‘Nothing sinister about spy bill’

2012-03-28 14:40

The General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill is not an attempt to impose a secret shadow state on South Africa, the head of Parliament’s ad hoc committee reviewing the measure has said.

Speaking at the end of public hearings on the so-called “Spy Bill” today, committee chairperson Cecil Burgess said the proposed State Security Agency (SSA) would not be a background government.

“This is not an attempt to take South Africa into a state of secrecy, where there is an intelligence entity called the SSA that will be running the country in the background, which will subject us to serious oppressive conditions,” he said.

There were many people in the intelligence services who had fought for freedom in South Africa and would not want such freedom compromised.

Burgess also noted that comments on the bill in the media had been “somewhat unfriendly”.

The whole question of privacy and transparency versus the needs of the intelligence community was something all democratic countries grappled with.

“On the one side there is an attempt to get as much accountability and transparency as possible; on the other, there is a concern that too much of this is going to endanger the safety of the country and national security,” he said.

Earlier, the committee heard submissions from several civil society organisations on the bill.

The measure aims to amend the 1994 National Strategic Intelligence Act, the 1994 Intelligence Services Oversight Act, and the 2002 Intelligence Services Act.

It further seeks to repeal the 2002 Electronic Communications Security (Pty) Ltd Act, and amalgamate the National Intelligence Agency and the SA Secret Service into a single, centralised intelligence body, the SSA.

Critics warn that the measure will allow the secret services to eavesdrop to a greater extent on the communications of private citizens, without the need for permission from a judge.

They also say it does not sufficiently take into account recommendations of the 2008 Matthews report.

The report – commissioned by former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils – recommended, among other things, tighter control over the involvement of intelligence agencies in domestic political affairs.

Burgess told the hearing today government had made it clear the report of the Matthews Commission “has no status”.

Among the organisations making presentations at the hearing was Right2Know, the coalition of people and organisations opposed to the controversial Protection of Information Bill.

Right2Know national co-ordinator Murray Hunter told the hearings that among his organisation’s concerns was that the bill promoted a “dangerously broad intelligence mandate”, which needed to be more clearly and narrowly defined.

It also expanded intelligence bodies’ powers to intercept electronic communications, without adequate regulation and proper judicial oversight.

“We also believe the bill has the potential to diminish public oversight of state intelligence bodies,” he said.

Democratic Alliance committee member David Maynier said the findings of the Matthews report remained valid.

“Even though the government regards it as a no-status report, that does not invalidate its findings,” he said.

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