The department of defence’s spies this week tried to put a lid on the latest theft scandal to rock the South African intelligence community after some 50 computers were stolen from defence intelligence (DI) headquarters.
However, defence department spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini confirmed the computers had been stolen, but he did not divulge details, as they were part of an “intensive” investigation led by the DI and military police.
City Press has learnt that the theft – in which several employees were taken for questioning and others were subjected to lie detector tests – was to be kept top secret.
“This is a serious embarrassment to the country that its military intelligence could be found [to be] vulnerable to criminals,” an insider in the intelligence community told City Press.
“Luckily, many of the computers were brand new and did not have much information stored on them.”
Another intelligence insider, who is also privy to details about the theft, countered this, though, saying that some of the computers had already been in use and carried information that could expose South Africa’s information to foreign spies.
“Each and every country gathers intelligence both locally and internationally. If such information or its informer network is leaked, it could compromise the country severely,” said the insider.
Intelligence functions include preparing and providing combat-ready intelligence and user systems for deployment, along with detailed forecasts about what the enemy is planning to do and when.
“The information on some of those laptops is highly sensitive and would expose our strengths and weaknesses,” said the source.
Until City Press approached the department for comment on the incident, the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) had kept quiet about the theft and did not report it to the State Security Agency (SSA) or the Hawks.
Dlamini said an undisclosed number of brand-new laptop computers were stolen from the DI’s headquarters in the Liberty Life Building in Madiba Street, Pretoria.
It is understood that at least 50 computers were stolen in batches.
Dlamini echoed an insider’s information, insisting that because the computers were brand new, they had no information on them.
The machines are said to have disappeared just after they were delivered – before they could even be recorded on the department’s inventory.
“Therefore, it is unclear who took responsibility for them,” said Dlamini.
He did not want to say from where in the building the theft took place and why the armed guards at the entrance did not prevent it.
City Press understands from highly placed sources within the department that Lieutenant General Jeremiah Nyembe, chief of the DI, gave the instruction that any details about the incident be kept under wraps.
The theft happened on the same Christmas weekend that the SSA was “robbed” of R17 million worth of foreign currency.
Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi confirmed that three suspects were arrested after the theft from the SSA’s well-guarded head office in the east of Pretoria.
One of the two appeared on a picture the Hawks had released from closed-circuit television cameras within the building, taken at the time the burglary took place.
It is understood that those arrested included two security guards and SSA director-general Sonto Kudjoe’s driver. One of the security guards had access to all the offices in the building.
“The driver was found with a large sum of US dollars suspected to have been stolen from the agency. He also had several access cards in his possession,” said a highly placed source close to the investigation.
The theft from the SSA vault took place between Christmas Day and the Day of Goodwill (Boxing Day), when the vaults holding money for foreign trips and agents were forced open. That money had been stored as petty cash to pay informers and for operatives’ costs.
SANDF spokesperson Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga last year confirmed that an investigation into more theft and corruption within the DI was under way.
A number of senior officers – some on the level of Brigadier General – were implicated in that investigation into their “milking of the system” with false travel claims.
Over three years, the group of officers were allegedly running a scam, creating fictitious visits on paper and claiming daily allowances for their travels.
They even created “visits” around real events to substantiate their claims, and in the process stole millions of rands that were then shared within the group.