We’ve got a president who makes things up, and won’t retract when he’s cornered. This week press secretary Sean Spicer followed the leader. He picked up Trump’s wiretap story and added a new exciting detail: Not only had Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower, he might have used British intelligence spies to do the dirty work. The British, of course, went nuts, and national security adviser H. R. McMaster tried to smooth things over. McMaster is new to the job, having succeeded Mike Flynn, who had to resign for lying about his phone conversations. Flynn was not even around long enough for us to find out that he was also a lobbyist for Turkish interests and took $68,000 from various Russian connections.
Very few people implicitly and unconditionally trust all government officials, all members of the cabinet and all the members of the intelligence services of their country. Few, surely, believe that they will always act scrupulously, honestly and in strict accordance to the law and the Constitution. (Hell, I am not even sure President Zuma fully trusts all his own ministers.)
One might well implicitly trust ministers and government officials if they belong to the politically party that one passionately supports. Thus, some DA members might blindly trust Helen Zille, while some ANC members might blindly trust Jacob Zuma. But very few of those DA supporters would blindly trust Zuma and very few of those ANC supporters would blindly trust Zille.
And whether one is a die-hard ANC supporter or a die-hard DA supporter, there cannot be too many people around who would blindly trust the members of the intelligence services (in other words the spies whose job it is to deceive, to keep secrets, and to obfuscate, all in the name of protecting national security). Given the way in which our spies have been implicated in various political plots relating to various ANC factions, only a fool will tell you that he or she believes our spies always respect the letter and the spirit of the law and always act honestly, and in the best interest of the Constitution and us citizens.
Most would worry that our spies might at some point act in the interest of one or other faction in the ruling party, in the interest of members of the police or the military (as some did in attempts to try and protect the corrupt former Police Commissioner) or merely in their own interest. After all, members of the intelligence service have often acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally over the past few years and quite a few were eventually fired as a result.
This is why a discussion of the dangers of the Protection of State Information Bill passed by the National Assembly today (and now to be discussed by the National Council of Provinces), raises difficult questions. On the one hand the Bill on its face is not nearly as draconian as members of the media keep arguing. The Bill represents a vast improvement on the truly draconian Bill first tabled in Parliament last year and — at least on paper — now contains many safeguards to protect us against the emergence of a secretive national security state or the abuse of the Bill to cover up corruption, maladministration and other kinds of criminality in government.
However, on the other hand, the Bill cannot be judged on paper only, but must be judged in the context in which spies and politicians have often been revealed over the past few years to be less than honourable and respectful of the law.
The problem with the new “improved” version of the Bill and the safeguards included in it, is that it assumes that we can blindly trust all government Ministers, state officials and spies to understand the intricacies (and seemingly contradictory aspects) of this Bill and to always apply it in accordance with this perfect understanding of the various provisions of the Bill. It also assumes that those who are empowered to classify documents and review the classification of documents will do so with one eye on the Constitution. Furthermore, it assumes rather optimistically, that the Minister of State Security (whose wife was recently convicted of drug running), other Ministers authorised to classify documents and the spies whose job it is so sow confusion, spread lies and generally to deceive others while hiding behind a cloak of secrecy, will not abuse their powers and will only act in accordance with the letter and spirit of the Bill.
Of course we know that a number of Ministers, including Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, have refused to answer questions about their travel costs and hotel stays on the grounds that this would compromise their personal security, displaying a rather authoritarian view on keeping secrets in the interest of so called “security” and abusing the excuse of security to evade accountability for possible wasteful expenditure (or worse). One will therefore have to be an eternal optimist to believe that Ministers, spies and other officials authorised by this Bill to classify documents as secret or top secret will not abuse that power at some point or another.
(And even if one is such an optimist as well as a member of the ANC, one should remember that no government remains in power for ever and that this Bill will one day also be applied by people who are not ANC members.)
Having said that, it is clear that the main aim of the Bill is not to protect Ministers or the government more generally from exposure for corrupt and other nefarious activities. Section 3(2) of the Act states that the classification, reclassification and declassification provisions of the Bill apply to the security services of the Republic (in other words, the Army, the Police and the Intelligence Services).
However Section 3(2)(b) also allows any organ of state (including any government ministry) to ask the Minister of State Security to empower them to classify documents that could supposedly threaten “national security”. If the Minister exercises this power prudently, the scope of the Bill will be much reduced. However, given the paranoid and defamatory statements by the Minister that those who oppose passage of the Bill are being funded by foreign spy agencies, and given that there is a serious question mark over the Minister’s probity and judgment, it is not clear that he will not abuse this power.
Section 12 of the Act states that state information may be classified as confidential “if the information is sensitive information, the disclosure of which is likely or could reasonably be expected to cause demonstrable harm to national security of the Republic”. State information may be classified as secret “if the information is sensitive information, the disclosure of which is likely or could reasonably be expected to cause serious demonstrable harm to national security of the Republic”, while state information “may be classified as top secret if the information is sensitive information, the disclosure of which is likely or could reasonably be expected to demonstrably cause serious or irreparable harm to the national security of the Republic”.
‘‘National security’’ is defined as including (and one therefore presumes, is not limited to) the protection of the people of the Republic and the territorial integrity of the Republic against the threat of use of force or the use of force; as well a hostile acts of foreign intervention directed at undermining the constitutional order of the Republic; terrorism or espionage; exposure of a state security matter with the intention of undermining the constitutional order of the Republic; and exposure of economic, scientific or technological secrets vital to the Republic. It explicitly excludes lawful political activity, advocacy, protest or dissent.
With the exception of the subsection dealing with economic or technological secrets, this list looks innocuous. But the list is not a closed list, which opens the door wide for any crook or authoritarian to abuse the provisions of this Bill to keep secrets relating to the undermining of democracy or the hiding of corruption. Moreover, this definition must be read together with section 14(3) of the Bill which states that those classifying Bills as secret must consider whether the disclosure may
If a spy (or a Minister who wishes to hide the fact that he or she has been living it up at the Mount Nelson or has visited a girlfriend in a Swiss jail) read section 14(3) in isolation, he or she may well classify information that would clearly have very little to do with national security. What is therefore limited by the definition of “national security” might well be smuggled back into the act via the back door in section 14(3) of the Bill.
I can already imagine Minister Lindiwe Sisulu from pointing to the second bullet point above to justify the classification of all sorts of documents that might embarrass Ministers or might expose the corruption they have been involved in. Because the Bill is so complicated, it would be difficult to make plausible arguments in the public domain that the Minister is abusing the Bill. Some executive minded judges might even agree with the interpretation by a Police Chief (remember the two most recent ones have both fallen under the bus because of corruption), a Minister or a spy relying on section 14(3).
But this is not the end of the matter. Section 32(1) does provide a safeguard which could in certain circumstances be effective. It states that a person who wants to gain access to a classified document may apply to a court for appropriate relief after the requester has exhausted the internal appeal procedure against a decision of the relevant Minister of the organ of state in question. If one has every reason to know that a document exists (for example, that a document exists which sets out the cost of a Minister’s travel and Hotel stays) , this avenue will be costly but mostly effective (unless one is unlucky enough to have to argue one’s case before a slavishly pro-executive judge).
The problem arises where one receives a document that is classified and the only way one would have known of its existence is if one had been leaked the document. One must then immediately hand back the document to the Police before one can challenge the wrongful classification. If one fails to do so, one could be prosecuted and sentenced to jail. If one holds on to the document, the Minister might say that such a document does not exist and one would not be able to contradict him or her as this would amount to an admission of committing a crime. Moreover, how one would convince a court that a document should be declassified if one does not have access to the document, is not clear.
In short, on paper the Bill that was passed today is not as bad as many in the media argue. But in practice it might be devastating as it might protect our spies and our politician from scrutiny, the very scrutiny required to keep them on the strait and narrow. It might set us on the slippery slope towards a secretive national security state — as Steven Friedman argued today in Business Day. As an afterthought, it might also help to protect the venal and the corrupt.
Although safeguards do exist in theory, in practice these safeguards will often be illusory (especially for anyone without access to very clever lawyers and pots of money) unless those entrusted with applying the law will always act absolutely honestly, with brilliant insight into the law and with one eye towards the Constitution. The chances of this happening is about as slim as the chances of me winning the Miss World Competition.
This means, for example, that where activists of Abahlali baseMjondolo or the Landless People’s Movement are illegally targeted by the security services because they are perceived to be a threat to the ANC government and their phones are bugged, their houses attacked or their leaders tortured and murdered, it would be almost impossible for the organisation to prove this when all the documents that could do so are classified. Ironically, only the media will have the resources to expose such abuse of power, but this would require the media (targeted at middle class readers) to display far more concern for the well-being of these social movements whose interests do not always align with the interests of the middle classes served by the serious media.