ve seen what happened at the SSA’s smaller brother, the police’s crime intelligence unit.

Its head, Lieutenant General Richard Mdluli, and his cronies allegedly looted its secret fund.

They allegedly appointed their friends and cronies, bought themselves luxury cars and overseas air tickets, and registered and paid phantom informants.

That whiff of profit has blown towards the SSA as well, albeit on a much larger scale.

I suppose it’s a simple matter of the bulk of the booty. The crime intelligence secret fund of about R250?million a year is tiny in comparison with that of the SSA.

Nobody I have spoken to is in any way surprised. According to people like former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, the SSA was an accident waiting to happen.

He said when he was minister he didn’t have access to secret informants and sources, and that there was little oversight over the spending of the secret fund.

The SSA is so cagy about its spending that when DA MP David Maynier asked State Security Minister David Mahlobo last month how much his department had spent on pot plants, he was told the information was classified.

Maynier calls it a “crazy cult of secrecy”.

The SA History archive filed a Promotion of Access to Information Act application in 2012 and asked the SSA for expenditure records on catering, travel, accommodation, vehicles and office space.

The SSA responded that the information would be likely to prejudice its “methods, systems and operations” and “impact on national security matters”.

The SSA desperately needs to be checked. Its spooks are out of control and the agency is stumbling from scandal to scandal.

Not even “national security” is good enough any longer to conceal its dirty secrets.

More recently, former and current agency spies were deployed to Luthuli House to screen prospective MPs, phones of SABC journalists were tapped and the SSA investigated the offshore accounts of Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba.

The agency has reportedly also become an employment site for the children of ministers and other high-ranking officials.

Two months ago, City Press exposed the special operations unit (SOU) of the SSA as running odious operations such as discrediting state officials like former National Prosecuting Authority prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach and SA Revenue Service (Sars) chief investigator Johan van Loggenberg.

The SOU also allegedly embarked on a project to smuggle tobacco, and discredit and hamper Sars investigations into cigarette smugglers.

Mahlobo predictably said he was going to ask the inspector-general of intelligence to investigate.

I doubt whether we will ever see the results of this investigation and whether any steps will be taken against the rogue SOU agents.

There is only one oversight mechanism to check the SSA: Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI).

The JSCI meets behind closed doors in Parliament and its members have to undergo top security clearance.

Many would describe the JSCI as toothless and of little relevance.

It is supposed to table an annual report like all other standing committees.

These reports provide insight into the workings, spending and effectiveness of various departments.

For no legitimate reason, the JSCI submitted no reports for 2010/11 and 2011/12 – the period in which the alleged Arthur Fraser/Manala Manzini fraud would have been highlighted.

When opposition parties questioned the absence of these reports, they were given “state security” as a reason.

The then speaker of Parliament, Max Sisulu, insisted they had been tabled, and they were finally produced to the JSCI earlier this year.

One report flags how the top management of the agency told MPs in 2011 the agency was in “crisis”, and that low morale was a concern.

Another report blames former state security minister Siyabonga Cwele’s “busy schedule” for him being unable to run a more credible ship.

The JSCI report stresses that when it comes across irregularities, it can only make recommendations and, in the case of these annual reports, the findings and recommendations are made public only years after the fact.

Rather, the budget vote of state security is included in the budget vote of National Treasury, and the public is privy to only one line item – the total budget for the department for any given year.

Even the JSCI, which has security vetting to allow the members to see classified information, is allowed to examine only the “first level” of the state security budget – the administrative level.

This means that a large proportion of taxpayers’ money is subject to absolutely zero parliamentary oversight.

Our intelligence services can no longer continue to manage their budgets outside the proper democratic parliamentary controls.

It is high time for the intelligence services to be reined in, according to the DA’s shadow intelligence minister, Dirk Stubbe.

A solution to the problem was presented six years ago, but was largely ignored by government.

In September 2008, on the eve of his resignation, Kasrils presented Cabinet with the Matthews Commission report.

In 2006, in the wake of a series of spy scandals, Kasrils established the commission to look at possible infringements of constitutional rights. The commission found a lack of effective controls against abuse of power and little scope for public oversight.

The commission recommended that the SSA have its own separate budget vote, and that annual reports and financial statements be presented to Parliament as public documents, with the exclusion of information that would endanger security or compromise operations.

Unfortunately, the report was never tabled by Parliament and most of its recommendations were not implemented.

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