Documents leaked to Al Jazeera have exposed regulatory loopholes exploited by South African spies to enable domestic surveillance work.
The cache of secret intelligence papers includes a confidential surveillance policy-and-procedure manual, as well as copies of the application forms used by intelligence and security personnel seeking permission to conduct both physical and electronic surveillance of an individual.
Also included are draft regulations on relations with foreign spy agencies.
Dated 2006, the surveillance policy document states that its purpose is “to regulate the execution of surveillance” by South African intelligence, but it includes a clause that appears to render adherence to those regulations optional, at the discretion of the Director General. It states: “The Director General may approve any deviation from the provisions of this Policy in his/her discretion considering the best interests of the Service.”
The Spy Cables also include the application form that a spy would use to gain permission to place an individual under physical surveillance and another for electronic surveillance.
They show that they need the signature of a general manager and the Deputy Director General.
Former spy chiefs have told Al Jazeera the regulations that govern their work are robust.
Barry Gilder, a former South African Intelligence Coordinator says South Africa has “amongst the best oversight mechanisms in the world, even better than some of the so-called ‘great democracies’ “.
Others disagree, including the former Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils. “I don’t believe there are the necessary checks and balances over the security and intelligence agencies,” Kasrils told Al Jazeera. “The last act that I was responsible for before resigning in 2008 was having established a commission to go into the agencies under my control and command because there had been a lot of abuses of resources by certain intelligence officers.” Kasrils decried the fact that this draft legislation “just gathered dust.”
A law unto themselves
No longer in government, Kasrils is now calling for reform and government oversight of the security agencies, which he feels, have become “a law unto themselves”.
Jane Duncan, author of The Rise of the Securocrats , says South Africa has seen “an erosion of accountability” that is “extremely worrying”. She blames the “wrong decisions” that were taken “at the start of the transition to democracy”.
“It’s led to an overextension of the powers of the State Security Agency so that intelligence has started to cover itself like a skin and it’s become effectively a state watchdog of civil society.”
Shadow Defence Secretary David Maynier sees the problems emerging more recently. He believes the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence that oversees South Africa spies is “dysfunctional” and “for the last five or 10 years, I don’t think has been conducting, as I say, effective scrutiny and oversight of the intelligence services in South Africa”.
“Increasingly, what concerns me is that that committee, which is accountable to parliament as a whole through an annual report, often does not submit those annual reports to parliament, and what that means, is that the state security agencies that are nominally accountable to a committee of parliament that are not accountable to parliament as a whole.”
The Edward Snowden revelations have warned the international public of the extent to which spy agencies are able to monitor citizens via their smartphones and computers.
In South Africa, Jane Duncan says, “we don’t know effectively what they’re doing with the mass surveillance capacities of the state, but there are certain things that we do know. We know that South Africa has mass surveillance capacity. We know that it’s manufacturing mass surveillance capacity. We know that the Department of Trade and Industry has provided funding for at least one company in South Africa to manufacture this mass surveillance capacity. We also know that it’s being exported.”
Given that capacity, she says, “the mind can only boggle at what is actually happening inside the State Security Agency”.
Follow Will Jordan on Twitter