By Moshoeshoe Monare

When the highly embarrassing espionage operation involving fabricated intelligence reports emerged, it tore apart a close-knit relationship between a head of government and his director-general of intelligence - and the spy chief bit the dust.

This was in 1997, when the long-standing amity between the-then Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu and director-general of Mossad, Danny Yatom, broke down irreparably because a katza (spy) manufactured top secret reports for two decades.

Netanyahu gave Yatom a lashing in his office in October, the same month President Thabo Mbeki gave the booted director-general of National Intelligence Agency Billy Masetlha a dressing down nine years later.

Similarly, compounding Yatom's quandary was the scandal's leakage to the media in the same way Masetlha's embarrassing operations were broken by Independent Newspapers in October last year.

Yatom resigned while Masetlha was fired. But their spying careers both ended in March while they were in their early 50s, after each had spent two years in the job.

The irony of these espionage incidents is that one of the key issues that led to Masetlha's downfall involves the so-called hoax e-mails that, among other things, claim to associate intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils with Mossad.

The irony is how close confidants - Mbeki and Masetlha - turned against each other overnight, leading to Mbeki exercising his presidential powers and firing his spy chief.

Given how easily upset the president can be, the firing of Masetlha came as no surprise after the suspended NIA director-general accused Mbeki - in papers lodged at the Pretoria High Court - of lying to save his job.

In an interview, Mbeki was visibly angry, accusing some of his intelligence agents of "manufacturing intelligence" and lying to please him. "The president as head of state and head of government is the principal client of civilian intelligence … Now you can imagine what would happen if the president is fed false information.

"I am saying it is very dangerous and you cannot allow any compromise about quality of intelligence and its truthfulness, you can't afford a situation where people manufacture intelligence," Mbeki said last month.

Masetlha is blamed by intelligence inspector-general Zolile Ngcakani, and also by intelligence sources, for:

  • Authorising the unlawful surveillance of ANC executive and businessman Saki Macozoma under the pretext that the he was involved with foreign intelligence. It was revealed that this has much to do with the succession battle in the ANC following Macozoma's implication in the e-mails since declared by Ngcakani to be hoaxes.

  • Being involved in the fabrication of the e-mails that purport to implicate senior government and ANC officials in a plot to sideline and incriminate embattled former deputy president Jacob Zuma.

  • Being highly involved in party political squabbles by colluding with politicians in the divisive succession battle that has polarised the ruling party between Mbeki and Zuma camps.

  • Abusing intelligence and state resources for personal or political gain.

  • Acting ultra vires in bugging and intercepting individuals' communications for the same purpose, which could have contributed to the fabrication of the e-mails.

  • Fighting a bitter battle with Kasrils to win the heart of the president. This emerged at the October meeting where Masetlha wanted to brief Mbeki about the minister, but was suspended by Kasrils the following day. Masetlha accused Kasrils of being close to the British foreign intelligence agency - MI6.

  • Fomenting divisions in the intelligence and security agencies, as exposed during the Khampepe commission to determine the future of the Scorpions. Masetlha accused Scorpions officials of colluding with foreign intelligence, including the US Central Intelligence Agency. He was censured by cabinet, while he became a hero in the Zuma camp for giving the former deputy president's "foes" a pounding.

    But if this is true, it remains puzzling how Masetlha - who holds the president in high esteem - could allow professional rivalry to sacrifice his career and tilt towards the losing Zuma camp. Had he miscalculated the impact of his fight with Kasrils?

    Masetlha did not return messages left for him and his lawyer is said to be out of the country.

    A senior spy who worked closely with him said Masetlha could have been motivated by "something serious" pushing him this far. But those who worked with him at the SA Secret Service, where he was also director-general, accuse him of recklessness. They say this was the same reason that forced him to quit Home Affairs after fighting with former minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

    However, all agree that Masetlha is an Alexandra-born street-fighter and, like Yatom, a hands-on spymaster.

    Even when he called him a liar, he trusted Mbeki and hoped for reconciliation, another intelligence source said.

    The trust had been mutual. Mbeki asked him in the winter of 2001 to form the controversial presidential intelligence unit, a clear indication that the president did not trust anyone but Masetlha. How this trust broke down (the main reason why he was fired), is a mystery.

    Masetlha was the president's eyes and ears and defended him when Mbeki was pummelled at the ANC's national general council last winter, while security figures such as former defence force general Siphiwe Nyanda were openly rejoicing at Zuma's coming in from the cold.

    Masetlha's career revolved around Mbeki, having worked as the president's security adviser and his counsel on the DRC and Rwandan peace agreements.

    Mbeki appointed him to the sensitive key post of director-general of Home Affairs after serving, with the president's approval, as head of the secret service.

    In the winter of 2002, Mbeki recalled Masetlha from Home Affairs after his spat with Buthelezi and announced that the spy chief would reinforce security in the presidency.

    Although it might seem his career is over and that the long-standing relationship between him and Mbeki is now something of a broken love affair, Masetlha is likely to intensify his confrontation with the president. He has nothing to lose.

    As former spymaster and presidential security adviser, he knows more about the president than anyone else. But it remains a poser how he would exploit this to his advantage.

    However, this could be countered by Ngcakani handing over his report to the SA Police Service with a view to charging Masetlha - either with treason or a lighter charge.

    He might bounce back when the ANC's national executive committee triggers another skirmish over the e-mails, for secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe and some NEC members have made it clear they do not accept Ngcakani's report.

    If they prevail (which seems unlikely), Masetlha might come back as adviser to another president, just as Yatom later became adviser to another Israeli prime minister - Ehud Barak.