Why the Inspector General of Intelligence's stand against Arthur Fraser's bullying matters
What is at issue in the face-off between relatively new Inspector General of Intelligence Setlomamaru Dintwe and State Security Agency (SSA) director General Arthur Fraser? A great deal.
To his credit, Dintwe is showing that he won't be bullied by Fraser and that his office cannot be expected to kowtow to the SSA, the very body it is meant to be a watchdog of. It shows that he has been operating quietly in the background, investigating allegations about some of the most egregious intelligence abuses in recent history. That is very good news indeed for our democracy.
The inspector general is a little-known state watchdog that monitors the intelligence agencies, including the SSA, for their professionalism and independence from political partisanship. The South African Constitution requires the office bearer to be appointed by the president on the advice of two-thirds of Parliament. This is to ensure substantial political buy-in for the candidate and lessens the possibility of a political toady being appointed.
Unlike other state watchdogs, the inspector general has full access to classified intelligence documents and is therefore in a unique position to investigate intelligence abuses. Even the Parliamentary committee responsible for intelligence oversight, the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, relies heavily on the inspector general's work.
In spite of these massive responsibilities, the inspector general's office has performed patchily down the years. In the mid-2000s, the then-incumbent Zolile Ngcakani played an important role in exposing political manipulation of the SSA's predecessor, the National Intelligence Agency. In the Zuma era, the intelligence watchdog's performance waned. The late Faith Radebe allowed herself to be bullied when she was in the position.
Dintwe was appointed after a two-year hiatus in the position, as political parties and civil society fought over the most appropriate candidate. But this hiatus served Jacob Zuma's presidency hugely, as they were able to pursue their state capture project relatively unhindered. After all, an effective SSA, one that was providing solid strategic intelligence on the major threats to national security, would have picked up on the problem and acted to prevent it.
Instead, it would appear that Zuma invested in building parallel intelligence capabilities to feed intelligence on his opponents to him directly, and Fraser stands accused of being central to those efforts. Not needing the professional aspects of the intelligence services, the available evidence suggests Zuma ran them down and starved them of resources.
The inspector general was one such service. No one who knows Zuma's history should be surprised. After all, this is how he operated as intelligence chief of the ANC in exile.
The inspector general has proved to be an obstacle to abuse, and this is why Dintwe's efforts to defend its independence should be supported.
There are structural problems in how the office of the inspector general has been set up. It lacks financial and institutional independence. To that extent, Dintwe is correct to challenge Fraser's revoking of his security clearance and his attempt to suspend him. After all, the appointing authority should be the removing authority, and that is the president on the advice of two-thirds of the National Assembly. Security of tenure is a fundamental feature of institutional independence.
Fraser's argument about Dintwe having received classified information from an opposition party, thereby threatening national security, is rubbish. That is what the inspector general is empowered to do: inspect classified information. The fact that there is a routine over-classification of information doesn't help matters, though.
The stakes are high for Fraser as it would be a security threat of the highest order if he has subverted the intelligence services to serve Zuma's political interests. Tellingly, Dintwe has said that there is a prima facie case against Fraser.
In any event, civilian intelligence agencies should not be collecting intelligence and acting on it, as it can lead to intolerable conflicts of interest. This is because these agencies risk developing a vested interest in talking up the intelligence they have gathered to justify their operations.
These conflicts of interest emerged with the SSA's Principal Agents network and its successor, the Special Operations Unit. Their reputed operatives have turned up in the weirdest of places, such as in mining company Lonmin and the South African Revenue Service. These infiltrations suggest that these units were the sharp end of the spear of Zuma's parallel intelligence network.
Intelligence services the world over are notoriously secretive and South Africa's is no exception to this general rule. However, the SSA is particularly susceptible to politicisation, which is unconstitutional. Over the years, the inspector general has proved to be an obstacle to abuse, and this is why Dintwe's efforts to defend its independence should be supported.
There can be little doubt that Zuma's state capture project has been the most significant national security threat by far, and the SSA has failed to protect the country against it.
The inspector general's structural lack of independence and other systemic intelligence weaknesses need to be addressed in a review of intelligence policy and the new State Security Agency Bill. Unsurprisingly, the Zuma administration dragged its feet for close to a decade on this review. After all, it benefited from a lack of clarity on a range of matters, including effective intelligence oversight.
The Ramaphosa administration needs to expedite this policy review and implement measures to enhance the accountability of the intelligence services, as proposed by a commission of inquiry into the intelligence abuses in the mid-2000s, known as the Matthews Commission.
In the course of that review, we need to ask tough questions about the SSA's future. It has failed to deliver its most important intelligence product, namely strategic, big-picture intelligence about major threats to national security. There can be little doubt that Zuma's state capture project has been the most significant national security threat by far, and the SSA has failed to protect the country against it.
The SSA's technical capabilities have increased, yet organised crime has increased, too. How do they explain that? Every South African has been let down by the SSA, and every South African is affected by these failures as everyday existence has become more insecure.
In fact, why does the SSA continue to exist at all? In Colombia, when the politically compromised intelligence agency there failed in the fundamental task of providing strategic intelligence, the Colombian government closed it down and rebuilt it from scratch. More recently, Ecuador closed its agency down. And these are both countries that are in the thick of the war against drugs.
What value for money is the SSA really offering South Africans? This question moves far beyond the mandate of the inspector general. But his work can equip us with the information necessary to answer it. And that is why Dintwe's principled stand against Fraser's bullying matters.