Johannesburg - In what has been described as a serious compromise of the sovereignty of the state, three men appeared in court this week after they were found in possession of a super-spying device which can tap into more than 10 000 phones and eavesdrop on conversations from as far as 3km away.

The discovery is creating sleepless nights for South African intelligence officials and the police, as the men allegedly acquired the device with the help of government officials.

The Sunday Independent understands the device has been used to bug top politicians, cabinet ministers and prominent business people who do business with the government.

The men behind the acquisition of this powerful device had been using it for almost a year.

They apparently used it to manipulate and blackmail people in powerful positions, as well as sway multibillion-rand tenders in state institutions.

Impeccable sources told The Sunday Independent that, among other things, the spying device had been used in tender-rigging, blackmail of people in powerful positions, and gaining information to influence decisions.

The police are hot on the heels of the other men believed to have been involved in the tapping and bugging of cellphones, which they describe as serious crimes against the state which could lead to terms of imprisonment of up to 10 years.

An intelligence operative who wanted to remain anonymous said it was the first time since the arrest of the Boeremag members that the sovereignty of the state had been compromised in such a serious manner.

Hawks spokesman Hangwani Mulaudzi said investigations were at an advanced stage.

He added that senior officials in the government who were believed to have assisted the men to buy the first-generation Mobile GSM tracking and locating equipment – which is heavily regulated, both internationally and in South Africa – were also being investigated.

He refused to divulge more information, saying it was very “sensitive”.

Said Mulaudzi: “We are working very closely with crime intelligence and other security agencies to get to the bottom of the matter.”

Spokesman for the State Security Agency Brian Dube did not answer his cellphone.

Fraudulent letter

Highly placed sources said an official from the Department of Public Service and Administration, whose name is known to The Sunday Independent, fraudulently wrote a letter confirming the device was wanted by the South African government.

“This official wrote a letter on a government letterhead and claimed that the South African government wanted to buy the device,” Mulaudzi said.

In its high-level investigation, the elite unit was now trying to establish how many other people in the country were in possession of these spy devices. The devices can only be bought with presidential authority.

“In our investigation, we are also trying to find out how long this device has been used to spy on people, including top politicians. We are treating this as an urgent matter. These are serious crimes against the state,” he said.

The dramatic arrest of the three men, one of whom was a top businessman in the gold industry, at Irene Mall last Friday has also raised concerns about how much confidential information has been obtained using the device.

The businessman appeared in Pretoria Magistrate’s Court on Monday and was released on R10 000 bail.

Mulaudzi said the other two men had been released as there was a lack of evidence against them.

“They are not out of the woods. Once the investigations have been finalised, they will be charged and be brought back to court,” he said.

The device was paid for with money from a private trust owned by a businessman from Welkom, but managed by a farmer also based in the area.

The businessman, who has more than 71 enterprises in his name, has been getting multimillion-rand government tenders.

The Sunday Independent