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Spooks oversight report late again, shortened version out soon

Spooks oversight report late again, shortened version out soon
Illustrative image | Sources: Parliament in Cape Town. (Photo: Leila Dougan | Coat of arms of South Africa. (Image: Wikimedia) | pngwing

Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence has missed the end-of-May statutory deadline for its annual report that’s a rare glimpse into state security and police and defence intelligence – from telephone bugging, officially interceptions, to financial management.

The annual report that must outline the parliamentary intelligence oversight committee’s work – and anything else it wishes to raise – was meant to have been published in the Announcements, Tablings and Committee Reports (ATC), or Parliament’s record of work, by no later than 31 May.

That hasn’t happened. Again, for the umpteenth time over at least the past 13 years.

A “shortened version” dealing with the Zondo Commission report and recommendations would be published, possibly as soon as next week, Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) chairperson Jerome Maake told Daily Maverick.

A “longer, fuller version” would be released later because some matters remained outstanding. “We are working on it,” Maake added.

It’s not clear what exactly these Zondo Commission matters entailed, but the commission was scathing about the JSCI’s oversight failures.

“The JSCI appears prima facie to have failed to ensure that adequate and timeous steps were taken to address apparently criminal conduct within the intelligence services which has been drawn to its attention,” according to the Zondo Commission, which issued separate damning findings on the State Security Agency (SSA).

For the JSCI in 2023 to miss the 31 May deadline set in the Intelligence Services Oversight Act, as amended, effectively continues a trend going back to the Jacob Zuma administration. Late publications of the intelligence oversight annual report do not seem to have triggered censure. 

The last JSCI annual report was published in the ATC on 10 September 2021, extending the reporting period from the financial year ending 31 March 2020 to the end of December that year. While the Zondo Commission described it as “unsatisfactory”, this JSCI report shows MPs knew of financial abuse and “unceasing unlawful interceptions”.

The JSCI didn’t publish its annual report in 2019, apparently because of elections, but repeated delays as far back as 2010 are on public record.

The JSCI reports for the  2010/11 and 2011/12 financial years were eventually published on 6 March 2014 in the ATC, with the 2015 financial year report published on 26 January 2016. The 2016 JSCI report came only in December that year, with the 2017 report published on 30 October, and the 2018 report on 12 December 2018, six months late.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Parliament’s blind spot on oversight

Most recently the JSCI has been hampered by a lack of quorum. This was only relieved when, according to the 4 May programming committee, two ANC legislators got the nod from the President – this presidential concurrence previously was a formality – and the DA redeployed Dianne Kohler Barnard to the committee. The opposition’s choice of Natasha Mazzone floundered over security clearance when the SSA raised questions over her dual citizenship, according to the Sunday Times.

Security vetting such as presidential concurrence to MPs nominated to the JSCI are part of statutory requirements. But the behind-closed-door meetings – reportedly without cellphones, pens and paper – are not. That’s just become practice. 

The JSCI could open its doors beyond the interview rounds of an intelligence inspector general or lawmaking. The act allows legislators to  “deliberate upon, hold hearings, subpoena witnesses and make recommendations on any aspect relating to intelligence and national security, including administration and financial expenditure”. 

The only stipulation is that the JSCI is not to release legally restricted information unless that’s necessary for proper administration – and that it conducts itself “in a manner consistent with the protection of national security”.

Worldwide intelligence oversight committees in countries like the US, the UK and Germany, but also in Kenya, hold both open and behind-doors meetings from institutional matters to geopolitical briefings. 

But in the increasingly securocrat South Africa, security is usually mistaken for secrecy, even if the promised updated revised national security strategy is now about a year behind promised release. This means South Africa is left with a dated document that’s classified – and thus secret.

In contrast, Germany publicly released its national security strategy in Berlin on Wednesday. It had been one of the post-election coalition government  agreements.

On the upside, the JSCI decided to do its own committee bill to amend the General Intelligence Laws Act after delays from Cabinet. That process is set to get under way after the mid-year parliamentary recess – and the JSCI will do that lawmaking in public.

“There is no law that is confidential. There will be public hearings,” said Maake. DM

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