OPINION: Who leaked the Spy Cables, and why?
As if Johannesburg's reputation wasn't bad enough, we have now learned that it teems with spooks watching spies watching terror suspects watching DStv. The City of Gold is the Eldorado of Espionage, a hive of double-, triple-, quadruple-crossing agents from countries across the world, all trying to make sense of the senselessness that is the Global War on Terror. But why are we reading the Spy Cables now? Who leaked them? And why does it feel like South Africa is a pawn in a much bigger geo-political game?
You know it's a newsy week when both Jacob Zuma and his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma are revealed to be victims of failed assassination attempts. Our president, the Sunday paper of record insisted, was very nearly poisoned by one of the angrier among his wives - Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma. Our African Union Chairperson, Al Jazeera asserted, was nearly vapourised by one the angrier among the continent's nations - perhaps the Sudanese, but who knows, really?
Welcome, friends, to the State beneath the State. We're enjoying that brief moment when a match catches light and illuminates the shadows on the cave wall, allowing us a glimpse of the forms that articulate our universe. None of what's been unearthed so far in the Spy Cables is new, per se, but the documents reiterate the fact that the citizens of the Deep State live in a waking dream. Real is not real; fake is not fake. The world on the other side of our perma-slumber is governed by men and women who meet in mid-range coffee shops, drink lousy Nescafé, and churn out badly worded memos.
How simultaneously insane and prosaic is this stuff? After asking the State Security Agency (SSA) to share intelligence on Kumi Naidoo, the South African citizen who heads up Greenpeace Africa, South Korean agents suggested a golf game, or maybe some lunch.
These spy cables, a vast tranche of human intelligence dumped on Al Jazeera's and the Guardian's e-desks by The Lord Knows Who, offer us a spy's-eye view of how espionage actually works. Nary an Aston Martin nor a martini in sight, but make no mistake: this digital leak, which includes a treasure trove of Mossad documents the likes of which journalists have never before encountered, tells us something fundamental about how unaware of ourselves we are. The cables also include the largest security leak in this country's history - Pretoria is oozing secrets, home as it is to 78 foreign spies and a further 65 foreign intelligence agents, while our nuclear sites practically offer spooks gilded invitations.
We are, it seems, Espionage Inc.
All of which begs a few questions: Why are we reading these documents? Why are we reading them now? What message do they send? And what are we meant to do with them?
At this point, we cannot separate the documents from the two news outlets dribbling them out to the public. Their stage-managed, tiered release schedule - perfected in the wake of WikiLeaks, the Palestine Papers, and the Edward Snowden mother lode - is focused (by dint of not focusing) on a sub-textual issue that has nothing to with the documents themselves. The initial release was without doubt intended to scuttle Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu's looming, diplomatically tone-deaf speech to a Republican-led US Congress, scheduled for 3 March.
In this, we have learned that Mossad firmly disagreed with Netanyahu on Iran's suspected nuclear capabilities. The timing of the document's release suggested that it was meant to damage Netanyahu's standing and weaken his case for confusing the Americans into nuking the Islamic Republic's suspected nukes. On Tuesday, Israeli papers ran nada on the leak - it was, literally, yesterday's news. Today's obsession regarded some Zuma-ish financial shadiness that Bibi engineered back in '02, the leaked bank details of which are online for your perusal.
Bluetooth, as they say, is a bitch.
But dig deeper into the documents, and we see a more complex narrative emerging.
We're suddenly privy to a rather charming 2012 meet-cute between the SSA and Mossad, one that lays bare the Israelis' increasingly urgent parries at creating a connected African theatre of operations. The threats are almost endless: M23 in the Congo; al-Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia; Boko Haram in Nigeria; al-Qaeda everywhere.
(Parenthetical: Journalists have for years been searching for evidence of AQ-linked terrorist activity in South Africa, and leaked MI6 cables suggest that 2009 Durban youths were being radicalised by a fulminating Sheikh, while AQ insurgents rang South African cell numbers from Somalia.)
One of the documents, a Liaison Information Report dated 2012/10/12, details a meeting between a non-residential Mossad agent codenamed LS825, and an SSA operative dubbed Ll10. The conversation covered a lot of ground, and included a botched May 2012 Hezbollah operation aimed against either the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia, or Israel, in which Iranian officials were arrested in Kenya with explosives. The plot was confirmed by seven other African countries and, according to the SSA report, "Many African countries feel betrayed by Iran in using their countries to build and execute terror attacks against foreign tourists and agencies."
This might have driven the SSA into Mossad's embrace, despite the fact that "when the relationship between the two countries broke down […] most of the organisational memory was lost in the process." (The hard feelings between Israel and South Africa likely occurred during the Ronnie Kasrils era - the man was not exactly an Israel booster). In other words, we're looking at documents re-upping a relationship between a country that South African officials publicly loathe, in order to team up against threats driven at least in part by a country that South Africa tacitly supports. Indeed, the SSA seems to have done all it could to keep Mossad happy, including covering up for an Israeli citizen who stole proprietary Denel military technology.
This being espionage, the SSA also met with a Palestinian liaison in November of that year. The Palestinian, codenamed LS879, described the situation in Gaza as entirely unsafe. "They are like trapped rats on a boat," wrote the SSA liaison. "They are attacked from the sea as well as from the Israeli side on both fronts."
As always, it sucks to be Palestinian. After an SSA agent met with a CIA counterpart in June 2012 (who had just returned from a lovely vacation in Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya), the latter urged the former to "make inroads with Hamas in Gaza" - proof, it would seem, that the CIA was hoping to chat with the banned "terror group" via the medium of the SSA. For the South Africans, there was an upside: "SSA stand the chance of benefitting from that interaction in that we would establish the collection priorities and requirements of [the CIA]."
Now this, folks, is real realpolitik.
I'll have a triple
Part of what makes this latest tranche of leaks so valuable is how it reveals the day-to-day activities of the postmodern spy in an evolving context - in this case the underground swingers' club that is Gauteng. It reminds us, as Geoffrey York noted in the Globe and Mail, that governments are just as interested in NGOs and opposition leaders as they are in terrorists and genocidal maniacs.
But it's now time to ask who benefits from all this leakiness, and what the end game might be.
It now seems certain that the media - AKA me - are being used to deliver a series of geopolitical micro-corrections via the select leaking of a whackload of paperwork. Al Jazeera's chief investigative journalist insists that it would be lunacy for the leaker to reveal his or her or their identity. Largely true. But the fact that the whistleblower remains anonymous is enormously significant, because we are left with a floating, mutable agenda.
The Daily Maverick has heard from sources maintaining that the leak sprung not in Pretoria, but in Jerusalem. This makes sense. The Mossad documents have amused Israeli analysts, who point out that the world's (second) most notorious spy agency doesn't tend to leave its fly open, even if it is known to make the odd mistake. If this is a Israeli-engineered leak, or rather a leak that originated in Israel - and why not, given the extent of Netanyahu's homegrown enemies - it would serve to yank Bibi's chain and appease the enraged Obama administration, who are less than thrilled by his looming Congressional speech. And while the Iranians appear much less dangerous as a nuclear power, the extent of their African spy network has been revealed, to say nothing of Hezbollah's local exertions.
Furthermore, the leaks serve as a warning to the SSA, who need to plug their innumerable security holes and work harder to tighten Pretoria's espionage free-for-all. In all of this, the Americans come out clean, and have everything to gain from the continued flow of information.
What we do know is that the documents are here to stay, there are more on the way, and that they tell us everything we didn't want to know about the shadows on the cave wall. The double-, triple- and quadruple-crossings that tie the world into knots are revealed for what they are: a day's work for clock punchers in ill-fitting jackets and sensible shoes. It's all part of a Great Game, and perhaps the documents that journalists are perusing are the greatest game of all.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.