03 September 2012

State Security Agency refuses to release information about spending

The State Security Agency (SSA) has refused to provide SAHA with records detailing expenditure by the agency on items such as catering, travel, accommodation, vehicles and office space.

SAHA requested the information from the SSA and a number of other departments using the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) in June 2012. To date a number of departments have released the information, while others are yet to respond. Only the SSA has claimed that the information is exempt from release under PAIA, asserting that the release of the information would be likely to prejudice its 'methods, systems, and operations' and 'impact on national security matters.'

In refusing the information the SSA stated that:
"most foreign governments and especially intelligence structures are highly experienced in studying budget and expenditure-related information and, by comparing it with clandestinely obtained information, they are able to acquire detailed knowledge and estimates of how the budget is structured, where intelligence funds are hidden, where and how intelligence funds are transferred and for what purposes. They have the expertise to do cost analysis and determine intelligence programmes. Analysis such as these could disclose to foreign intelligence services the extent of intelligence activities and indicate intelligence collection priorities and resources which would enable such services to frustrate local intelligence collection efforts and counterintelligence activities thereby negatively impacting on national security."

That information that may impact on national security may be gleaned by anyone, no matter how expert, from the amount the SSA spent on incidentals such as catering is clearly farcical.

In fact, in 2008, the Ministerial Review Commission on Intelligence, established by the former Minister for Intelligence Services, Ronnie Kasrils, found that intelligence services in South Africa could make public their annual budget, financial and audit reports without undermining security or compromising intelligence operations. The Commission noted the failure by the intelligence services to account to Parliament for their budgets and spending was inconsistent with the Constitution and not justified on the basis of national security.

This refusal resonates with the increasing climate of secrecy in which the intelligences services in South Africa are shrouded, perhaps most evident in the Protection of State Information Bill (dubbed the ‘secrecy bill') and the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill (dubbed ‘spy bill'), currently before parliament. The secrecy bill will afford the SSA broad powers to classify documents as secret and criminalises the release or publication of such information. The spy bill will afford the SSA broad powers to spy on the electronic communications of its citizens (such as email, facebook and twitter) without permission from the judiciary.

All governments have a limited budget with which to deliver services. It is a fundamental principle of democracy that the public be able to scrutinize how government spends that limited budget. It is unacceptable for the government to allow the budget for its intelligence services to be cloaked in secrecy.

SAHA will appeal the decision to refuse the information with the Minister.

Download the letter from SSA: AL2878 - Freedom of Information Programme Collection

SAHA's Government Spending project seeks access to records about the amount departments spend on items such as catering, air travel, accommodation, meeting venues, security, vehicles, and office space. To date, SAHA has obtained records from the Department of Public Service and Administration, the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Department of Health, the Department of Correctional Services, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Basic Education.

Review records released to SAHA on government spending: AL2878 - Freedom of Information Programme Collection