Intelligence ministry, A study in democracy? The 2009 State Security Budget Debate, South Africa

7th July 2009 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

The Minister for State Security, Dr. Siyabonga Cwele missed the opportunity, in his annual budget vote address to the South African Parliament on July 1, to explain the implication of the ministry's name change. Neither did parliament effectively play its oversight role.

This budget debate generally garners interest, as it is the one time that the Minister and members of parliament responsible for the oversight of the intelligence structures speak to the public. It is the window into the dark art, offering interested parties a brief glimpse of the happenings within the intelligence community.

What is noticeable this year is the change in the name from the Ministry for Intelligence Services to Ministry for State Security. The change in discourse from intelligence as a service to intelligence in pursuit of state security might only be academic and semantic. The budget vote debate offered the Minister the opportunity to explain to the public what the implication of the name change is and what the focus area for the intelligence community are. Neither of these topics were addressed in any detail, however, as the debate flowed seamlessly between the general, the almost nonsensical and the inconsequential.

As the first budget debate for a new dispensation, the platform was laid for the Minister to outline the intelligence priorities for the next five years. In theory, this would include priorities for internal management and improving the effectiveness, efficiency and relevance of intelligence as well as outlining the geostrategic and security priorities. Navigating between contradictions, the Minister outlined that South Africa faces a multitude of threats from poverty, underdevelopment, environmental degradation, food insecurity, pandemics and natural disasters but ‘there are no major or immediate threats' just some areas of ‘risk and vulnerability'.

There was a flawed logic in approaching state security from a broad threat based definition and then failing to translate that into intelligence priorities or even making any connection between these broad security issues and the potential role that intelligence can play. This creates a disjuncture as the human security rhetoric provides no clear framework for the setting of intelligence priorities and there is no connection between predetermined intelligence priorities and the chosen security discourse.

Regardless, the key priorities for the state security sector as posited by the Minister are to:

* Develop a common approach to deal with the threats to national security - the notion of a comprehensive national security strategy is to be prioritised (yet again). The development of such a strategy has been bandied around for years, maybe this time the strategy will actually appear - although the consultative nature of the process of developing such a strategy will be under question.

* Secure the integrity of the state's information and its processes - not surprisingly in the age of cyber (in) security, the issue of information security is central. The public were not however updated on the status of implementation of the Minimum Information Security Standards within government departments. Minister Cwele noted that the Protection of Information Bill, not passed by Parliament in 2008, would be resubmitted in 2009 and we wait to see if the required legislative framework for the protection of information - including a framework for both classification and declassification - can be created that protects sensitive state information and also the public right to access information.

* Secure our borders and points of entry - the state security structures have been charged with the responsibility to coordinate the process of developing a framework for the establishment of the new Border Management Agency announced by President Zuma earlier this year.

* Intensify the fight against organised crime

* Secure special events

* Contribute to peace and stability in SADC, Africa and the wider-world - this one priority area was all that was mentioned about external intelligence focus areas. Mediation, peacekeeping and global economic negotiations did not feature as priority areas for the foreign intelligence branch. Rather the continued establishment of the SADC early warning system was highlighted - the operationalisation of which has been on the cards for the past five years - and continued support to the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa (CISSA) was mentioned.

* Bolster our capacity and professionalism - building capacity and professionalism has become the panacea to combat the scourge of bad press that the intelligence services have got over the past few years - the solution to interference in domestic matters; the way to overcome allegations of spying on the media. Quite the art of saying something without saying anything at all.

Following the ministerial address the members of the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) were given the opportunity to (a) question the priorities and focus areas and (b) present party positions on key issues. The representatives of the people showed just how complex the practice of oversight could be - by illustrating what a lack of preparation and reading and little interest in the intelligence sector can mean.

To be fair, in the weeks leading up to the debate, the complexity of the process of parliamentary oversight of intelligence was highlighted as newly appointed JSCI was delayed in meeting to discuss the budget by the parliamentary process of nomination and the need to obtain security clearances. The issue of security vetting of parliamentarians is generally a controversial one - the more so when delays in finalising vetting risked infringing on the work of the Committee.

The process of political parties submitting names for the JSCI closed on 5 June 2009. According to previous reports, a top-secret security clearance takes approximately 49 days. Security clearances did, however, come through in the nick of time and committee members received the first briefing from the intelligence agencies the day before the budget debate.

Some highlights from the parliamentary interventions:

* There should be greater commitment to achieving gender equality within the intelligence services - something that is quite obviously needed given the display of men in dark suits that represent the agencies at such functions

* The JSCI wants to encourage the practice of intelligence oversight on the continent

* Combating piracy in Somalia was highlighted as a strategic intelligence priority - Zimbabwe, DRC, Lesotho, Madagascar and Malawi were not mentioned, but piracy in Somalia is a burning issue (?)

* In a strange twist of I don't know what, the opposition highlighted the importance of secrecy

* The JSCI committed to making available the annual reports of the committee as it is legally obligated to do. It was explained the reports since 2005/2006 have been done but are in the process of approval either at the office of the President, within Parliament or at the intelligence services. The exact location is unknown.

On a far more relevant note, it was reported that the state security budget was cut by ZAR27 million for the 2009 financial year. This is a significant cut and yet other than the dropping of the number, it was not discussed at all. The cut was attributed to the global recession and a lack of understanding at the Ministry of Finance on the role of intelligence (a lack of understanding that seems to permeate far beyond Finance).

There were serious and significant issues that could have been addressed at this occasion to let the public know that their interests are being protected. Significantly, none of the parliamentarians even mentioned the two investigations currently underway by the Inspector General - the first into the origin of the infamous Zuma tapes and the second into allegations by the Mail & Guardian that journalists have been intimidated and spied upon. These issues are at the forefront of defending our civil liberties. But well, Somali pirates trounced!

I guess it is all just a study in democracy - a study in the practice of the adage that in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king.

By: Lauren Hutton, Researcher in Security Sector Governance Programme, Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria Office.