Govt establishes snoop agency

By Leon Engelbrecht, ITWeb senior writer
Johannesburg, 25 Jun 2008

Government is amending the National Strategic Intelligence Act to establish the National Communications Centre (NCC) as a signals intelligence agency akin to the US National Security Agency.

The NCC is currently a unit within the National Intelligence Agency. Ministry of Intelligence legal advisor Kerensa Millard recently told Parliament 500 posts had been approved for the NCC and 300 of these were filled.

In his 2004 budget vote, intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils said the NCC was "our state-of-the-art communications monitoring section and is vital to our country's security".

Kasrils - who that year revealed the civilian intelligence budget for the first and last time - added that the NCC was "staffed by extremely dedicated and highly skilled personnel. It is involved in establishing the Office of Interceptions Centre and operates in strict compliance with the law under a judge's authorisation.

"The NCC must ensure investment and training in information technology," he added.

Kasrils put the 2004/5 civilian intelligence services budget at R1 978 647 billion, at the time 0.53% of total government spending and 0.14% of gross domestic product. Efforts to establish the current intelligence budget have met with little success. It is not reflected in the annual budget documentation of the National Treasury and Kasrils' 2008/9 budget vote speech last month made no mention of it.

Millard told MPs the NCC could monitor all private and public communications in terms of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act.

Secrecy Bill

Meanwhile, Parliament is also considering the Protection of Information Bill that will replace legislation passed in 1984. The Bill again criminalises espionage and the theft of data from government, but introduces a stern test for determining when such data can be considered classified and what classification (confidential, secret or top secret) should apply.

The Bill creates a presumption that state data should be unclassified and accessible to the public unless it is clearly in the national interest to restrict it. The draft law spells out what would constitute a national interest and criminalises any attempt to invoke the "national interest" to conceal an unlawful act or omission, incompetence, inefficiency or administrative error.

The Parliamentary Monitoring Group reports that MPs were concerned about the removal of certain safeguards from the Bill and that the executive was the final arbiter regarding questions of classification and declassification.

They felt the absence of an independent oversight mechanism gave the intelligence minister too much power and would subject to constitutional challenge, the meeting minutes say.

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