The Al Jazeera spy cables are a series of confidential documents from intelligence agencies around the world that were leaked to and published by Al Jazeera’s investigative unit in collaboration with The Guardian. The leak, which has been described as the biggest of its kind since Snowden and WikiLeaks, includes hundreds of documents from several intelligence agencies around the world. Agencies affiliated with the spy cables include Israel’s Mossad, Britain’s MI6, Russia’s Federal Security Service, the United States’ CIA and, perhaps the most heavily incriminated agency, South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA).
According to the Al Jazeera network, the leaked documents were electronically obtained and largely derived from communication between the SSA and various other foreign intelligence agencies. Although such an exposition of confidential state information is no laughing matter, it shows that South Africa’s intelligence agency certainly has its very own James Bond, Austin Powers and Johnny English. In light of the spy cables and within the context of what they reveal, Perdeby has put together a list of essentials when dealing with the world of espionage.
Spies, lies and networking ties
When it comes to deceitfulness, nothing screams “secrets” louder than spies. The spy cables have taught us that spies still play a very active role when it comes to the acquisition of intelligence. One leaked report from September 2009 detailed how foreign spies in South Africa have “total freedom of access” to various security installations and even to parliament. This access by foreign spies was regarded as a possible threat to national security. Another similar report added that the SSA suspected over 140 foreign spies to be operating in the country. The spy cables have also taught us that spies spy for each other, but occasionally they also spy on each other. Further documents reveal communication between the SSA and foreign intelligence agencies in gaining information on rogue NGOs, politicians and exiled groups. Included among these was a request from Cameroon to spy on an opposition leader only a few weeks before elections, an attempt by Rwanda to list “genocide fugitives” and “negationists” as targets for surveillance, a deal by Zimbabwe to spy on rogue NGOs, and a request from South Korea for a security assessment of South African citizen and director of Greenpeace Kumi Naidoo.
Another revelation was the joint South African and Russian satellite programme, code-named Condor. Leaked documents revealed that in an attempt to obtain more information about the joint project, the SSA had been relying on a spy called “Agent Africanist” who had direct access to the Russian government for such information. A cable from 2012 added that such a satellite project would provide South Africa with its own aerial surveillance capacity, not only of Africa but as far off as Israel for “strategic military purposes”.
Of course, every good spy story needs its own assassination plot. This is exactly what the SSA was prepared for on 24 October 2012, when an assassination plot was suspected of targeting the African Union Commission (AUC) chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Just days after she was appointed as the chairperson, Dlamini- Zuma faced an “imminent threat” to her life while at an AUC summit in Addis Ababa. Ethiopian officials later accused Sudan of the plot, although no arrests were made.
Manipulative military motives
Where the military goes, secrets will follow. An SSA report regarding the controversial “arms deal”, a military procurement package by the ANC in 1999 worth R30 billion, showed that foreign spies played an active role in persuading decision-making in the deal. An August 2010 Mossad document revealed even more disturbing secrets. It showed that Israel had obtained stolen anti-tank missile technology from South Africa. The technology, which was manufactured by state arms manufacturer Denel, was called the Mokopa ground-to-air missile system. Although refusing to investigate how Israel had obtained the stolen technology, Mossad made a conditional agreement to return the missile plans to South Africa.
Nuclear conspiracy contradictions
There always seems to be some radioactivity when adding the term “nuclear” to a sentence. Nuclear conspiracy was exactly what Fox News suspected when it reported on a break in at Pelindaba. A well-known nuclear research facility, Pelindaba was also where South Africa’s atomic bombs of the 1970s were stored. According to the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, shortly after midnight on 8 November 2007 four “technically sophisticated criminals” were involved in an attack on the facility. CBS News titled the story “Assault on Pelindaba” and claimed that the motive of the break in might have been to obtain nuclear material in order to build a bomb. The four criminals successfully deactivated a 10 000 volt electric fence and deactivated several layers of security at the facility. This suggested that inside knowledge played a role in the attack. The criminals were never apprehended, and spent a period of 45 minutes alone in the facility. SSA documents, however, contradicted the nuclear conspiracy theories and suspected the attack to be state espionage to steal a new type of nuclear technology known as the Pebble bed modular reactor. The SSA suspected the attack was carried out by Chinese intelligence officials in an effort to advance China’s rival project Chinergy.
In a response to the spy cables, South Africa’s Minister of State Security David Mahlobo said in a statement that the leak “has the dangerous effect of undermining operational effectiveness of the work to secure this country, and borders on undermining diplomatic relations with our partners in the international community.”
The spy cables have heavily incriminated the SSA and have certainly dented its reputation as an intelligence agency. Simultaneously, they have given the public a glimpse into the mysterious and often invisible dealings of state intelligence agencies and the politics of deception.
Image: Hendro van der Merwe