News agency Al Jazeera has set the tongues wagging and government agencies scrambling in South Africa, after it revealed last night that it is in possession of a number of diplomatic cables which involve communications between South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA), and their counterparts in the US, the UK, Israel and Iran (among others). Al Jazeera is working alongside the Guardian in the UK on its analysis of the documents which contain some shocking revelations already, and at this stage it apppears that the cache has originated from these shores via SSA, although how Al Jazeera came to be in possession of them hasn’t been revealed as yet.

The news agency has slowly been releasing details of the hundreds of secret intelligence documents, and offers an interesting look inside the world of spies and how they deal with secret meetings, backroom negotiations and clandestine operations.

“The Spy Cables are filled with the names, personal details, and pseudonyms of active foreign intelligence operatives who work undercover for the dozens of global spy agencies referenced in the files,” Al Jazeera says on its site.

“We believe it is important to achieve greater transparency in the field of intelligence. The events of the last decade have shown that there has been inadequate scrutiny on the activities of agencies around the world.”

But the release of the Spy Cables shows South Africa in an interesting light. Leaving out the leaking itself and the origin of the cables, so far our spooks come across as diligent, thorough and obsessed with details of who works at the Iranian embassy, right down to the gardeners. More interestingly, the documents so far released highlight just how popular our surveillance tech is around the world.

If we were feeling flippant, we’d say it’s a vote of confidence for our tech industry.

The Spy Cables released by Al Jazeera supports that notion, as one of the world’s most feared countries in terms of nuclear power came knocking on SA’s door, seeking help.

The report details how an Iranian delegation secretly met with then-president Thabo Mbeki in 2005 with a shopping list of military equipment. According to Al Jazeera, the Iranians wanted to purchase missile guidance technology, satellite interception technology and surveillance software and tools for online hacking. Mbeki’s reaction to the overture isn’t recorded.

The leaked document titled ‘Operational Target Analysis of Iran’ details how a South African delegation travelled to Iran to discuss nanotechnology with its counterparts.

“It has further been reported that a delegation of the SA Department of Science and Technology visited Iran in early 2004. The purpose was to develop project proposals in the field of nanotechnology. Progress has also been made with co-operation regarding laser and biotechnology,” the report said.

The documents also show that Iran was interested in satellite interception technology, reconnaissance UAVs, passive GSM monitoring and an algorithm that can decipher emails. And issued raised by the Iran Defence Ministry at the time, was whether South Africa has the capability or technology to deal with electronic warfare.

Saab Grintek, a South African-based producer of high tech electronics, met with the Iranian delegation and explained its “electronic warfare systems and products for the global defence market” to them.

VasTech, another South African company, met with the delegation to discuss its “Active Lawful Interception and Passive Unrestricted Monitoring” systems. Flagged by Julian Assange’s Wikileaks (although it is spelled Vastek in the cables, we believe this is the same company), the company sells equipment to permanently record the phone calls of entire nations – often in total secrecy. Indeed, VasTech was singled out by Privacy International last year as requiring government investigation over business development loans and its association with the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

What’s perhaps more interesting, though, is to look at the way that that since the details of these cables were recorded, things have changed in the way South Africa sells military technology – including communications and surveillance gear – overseas. In March last year the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), a body that oversees the sale and trading of war machines, took a huge leap forward in terms of transparency when it released a highly detailed report of export transactions. The report detailed exactly what weapons, armoured cars and comms equipment South Africa sold to whom, for what value, as well as the quantity and detailed description of the goods moved. It’s pretty much unprecedented as a list of who sold what to whom around the world.

Denel Dynamics is the state-owned manufacturer of defence technology and South Africa’s largest producer of military equipment – and it has been really busy over the last couple of years.

Besides for the usual array of tanks, Armoured Personnel Carriers and hand weapons exported to a host of countries, South Africa also supplied countries like Egypt with a wide range of technology.

According to the NCACC report in 2013, South Africa sold a good number of Airborne Observation Systems to countries like Argentina, Germany, the UK and Nigeria – at R4 million a pop.

The list of parts, technology and equipment that South Africa supplies or sells to other nations is very long, which positions SA as a bit of a powerhouse when it comes to certain components. There are actually very few countries that SA hasn’t done business with. To have a look at the NCACC reports spanning from 2002 until 2013, click here.

Going back to the cables and what’s clear is that – as Richard Poplak at the Daily Maverick points out – only a small slither of information from the cables have been made public, but there are sure more details to come from SA’s involvement in worldwide warfare and technology. The Snowden Files are still revealing new information two years after they were released. The SpyCables could keep going too.

Back home, and the Right2Know campaign feels the same way. It has welcomed the release of the information. “We view these leaks as a necessary and inevitable response to the excessive and unacceptable secrecy adopted by South Africa’s state-security structures, and as well as many international intelligence structures. This kind of secrecy has led, at home and abroad, to cover-ups and abuses of power from these structures,” it said in a statement issued this morning.

R2K does however warn that these revelations may encourage the stalled Secrecy Bill onto the statutes: “We fully expect that locally, South Africa’s state security structures will paint these leaks as a hostile act, and use this event toseek greater control over the flow of information, These leaks may even be used as a pretext to sign the Protection of State Information Bill (the Secrecy Bill) into law.”

And that’s a very real and credible threat.

[Image – CC by 2.0/Kit]
Charlie started his professional life as a motoring journalist for a community newspaper in Mpumalanga, Charlie explored different journalistic angles since his entry into the fast-paced world of publishing in 2006. While fostering a passion for the arts, Charlie developed a love for technology – both which allowed him to serve as Entertainment and Technology Editor for an online publication. Charlie has since been heavily involved in consumer technology for various websites and publications. He thoroughly enjoys World War II films and cerebral documentaries; aviation; photography and indie music. Oh yes, and he also has a rather strange obsession with collecting coffee mugs from his travels.