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Concerns raised about SSA watering down intelligence coordinator's role


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Concerns raised about SSA watering down intelligence coordinator's role

6th December 2023

By: News24Wire


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Tension between the National Intelligence Coordinating Committee (Nicoc) and State Security Agency (SSA) was apparent as Parliament heard the controversial spy bill has watered down Nicoc's mandate.

The ad hoc committee processing the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill (Gilab) on Tuesday met with Nicoc, whose coordinator, Ambassador Gab Msimang, informed the committee they felt their mandate was "either usurped, neglected or undermined" when the SSA drafted the bill, comparing it to an instance when a previous state security minister tried to reduce the office to a unit within his office.


While Msimang did not name him, it is apparent he was referring to Siyabonga Cwele, who was former president Jacob Zuma's state security minister during his first term.

The high-level panel review on the country's intelligence service found elements of the SSA were repurposed and used to fight factional African National Congress (ANC) political battles during Zuma's presidency, and that Cwele and his successor, David Mahlobo (who still serves in President Cyril Ramaphosa's executive), were complicit in what the panel described as "executive overspill in the last decade or so".


The report also mentioned the Gupta family, who top SSA investigators had warned Cwele in 2011 posed a serious threat to national security due to their relationship with Zuma.

Their warnings were ignored, and instead, they were axed.

The panel found Cwele failed in his duty to heed the warnings.

It does state, however, this was not a failure of intelligence capability.

Their actions constituted "a serious breach of the Constitution and law for which there must be consequences", stated the report, released in early 2019.

The report also made a range of recommendations, and Gilab, introduced four years later, intends to address those in legislative form.

The panel found the SSA "had largely become a parallel intelligence structure serving a faction of the ruling party and, in particular, the personal political interests of the sitting president of the party and country".

Chief among its recommendations was that the SSA should be restructured into a domestic intelligence agency and a foreign intelligence service.

This is one of the main aims of Gilab, which will amend the National Strategic Intelligence Act and other legislation to establish the Foreign Intelligence Service - which will be responsible for "foreign intelligence gathering, so as to identify opportunities and threats to national security" - and the Domestic Intelligence Agency, "which will be responsible for counter-intelligence as well as gathering of domestic intelligence in order to identify threats to national security", according to the bill's memorandum.

Furthermore, the bill will provide for the legislative functions of the Signals Intelligence capacity, "which shall gather intelligence through foreign signals, communications and non-communications platforms", and to provide for the re-establishment of the SA National Academy of Intelligence as an intelligence training institute for the domestic and foreign intelligence services.

The ad hoc committee - mostly made up of members from the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) - received a briefing from Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni and the SSA, which drafted the bill, last week.

On Tuesday, they heard from Nicoc.

"We felt that the mandate of Nicoc was either usurped, neglected or undermined. Proposals to reinstate the fundamental constitutional imperative were made to the draft bill," said Msimang.

"Our approach was not to tamper with the mandate and or proposals of the State Security Agency, rather to ensure that the mandate of Nicoc is not fiddled with, as well as to guard against the possible repeat of history, albeit in the legislated manner this time around."

He then went on to explain the history: "Chairperson, during the reign of the fourth administration, one minister of intelligence attempted to reduce Nicoc into a unit within his office.

"Of course, that was illegal, the same illegal way the SSA was created through a proclamation instead of national legislation."

Msimang said they did provide input to the SSA team working on the legislation.  

"However, some inputs were omitted. Maybe not deliberately."

He added he understood the JSCI would like Nicoc to have more powers, particularly in relation to national intelligence structures that did not comply with the legislative mandate.

Nicoc consists of the minister responsible for state security, a coordinator for intelligence - since 2017, Msimang - the heads of the SSA, Crime Intelligence and the SA National Defence Force's intelligence unit.

Nicoc's role is to coordinate the intelligence supplied by the intelligence bodies and interpret it for the Cabinet.

The coordinator, who is on the level of a director-general, has an office to fulfil their functions.

Nicoc's concerns with Gilab include that the bill omits the SSA's original mandate, which is to supply intelligence regarding threats to Nicoc.

If it is not included, it would mean the SSA is not among the agencies that must supply intelligence to Nicoc.

Furthermore, Gilab would allow the SSA to brief the Cabinet, and Nicoc argued it should remain the sole body with this mandate, to prevent contradictory information.

The bill would also allow the minister to appoint the office of the coordinator's staff, a provision that puzzled the committee, albeit Msimang informed them it was the status quo.

He described the situation as abnormal.

Msimang said:

Currently, in my office, I can't even approve the appointment of a PA.

Junior staff at the SSA overruled his decisions and "undermines the office of the coordinator", he added.

Msimang stated the ideal situation was for Nicoc to be independent.  

"Everything is happening at Musanda," he said about the SSA's headquarters.

"If we don't correct this situation, it will come back to haunt whoever is in this position."

Msimang added when he was appointed in 2017, he found Nicoc in disarray, and the challenges of the past were due to "meddling, particularly by ministers".

Committee chairperson and ANC MP Jerome Maake said: "I always say, Nicoc is like a baby, beautiful, [but] without teeth.

"What we are trying to do here is to give them a bit of teeth, even if it is milk teeth."

Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Dianne Kohler-Barnard added she did not know the situation was this bad.

"The tail wagging the dog!" she said. "Anything to undermine them [Nicoc] because they might actually crack the whip, which is what they're supposed to do."

She expressed her dismay that the SSA did not use its input, saying "every entity is now going to protect their turf".

Kohler-Barnard said they should make Nicoc as independent as possible.

Maake thanked Nicoc for the openness of its presentation.

"You said exactly what happened without being afraid or pulling back the punches. And this is exactly what we need."

The committee is scheduled to meet on Thursday, where it will hear from Crime Intelligence and the Inspector General of Intelligence.


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