From the Mufamadi report: To see or not to see

Sydney Mufamadi addresses the media yesterday on the recently screened documentary on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. PHOTO: Felix Dlangamandla (Netwerk24)
Sydney Mufamadi addresses the media yesterday on the recently screened documentary on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. PHOTO: Felix Dlangamandla (Netwerk24)

* This is an extract from the High-Level Review Panel report on the State Security Agency (SSA) which found that during Jacob Zuma's presidency, elements of the SSA were repurposed and used to fight factional ANC political battles. The panel was headed by Dr Sydney Mufamadi.

One of the key challenges for intelligence services, the governments and the publics that they serve, is agreeing on the appropriate balance for those services between secrecy and transparency.

One of the common 'wisdoms' in the thinking about intelligence (among practitioners themselves) is that 90 per cent of intelligence information comes from open sources and 10 per cent from secret sources (the figures differ slightly, depending on who you are talking to). 

READ IN FULL: High-Level Review Panel on the SSA

This 'wisdom' is basically an injunction not to use covert and intrusive methods to collect information that is openly available. It is perhaps necessary to define 'open' here. Apart from its usual meaning of open source media etc, in the intelligence world, they also talk of 'grey' information sources. Grey sources are really those sources that are not secret or covert but are not generally public in the same way that the media are – academic research, subscription databases, government reports and databases, interviews with experts etc.

One of the challenges for intelligence services is that their client – the government – also has access to open sources and, through its engagements with its counterparts in the international arena, for instance, often has more insights and knowledge than the intelligence services themselves. For this reason, intelligence services tend to talk about providing 'unique' rather than just 'secret' intelligence. 

Providing unique intelligence could, in some cases, simply mean providing secret information that would not otherwise be available to a client, or organising, processing and packaging a range of secret, open and grey sources of information to produce intelligence that again would not normally be available to the client.

The reality is, however, that intelligence services are designed and organised primarily for the collection of secret intelligence. Otherwise, we would not need them. The rest of it – the 90 per cent – is, in essence, the back-office work. In simple terms, the focus of intelligence work should be on those (legitimately authorised) threats and targets who themselves operate in secret – terrorist groups, crime syndicates, corrupt networks, etc.

Arising out of this reality is the simple truth that, for the sake of the success of intelligence operations against such targets or threats, for the safety of the service's operatives and sources, there needs to be an element of secrecy surrounding the work of an intelligence service. The purpose of such secrecy is not (or should not be) to keep such information from the public but from the (legitimate) adversaries of the service and, of course, information that goes to the public goes to the adversaries (through their own open source collection).

The point is that the balance between secrecy and transparency should revolve around the question: what is it that we absolutely do not want our adversaries to know? Our sources, our methods, our technologies, our information about them? What else?

Those members of the Panel who previously served in senior positions in the intelligence services prior to 2009, remarked how, when they visited their counterparts abroad (often in countries that could be considered as major adversaries who were conducting espionage against South Africa) the two services would get to know each other's leaders and sometimes more junior officers, would share each other's organisational structures and, of course, often share intelligence. Of course, these exchanges were 'secret', but the question remains – if we are willing to share such information with these adversaries, how much of it should be kept from the public?

The downside of legitimate secrecy should be clear from much of this report – it provides opportunity for bypassing necessary accountability, controls, supervision and oversight. The corollary – the more the transparency, the less of such opportunity.

The South African intelligence community has erred on the side of excessive secrecy and this can largely explain the various forms of malfeasance that this report (and others before it) have identified.

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