Inside the Spy Cables: Why SA's security leaks matter

I have felt like a kid in a candy store this week: A journalist swimming through stacks of documents marked “Top Secret”.  But what does it all mean?   The leak of hundreds of South African intelligence documents from the former National Intelligence Agency and the SA Secret Service, published this week by Al Jazeera, is unprecedented and a crisis for the State Security Agency (SSA).

By late Monday the SSA, an amalgamation of the previously separate domestic and foreign intelligence arms, had not responded to the publishing of the so-called “Spy Cables”. Yet it is a moment as profound for SA as Edward Snowden’s own leaks were for the American National Security Agency. 

Our cables are different, however. Unlike Snowden’s leaks, the information released this week does not reveal large-scale snooping on the citizenry.  But like the American leaks, and the WikiLeaks information dumps, they pose diplomatic and political conundrums for the state.

The documents contain everything from details of an alleged assassination plot on the African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the most important intelligence operational manuals – which are classified at the highest level possible.

The majority of the documents are from the SA Secret Service, the former external arm of the state’s spy agencies.  They reveal the extent to which free South Africa has become an important node in the world of global espionage.  There is evidence in the stacks of information on co-operation, information, sharing and spying from the West to the East. 

South African files released include information on Iran, Israel, Palestine, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Ethiopia and North Korea among other nations.   

While the leaks are carefully redacted to remove all names, they can cause a diplomatic rumpus by revealing that which normally remains secret. The United States, for example, will not be pleased to discover that South Africa believed the superpower lobbied against Dlamini-Zuma’s appointment as the African Union chairperson.

Iran too won't be happy with detailed accounts of how South African intelligence spied on that country’s embassy in Pretoria, and how it believes the government to be operating a series of front companies in South Africa from carpet shops to airlines.

The most serious diplomatic dent, however, is likely with Israel.  As the governing ANC has moved to an activist stance in support of Palestinian human and state rights, the documents reveal how relations with the Israeli agency, Mossad, has frayed.   In addition, it’s clear from the cable leaks that South African intelligence believe Mossad to have infiltrated agents into airline El Al’s station at Oliver Tambo airport in Johannesburg.

A pit-stop for extremists

A stack of cables also reveal detailed information supplied to and from South Africa alleging that the country is a pit-stop for extremists who may be using the territory to raise funds or recruit.  The documents are laced with allegations and the names of numerous individuals and organisations in South Africa whom agents believe are active in global terror.  I have yet to assess it properly, but much appears to be rumour raised repeatedly over many years – like allegations made frequently that al-Qaeda is active in South Africa.

Perhaps the most damaging leak is the 11 page “Thematic assessment of security vulnerabilities in government”.  It sets out a damning set of security breaches across the state from open access to departments and important installations to the inability to store, retrieve and destroy classified information.  The document lists several instances where gaps in security allowed important commercial and state information to leak.  

The documents cover many years, from 2009 to 2014. 

The SSA and the Minister of Intelligence David Mahlobo may well argue that the information is old and point out that the political and bureaucratic authorities in intelligence have changed in 2015.  

The clean sweep is correct, but the jury is out on whether the holes in the system, which the leaks reveal, have been fixed. 

It was, after all, just three weeks ago when the signal jamming at parliament revealed a state security system still in disarray. 

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