The Politics of South Africa's Intelligence Priorities

By Jane Duncan · 1 Oct 2013

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Picture: Boyce Duprey/Flickr
Picture: Boyce Duprey/Flickr

The South African media are awash with stories about the recent terrorist attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya, allegedly undertaken by Al Shabaab. The State Security Agency (SSA) and the beleaguered Crime Intelligence Division of the police stand accused of having missed vital intelligence on Samantha Lewthwaite (the ‘white widow’) and others allegedly linked to Al Shabaab.

There is an important debate to be had about the sources of this intelligence and their interests. However, this incident and subsequent coverage have also raised questions about how the intelligence agencies identify intelligence priorities. The National Intelligence Co-ordinating Committee conducts threat assessments, captured in a National Intelligence Estimate. This Estimate is then used to draft National Intelligence Priorities, which are approved by Cabinet every year, and this document forms the basis for intelligence decision-making.

However, both the Estimates and the Priorities are secret for reasons of national security, in spite of the fact that the 2008 Ministerial Review Commission into abuses in the intelligence services argued that the Priorities should be a public document. The Commission’s reasoning was sound. The Priorities document determines the overall strategic direction for the agencies, which should be a matter of public debate as they determine whether intelligence resources are being used appropriately or not.

Excessive secrecy heightens the potential for intelligence failures and abuses. An incestuous groupthink can develop among intelligence analysts, where secrecy turns the intelligence community into its own echo chamber. This can lead to even the most professional analysts gradually loses touch with the very reality they are meant to be assessing, and faulty assessments may never come to light.

The government’s arguments for secrecy are unjustifiable. The Priorities are on such a level of generality that they would not reveal operational methods or identities of operatives. As a matter of principle, policy and strategy on intelligence matters should be public, as these determine the overall direction of the services, set the ground rules for their use, and limit the potential for their misuse. The public must be given an opportunity to set these ground rules.

But, there are strong grounds for operational details to remain secret, unless the public interest outweighs the need for secrecy. Unfortunately, the government has conflated policy and strategy with methods, leading to them insisting on secrecy for all these matters.

While there may be grounds for the Estimates to remain secret when they’re produced, they should be declassified after a period of time. This allows the country to assess in retrospect whether national security threats actually existed, or whether intelligence was manufactured to serve the agendas of government, the ruling party or even a faction of the ruling party.

In contrast to South Africa, summaries of Estimates are often released publicly in the United States, allowing at least some public debate on the veracity of their contents. For instance, the release of an unclassified Estimate after the invasion of Iraq revealed that its claims that the country had weapons of mass destruction were incorrect.

Yet, there is a real risk that intelligence failures in South Africa may not come to light, except through the work of investigative journalists. However, their ability to expose these is likely to be circumscribed by the Protection of State Information Bill, unless it is redrafted. While oversight bodies like the Inspector General of Intelligence provide important checks on executive power, they must not be used to justify excessive secrecy.

Publicly available statements by the Ministry of State Security do hint at what South Africa’s Priorities are, though, allowing some kind of assessment to be made. There have been notable intelligence successes, suggesting that some Estimates have been accurate. The intelligence agencies have curbed right-wing terrorism, and a leading member of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, Henry Okah, was jailed after a bomb attack in Nigeria. The agencies have also contributed to the prevention of nuclear proliferation, leading to several international trials.

Then there are those threats that appear to have been hyped, such as state espionage and information peddling; in fact, industrial espionage appears to be a much more significant threat. Yet, information leaks that are motivated purely by the public interest, rather than profit, remain a risky, even deadly business. Many whistleblowers suffer long-term occupational detriment, and some have been murdered.

With the exception of trade unionist and ANC councillor Moss Phakoe, most of their murderers still remain free. Political assassinations have blighted the country, yet there is no evidence of these assassinations being taken seriously as national security threats, which creates a climate of near-impunity.

Organised crime is clearly a major threat to national security. Yet, while the government recognizes this threat more generally, it remains silent on the more specific threat of the state being corrupted by criminal networks. This was captured most notoriously in crime kingpin Glenn Agliotti’s buying of political influence from former police commissioner Jackie, “my friend finished and klaar”, Selebi.

The government has identified the economic harm posed by the illicit economy as a threat to national security, as well as border management. Yet, given its claims to adhere to a human security approach to national security, it would be inappropriate for it to confine itself to a securitised response to these threats. This approach requires a mindset that thinks about these problems holistically and develops integrated responses. Illegal gold mining, for instance, is often survivalist in nature, which requires the state to address unemployment in the mining sector, instead of confining its attentions to stamping out the practice.

Furthermore, rather than simply repatriating illegal immigrants back to their countries of origin, the government should work with other countries, especially its neighbours, to address conditions that lead to mass migration. Yet instead of doing this, the government has fomented a moral panic about South Africa purportedly being under siege from outside elements, and the country’s borders being out of control.

Police violence against illegal and even legal immigrants has escalated, yet the intelligence agencies have failed to anticipate xenophobic attacks. This notable intelligence failure, coupled with a more securitised response to the immigration question, reflects the government’s on-going ambivalence about foreigners. As a result, there appears to be a reluctance to commit state resources to addressing the root problems.

One of the characteristics of groupthink is a tendency to stereotype the views of ‘out-groups’. If an ethos has taken root in the state that non-South Africans are one such ‘out-group’, then it is perhaps inevitable that intelligence group-think will refrain from keeping immigrants’ security on the intelligence radar.

Then there is the fact that since Marikana, protests have become recognized increasingly as national security threats, with insufficient evidence of attempts to address their underlying drivers. In a telling misreading of the Labour Relations Act, designed to criminalise the miners’ action, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele stated recently that “…[violent] industrial action tended to be protracted, illegal, unprotected, and disruptive to key sectors of the economy, with a new trend of the shunning of union representation and hard won established labour relations dispensation in South Africa.”

The current debate on the government’s intelligence priorities, and the perceived intelligence failure in relation to Al Shabaab, should not stop with a much-needed debate about the politics of global terrorism, and South Africa’s position in it. An assessment of how it understands threats emerging in its own backyard, suggests that while the intelligence agencies have had important successes, some of the most significant national security threats are not even acknowledged. Intelligence priorities appear to have been warped, and excessive secrecy has allowed this to happen.

Some inferences can be drawn from this picture. Those Priorities that criminalise threats to the political elite’s current accumulation strategies are becoming more prominent. Yet, there is little evidence of Priorities that aim to stamp out crony capitalism and check the creeping criminalization of the state.

It is high time that South Africans demand access to intelligence information that should be in the public domain. In the absence of this information, there is a real danger that the very state institutions tasked with protecting national security in the broadest sense may well become the greatest threat to it.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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