Spy cables may sadly herald greater secrecy

2015-03-01 15:00

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For well over a year now, President Jacob Zuma has had the Protection of State Information Bill on his desk, awaiting his signature and its arrival in our legal canon.

Political instinct in the aftermath of a massive leak of intelligence cables may prompt him to sign the law.

The so-called spy cables are a collection of manuals (how intelligence operatives go about their work), briefings (country and sectoral), country agreements and reports of extremist threats in South Africa.

Most of the reports on terror threats in South Africa are, frankly, hogwash and have been peddled in the media for years with no proof of funding or training links to al-Qaeda.

The activities of Iran and Israel in South Africa are interesting. These two mortal enemies have made South Africa a proxy battleground.

The most interesting cables relate to vulnerability: ours and our country’s. But these are not the ones that have caught our attention.

They relate instead to our own large intelligence service’s ability to protect important intellectual and defence property. Stolen missile plans held by Denel ended up in Israel. A break-in at Pelindaba was not the theft we’ve thought it was for years, but rather an audacious attempt by Chinese agents to get their hands on pebble bed modular reactor technology.

Somewhere over our skies, a joint South African/Russian satellite project code-named Condor may be operating. We know nothing of it. If you consider this with the nuclear memorandum of agreement signed with Russia, there is every chance it is weighted in that country’s favour.

The cables reveal a spy-vs-spy battle in which national intelligence is spying on defence intelligence to find out more about a project they should have been briefed on.

Buried deeper in the documents is an 11-page document that reveals how vulnerable the state is.

Intelligence records find strategic departments are open to foreign agents. Strategically appointed staff are not security vetted. The national director of public prosecutions, Mxolisi Nxasana, had previously been accused of murder.

Underqualified people are put into top posts. This leaves them vulnerable to syndicates and organised criminals who have infiltrated the state.

Laptops and personal computers are largely unprotected from cyberattacks; in addition, they often go missing.

The assessment of the state’s inability to classify information, and to store and destroy it, is damning. It made me wonder if the bill was not aimed at closing these gaps and, if so, whether it was the correct medicine for the ailment.

By putting in place a much stricter classification regime, is the draft law an attempt to deal with a state that leaks like a sieve? Will the president pick up his pen this week and sign it?

The spy cables show the errors and gaps are human. Throughout the state, people do not know how to protect information (including, for example, strategic tender documents), and this allows fraud and theft to take place. I can’t see how tightening the secrecy laws will deal with the problem of the corruption and vulnerability of the state, but it may make it worse by making criminal its public airing.

As civil society and members of Parliament have argued, the leak of the spy cables shows the need for far greater parliamentary oversight of intelligence incapabilities.

The inspector-general of intelligence’s office needs to work more robustly than it has since it was instituted to check and balance the intelligence service’s work.

The department of state security this week said the leak of the spy cables harmed national security.

In fact, the leak of the cables revealed that state security was already perilous and a draconian legal response, as well as efforts to smoke out the leak, will not deal with the problem.

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