Business Day (Johannesburg)

South Africa: Intelligence Operations Getting a Grilling

Johannesburg — New claims of a plot to kill Mbeki come amid investigations involving current and former spies

THE surfacing of yet another allegation that there is a plot to kill President Thabo Mbeki and the arrest of former African National Congress (ANC) operative Bheki Jacobs could not have come at a worse time for the South African intelligence community.

It has come in the midst of investigations into a series of allegations involving current and former intelligence operatives and commentators are now questioning the training and capacity to process sensitive information within one of SA's most essential institutions, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).

The expertise of former ANC intelligence officer Mo Shaik and his colleagues is being questioned before live television cameras at the Hefer commission of inquiry .

The Jacobs report is reminiscent of the embarrassing intelligence report that fingered, among others, former Mpumalanga premier Mathews Phosa, former Gauteng premier Tokyo Sexwale and former ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa, of plotting to assassinate Mbeki.

A meeting of the parliamentary joint standing committee on intelligence dismissed the plot report with contempt after finding it "outrageous".

However, the trio had been branded by the report and their political careers were undoubtedly badly affected.

SA is not unique in this regard.

The world has twice been plunged into war on the basis of poor intelligence.

After September 11 2001 caught the US intelligence community unawares, the attack on Afghanistan to "smoke out the alQaeda terror network" failed because US intelligence could not penetrate the militant organisation or the people sheltering it.

The war in Iraq has led to embarrassing questions being asked about the intelligence reports that prompted the US armed forces' action.

In the US, democrats on the senate armed services committee have been pushing for wider examinations of prewar intelligence than reviews already under way by intelligence committees.

They want an inquiry into the credibility of prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and its links to the alQaeda terror network.

In the UK, an inquiry into the suicide of weapons expert David Kelly revealed that, in the months leading up to Iraq war, British defence ministry employees debated and changed the wording of intelligence material used to support the war.

Some employees took issue with British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office claiming that Saddam Hussein could launch biological or chemical weapons within 45 minutes.

Joint standing committee on intelligence chairman Siyabonga Cwele says the mistakes of few agents should not soil the good and professional work of the South African Secret Service and the NIA.

He says the committee has investigated several cases where aggrieved people suspected that the agencies were unfairly encroaching on their constitutional rights.

"We are not involving the media in all instances, but the agencies know that they are being monitored and must act responsibly according to the code of conduct," says Cwele.

SA's intelligence community has had major successes in recent years, most notably in rooting out and securing convictions of members of People Against Gangsterism and Drugs in Western Cape who were responsible for bomb blasts and assassinations. The Boeremag network across SA was smashed after it was infiltrated by informers.

South African intelligence agents also succeeded where the US had failed in arresting in Cape Town a member of the alQaeda network linked to bomb blasts in Kenya.

The difficulty facing government is that it cannot afford to leave things to chance. The repercussions of not acting on intelligence information, even from not-so-intelligent agents, only to find there was an element of truth in it later, are too ghastly to contemplate, say experts.

Government would risk being ridiculed for acting on even obviously questionable reports, rather than facing the danger that the president had died because no action was taken.

United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa says the Hefer commission had exposed the lack of skills and expertise that led to many people being condemned in the past for being agents of apartheid, without any substance. This aptly captures the problem of poor training of intelligence agents.

Holomisa says South African intelligence focuses too much on the president's safety and nailing his perceived opponents. The intelligence agencies ignore other essential information gathering on public sentiment on government policies.

"President Mbeki would not have dug in his heels had he known earlier that the public was against his views on HIV and AIDS and other policy standpoints that went against the majority agents are supposed to inform him about all these things," he says.

Political analyst Paul Thulare, from the Centre for Policy Studies, says the conduct of most South African operatives seems to be up to standard, but Intelligence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu faces the challenge to correct wrong perceptions and reduce incidents which embarrass government.

Experts have cautioned that levels and quality of training of SA's intelligence community have a lot to do with errors. Since liberation movement operatives were merged with the former apartheid regime security structures, government should have redefined their role and steered them away from sourcing information from networks of gossip s and the media.

Lorna Daniels, spokeswoman for the intelligence ministry, argues that training is adequate and of a high standard. The ministry has its own academy in Mafikeng, where former senior operatives are teaching new recruits.

She would not say whether foreign assistance had been solicited and from which countries, but says SA is helping countries in Africa with the training of intelligence agents.

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