Johannesburg – Claims that the British government had spied on South African officials and diplomats attending a G20 summit are of “great concern” and the government has called for a probe into the allegations.
Clayson Monyela, spokesman for the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, said on Monday the government had “noted with concern” the UK Guardian newspaper reports.
“We do not yet have the full benefit of details reported on, but in principle we would condemn the abuse of privacy and basic human rights, particularly if it emanates from those who claim to be democrats,” he said.
“We have solid, strong and cordial relations with the UK and will call on their government to investigate this matter fully with a view to take strong and visible action against any perpetrators.”
The DA said it would ask Parliament’s intelligence committee to investigate what it called an apparent major security breach that allegedly allowed Britain to penetrate government computer networks and access documents ahead of the 2009 G20 summit meeting in London.
Interim President Kgalema Motlanthe led South Africa’s delegation to the April 2, 2009 summit, supported by then Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and several senior Treasury officials.
The Guardian based its report on leaks of classified documents by former US National Security Agency official Edward Snowden, who is on the run from the US government.
The paper said the UK’s Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), part of its intelligence apparatus, had gained access to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation’s network, investigated phone lines used by the South African High Commission in London and retrieved documents, including briefings for South African delegates to the G20 summit in 2009 and other G20 and G8 meetings.
Isabel Potgieter, spokeswoman for the British High Commission in Pretoria, said: “We do not comment on intelligence issues.”
But a South African intelligence expert, who wanted to remain anonymous, said “welcome to the real world”, suggesting that the spying by the UK was standard practice among all intelligence agencies.
However, the revelation of alleged spying is proving a major embarrassment to the British government just as Prime Minister David Cameron is hosting this year’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland. He also refused to comment on the reports, citing intelligence confidentiality.
The DA’s defence spokesman, David Maynier, said, “It should come as no surprise that GCHQ were in the business of intercepting communication at the G20/G8 meetings.
“However, it should come as a surprise – and a major cause for concern – that GCHQ were able to access the South African delegation’s briefing documents ahead of the G20/ G8 meetings.
“If it is true that GCHQ were able to penetrate our computer networks and access briefing documents, prepared for the South African delegation, ahead of the G20/G8 meetings, then there was a major security breach.
“We will, therefore, be requesting Cecil Burgess, chairperson of the joint standing committee on intelligence, to investigate this matter as soon as possible. We have to determine whether there was any security breach on the part of the State Security Agency, ahead of the G20/G8 summit meetings in London in 2009.”
The Guardian reported that Britain’s GCHQ had decided to target South Africa from as early as 2006 because of the independent foreign policy conducted by then President Thabo Mbeki. This independent policy made South Africa a swing vote in the G20, increasing the need for the UK to anticipate Pretoria’s positions on issues.
“Such intelligence collection was carried out under the title ‘transnational strategic issues’ which embraced energy, economics and the environment,” The Guardian continued.
“It was a multipronged offensive against the South African foreign ministry under Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. The phone lines used by the country’s high commission in London were “investigated”.
“The “computer networks exploitation” (CNE) team, responsible for hacking into foreign computer networks, had acquired passwords from a standing operation whose task it was to wheedle them out of target governments and agencies.
“One line of approach was to dig up the old phone numbers and e-mail addresses of the head of the cryptology department in Pretoria. The passwords were then used to hack into the online accounts of South African diplomats.
“The task was complicated by the fact that the South African foreign ministry had recently upgraded its networks, but the new passwords to the system appear to have been rapidly acquired, and the CNE team set up a series of back doors into the ministry networks ‘to increase reliability’ of the hacking operation.”
And GCHQ had set up a special internet café for foreign officials attending the 2009 G20 summit so it could tape their e-mails and had also hacked into their BlackBerrys to intercept their messages.
The South African intelligence expert said every intelligence agency worth its salt had the same capacity to intercept communications of other governments. What the UK had reportedly done was “standard practice.”
Source : Cape Times