The Grabber is a spying gadget which can bug up to 10 000 cellphone lines live and locate any person. The powerful tool can also jam networks, download and intercept SMSes, send SMSes to any number, and detect other surveillance devices and block them.

Johannesburg - A group of high-ranking police officials have been linked to the super-spy gadget which was illegally brought into the country to be used to intercept cellphone conversations of cigarette smugglers by a rival gang seeking a monopoly over the illicit multi-billion trade.

Hawks spokesman Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi said on Saturday that the police were still busy with an investigation which would open a can of worms when the details of how the crimes had been committed were revealed.

A source wishing to remain anonymous said there were claims linking several high-ranking crime intelligence officials.

“We already have names of some of the people who were involved in this crime. This is big. It’s a very sensitive matter,” Mulaudzi said.

He refused to divulge the names, saying this would jeopardise investigations.

A source close to the probe said the group wanted the permission of the police to destroy other cigarette smugglers so “only they would make money”.

The gang wanted to use the device to intercept conversations of the other cigarette smuggling syndicates.

“The idea was to run a police-supported cigarette-smuggling ring.

“They wanted police to allow them to smuggle (in) cigarettes so they could collect information about all smugglers and their clients. Police would then arrest the competition while this group dominated the market,” the source said.

 

“This would have enabled this group to make billions before the project was closed.”

The Sunday Independent has learnt that a well-known businessman in the gold industry approached the SAPS two years ago, saying “he had an intelligence plan to curb cigarette smuggling”.

According to sources, cigarette smuggling is huge in South Africa and both police and spy agents are struggling to arrest the syndicates.

Mobile GSM tracking and locating equipment is highly regulated internationally and in South Africa.

The spy machine, also known as the Grabber, can only be used by the security cluster and is bought with presidential permission.

To buy the machine, a senior government official, who was also working with the businessman, offered to write a letter claiming the government wanted to buy the machine.

Then a wealthy businessman from the Free State, whose name is known to the newspaper, offered to raise the money to buy the powerful spy machine.

The interception and locator equipment would enable the gang to gain an insight into how cigarette smugglers operate and help to trap them.

“Police rejected the plan, saying they can’t give him permission to commit a crime,” said a source.

It is understood that the same senior government official who allegedly offered to write the fraudulent letter authorising the purchase of the Grabber, penned another letter giving the gang permission to run the operation.

According to experts, the latest intelligence scandal that has rocked the country showed there was a gap in national security and a breach of security.

Earlier this year, State Security Minister David Mahlobo launched a full investigation after intelligence cables were leaked to the TV news channel, Al Jazeera.

Last month, police confiscated the machine after they arrested three men at the Irene Mall near Pretoria as they tried to sell it.

Police later released two of the men due to insufficient evidence. However, Willie Lotter was charged and released on R10 000 bail.

At the time Mulaudzi said the duo would be brought back to court once the investigations had been finalised.

 

The equipment was manufactured and bought in Israel.

It was installed in a Mercedes-Benz Viano and it is understood the vehicle travelled to several places in the country including OR Tambo International Airport.

Powerful surveillance machines that can access bank transactions and jam cellphone network signals have allegedly been used to intercept cellphone conversations of ministers and powerful politicians as well.

The Sunday Independent