In-fighting among police generals was bad for democracy, but the furore over sidelined crime intelligence chief Richard Mdluli was not being seen as a threat to national security, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said on Thursday.
“Is the Mdluli issue a national security concern to us? No, we have not come to that determination,” Cwele said before his budget vote debate in Parliament.
However, he noted that various investigations were under way into Mdluli, and said an assessment would be made once these had been concluded.
He revealed that a “very senior” member of the State Security Agency would form part of the team announced on Wednesday by Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa that will conduct the latest investigation into Mdluli, to be headed by state law adviser Enver Daniels.
“The minister (of police) consulted us (the government’s security cluster) before making his announcement… this public spat among senior officers is not good for our democracy and (as government, we remain squarely opposed to) the issue of politicisation of such issues in intelligence,” Cwele said.
Asked whether politically motivated in-fighting was infecting the State Security Agency, Cwele said it had gone “through a phase” but that “there is stability now – I hope”, prompting his acting director-general, Dennis Dlomo, to interject swiftly: “There is, there is.”
Mthethwa was a member of the panel that interviewed Mdluli for the job of crime intelligence chief. He recalled that there had been an objection, which required a second set of interviews to be done six months later. “One way or another we came to the same conclusion and he (Mdluli) was still appointed,” Cwele said.
He confirmed that cabinet ministers had asked for their offices to be swept for listening devices but insisted they were “not in panic mode – yet”. It was part of State Security’s job to sweep, especially the offices of key economic departments, Cwele said.
However, it was difficult to track illicit private phone tapping operations. He said the Inspector-General of Intelligence, Faith Radebe, was investigating one case involving alleged illegal tapping within the State Security Agency and had been asked by the government to assess the extent of it and “come up with remedies”.
Radebe is investigating Mdluli’s alleged abuse of a secret police slush fund.
Cwele defended the agency against suggestions that it was involved in factional activities in the run-up to the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung.
“The intelligence community is blamed for all the woes that people may face and we really appeal to the public not to abuse intelligence, because lots of those things that are being reported in the media, our agency has nothing to do with them. We don’t interfere in the internal doings of any political party.”
Later he told MPs that while there were no “major discernible threats” to the country’s democracy, there were risks that lay in the economic downturn, violent protests and illegal migration.
He came under fire from the DA, particularly over the departure of intelligence bosses Jeff Maqetuka, Gibson Njenje and Moe Shaik, and his “extensive travels” abroad.
DA MP Dirk Stubbe, a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI), said the restructuring of the agency was given as a reason, but suggested Cwele’s travels had caused him to “lose touch” with the trio.
In certain circles, Cwele was referred to as “our minister of secret international relations”, Stubbe claimed. It would be “wishful thinking” to ask how many visits abroad were made by Cwele and their cost as this would be classified top-secret, Stubbe said.
He said the JSCI had only become aware of Cwele’s appointment of Dlomo as acting director-general through media reports and he called for an overhaul of civilian oversight of intelligence. This would give taxpayers the assurance that the intelligence services were acting within their mandate.
Cwele responded that the work he did abroad, especially on the continent, was “not a holiday” but part of the government’s programme of action “to ensure a better Africa and a safer world”.