SA: Comments on Ministerial Review Commission Report

After a long process, the Ministerial Review Commission Report on "Intelligence in a Constitutional Democracy" was released just before the exit of Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils. I'd rather not comment on the political machinations surrounding the release, or speculate whether the new Minister Siyabonga Cwele will support its recommendations. Ominous enough is the commission's chair, Joe Matthews comment last week about the NIA's reaction on the public release: "Maybe it's the culture that is wrong. People are afraid of transparency and democracy. They are sticking to old habits of secrecy, which do nothing more than encourage inefficiency and corruption."
  1. The report deals with the mandate and oversight of the civilian intelligence structures in South Africa. The process, especially intelligence analysis, was not part of the commission's brief, but I identified some issues that might impact on intelligence analysis. The first issue is that of prioritization of threats. We all know that it is a murderous annual exercise to interpret the government's broad policies and priorities into actionable intelligence priorities. The report focus quite extensively on the dangers of a too broad mandate - in this case NIA's political intel mandate. The report states that such a broad mandate "leads to a lack of clear and consistent focus and to difficulty in determining priorities and ranking the seriousness of security threats. The broad mandate creates pressure for analytical breadth rather than depth, duplicates the analysis being done by other government departments and leaves the agency constantly over-extended. There is a danger that the agency ends up neglecting its most important and difficult task, which is to identify, analyse and forewarn government about potential violence and other extreme threats that entail criminality.(p 73)
  2. The report recommends that outside experts be included in the analysis phase as the intelligence agency would not "have comparable proficiency and there is consequently no reason to believe they can add anything of value." (p 133-134) This is commendable, and hopefully this would lead to a greater willingness to consult with external experts.
  3. More interesting, the commission does not see the intelligence community as policy advisers to the Executive. It says this perception is "unacceptable...This approach is unsound, if not dangerous. There is no indication in the Constitution or legislation that it should operate as an elite policy organisation advising government on its mistakes and weaknesses. If it played this role in earnest, it would become a shadow and shadowy watchdog of government business" (p 135). I wonder how this comment will be fleshed out on Agency/analytical level. Does it mean that analysts (and their managers) only need to spell out the different scenario's but not the possible ramifications of options? or that you can't argument that a certain decision by government led to the following events/perceptions/unintended consequences? Or does this relate more to the political options some managers proposed to the client as a result of close political and historical links?
  4. Regarding political interference etc, the report states that the minister "is entitled to question the quality and veracity of an intelligence report and to request the intelligence service responsible for the report to take further steps to confirm its accuracy, completeness and conclusions." and later "On the other hand, it would be completely improper for the Minister to ask for an intelligence report to be falsified in any way, such as by including inaccurate or irrelevant information, excluding relevant information, omitting doubts about the reliability of information or sources, or exaggerating or downplaying the importance of certain facts without a sound justification. " (p 90) I believe that the mindful and deliberate inclusion of "standards for intelligence analysis" similar to that of the US would encourage the professionalisation of intelligence analysis and help prevent outright political manipulation of intelligence. Of course it will not prevent subtle nuancing and self-censoring from analysts and their managers, but it might be a start.
  5. The report also make certain recommendations that bodes well for a more open and accountable intelligence community in South Africa: The Budget should be made public as required by the constitution and secrecy should only be confined to those areas " where disclosure of information would cause significant harm to the lives of individuals, the intelligence organisations, the state or the country as a whole. The emphasis on secrecy with some exceptions should be replaced by an emphasis on openness with some exceptions.(p263) "We conclude that secrecy should not be based on the concept of ‘national security’. Instead, it should be motivated with reference to specified and significant harm that might arise from the disclosure of particular information (p 264)
  6. Publication of intelligence assessments, in the same vein than those published by Canada would "be a useful form of accountability to citizens, who would be able to consider and debate the perspectives of the services. It would also stimulate interest and exchange among academics. Over time, informed public discussion might lead to refinements in the perspectives of the services. (p 270). This is excellent news as studies or the publication of theses, articles etc remotely referring to intelligence, raised the ire of those questioning whether it is in the "national interest". I hope that this will coax analysts and academia to write more about intelligence and specifically intelligence analysis, thereby building the body of knowledge in this field.