Keep the spooks out of our politics

2015-03-02 06:00

State Security Minister David Mahlobo is in damage control mode and trying to contain the political fallout, not only from the so-called Signalgate scandal, but now from “Spycablegate”, both of which are currently exploding in Parliament.

On the signal-jamming issue, the minister is under pressure and has fallen back on the “rogue official” defence, which has now become standard operating procedure in dealing with scandals under President Jacob Zuma.

State Security Agency (SSA) members, who were allegedly responsible for an “operational error”, are already being lined up to take the blame and walk the plank to provide firewalls for ministers against the political fallout of Signalgate.

Of course, the minister was quick to sidestep political responsibility by claiming he was “taken aback” by events and there was no executive decision to interfere with the free flow of information at Parliament.

Bizarrely, he would have us believe the highly implausible story that a signal-jamming device, capable of specifically disrupting the cellphone signal in the House, was there to counter the threat of low-flying aircraft or an unmanned aerial vehicle.

However, the jamming device is merely a distraction from a bigger and perhaps more important issue. Why was the SSA involved in the state of the nation address (Sona) at all?

We seem to have forgotten that the SSA’s legislative mandate was amended by an ad hoc committee two years ago by way of the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Act (No?11 of 2013).

The ad hoc committee working on the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill – or Spy Bill, as it became known – was drowned out by thecommittee dealing with the Protection of State Information Bill, commonly called the Secrecy Bill.

Surprisingly, the ad hoc committee on the Spy Bill managed to make significant amendments to the SSA’s legislative mandate. Put simply, the legislative mandate is the specific law that tells the SSA what it can and, more importantly, can’t do.

At the time, there was great concern about the extent to which the SSA had become involved in domestic politics.

This was evidenced by numerous intelligence scandals and, most notably, in the findings of the report by the Matthews Commission, which stated: “We are concerned that the National Intelligence Agency’s mandate, and its political intelligence function in particular, may have politicised the agency, drawn it directly into the arena of party politics, required it to monitor and investigate legal political activity and, as a result, undermined political rights that are entrenched in the Constitution.”

What was clear was that it had become necessary to get the spooks out of domestic politics and that this would require substantial amendments to the legislative mandate of the agency.

The amendments recommended that the agency’s domestic intelligence and counterintelligence mandate be confined to threats or potential threats to “national security”, defined as:

.?Hostile acts of foreign intervention directed at undermining the constitutional order;

.?Terrorism or terrorist activity;


.?Exposure of state security matters with the intention of overthrowing the constitutional order;

.?Sabotage; and

.?Serious violence directed at overthrowing the constitutional order.

Moreover, and most importantly, “national security” was defined to specifically exclude lawful political activity, advocacy, protest and dissent.

What this meant was that the agency’s domestic intelligence and counterintelligence mandate would have to specifically exclude normal political activity, no matter how robust.

When it became clear the amendments would be supported, not just by the governing party but also the SSA, I was, to borrow a phrase from the minister, taken aback.

To this day I have never understood how it came about that the governing party and the agency supported the amendments, now contained in the act.

All this means that the agency may only become involved when there is a threat or potential threat to “national security”, which specifically excludes lawful political activity, advocacy, protest and dissent.

Looking back, it is clear that a threat to disrupt Parliament was never a threat or potential threat to “national security”.

It was not a hostile act of foreign intervention; it was not terrorism; it was not espionage; it was not the exposure of a state security matter; it was not sabotage; and it was not serious violence directed at overthrowing the constitutional order.

It therefore fell outside of the legislative mandate of the agency.

Clearly, the agency overstepped its legislative mandate and should never have been involved in Sona. This is why we need a multiparty ad hoc committee to conduct a full-scale investigation into Signalgate.

In the end, we have to get the agency’s spooks to understand the difference between a threat to national security and a threat to the ANC – so that we can keepthe spooks well and truly out of South Africa’s domestic politics.

Maynier is the DA’s deputy spokesperson on state security

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