Some Thoughts on the Spy Scandal

In the course of the controversy surrounding the National Intelligence Agency’s illegal spying activities and its fabrication of email evidence, a number of interesting points and unanswered questions have come up. I’ll try to write about a few of them briefly, as acres of column space have been dedicated to this already and I have no desire to retread covered ground.

The most important aspect of the entire controversy is that it has highlighted just how vague and permissive the rules and mandates of the intelligence community are, as well as how limited and ineffective parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) is. Despite holding security clearances, members of the JSCI are often told nothing about ongoing intelligence operations. This is an extremely serious problem, and it requires immediate investigation and correction. That President Mbeki has refused outright to do anything of the sort is a disappointment, and somewhat disturbing.

For one, it is utterly ridiculous that the NIA is allowed to gather political intelligence under its mandate, which allows it to spy on political parties. A clearer recipe for disaster would be hard to find, especially when coupled to the ANC’s policy of loading state institutions with party functionaries. The NIA has in some ways become nothing less than an ANC party apparatus; a tool being used in the party’s smouldering succession war.

One need only look at Project Avani to see how dangerous this is. The program involved the surveillance of a number of individuals, including the leader of the opposition, and was reported to only the President and Minister of Intelligence, without once even thinking of informing Parliament’s intelligence oversight committee. So much for transparency. Indeed, in the US and UK such revelations would be accompanied by demands of impeachment. Not only did Mbeki know about the surveillance since at least the 19th of August 2005, but he did nothing to end the program and let it continue. Why is he not being held accountable? This is our Watergate. Why is the outrage absent?

Perhaps we are fortunate though, that an agency with so much authority to ignore civil liberties is also stunningly incompetent at doing so. The physical surveillance of Saki Macozoma was so amateurish that he was easily able to spot it. How does the NIA expect to track experienced spies and case officers if it can’t even track a businessman without being detected? How pathetic.

Plus, the forged emails were embarrassingly badly created. Dozens of simple technical errors were made, and the storyline within them was described by a criminal psychologist as “infantile and naive”, and by Ronnie Kasrils as “crude”. These are the people we’re supposed to rely on to keep us safe from all sorts of determined and resourceful enemies, but at the moment I doubt I’d trust them with anything more complex than baking a cake.

As if that wasn’t enough, it was only able to successfully intercept the communications of 2 out of the 13 people it had targeted for surveillance, despite trying for at least a month. I still can’t decide whether that’s reassuring or disturbing. Probably both.

Finally, there are some unresolved technical questions, specifically regarding the National Communications Centre (NCC) and its methods for collecting intelligence. For one, the Inspector-General’s report makes it clear that the NCC’s primary focus is the “targeted bulk interception of foreign communications” (which would give it a role similar to that of the NSA), but then why is the NCC under the command of the NIA, which is a domestic surveillance agency? It just doesn’t make sense.

In addition, one of the reasons given by Ronnie Kasrils for the successful interception of two of the targeted individuals was that they were in neighbouring countries “where the satellite was directed at the time”. What satellite? Or more to the point, whose satellite (we don’t have any up there) and how was it used to intercept communications?

I have a feeling this whole story may just get quite a bit more interesting in the coming days and weeks.