R2K has registered its concern about problematic provisions of the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill (the “Spy Bill”) – especially drawing attention to provisions that relate to the mandate of the intelligence sector, and monitoring of communications. (See our statement, “The GILAB (aka the Spy Bill) is back in Parliament – what you need to know“.)
But why’s everyone so concerned about the spies? The answer lies in the little-known story of of the Matthews Commission Report.
In 2006, in the wake of a series of spy scandals, then-Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils, established a review commission of the intelligence services – it was officially called the Ministerial Review Commission on Intelligence. Popularly known as the Matthews Commission (it was chaired by Joe Matthews, a former deputy Minister), the commission focused on the mandate and activities of the intelligence services – and looked especially at possible infringements of Constitutional rights.
The commission’s report, finished in 2008, was damning, identifying a troubling indifference to constitutional rights in some elements of the intelligence services, as well as problems arising from the overly broad mandate of the sector; the Commission also found a lack of effective controls against abuse of power and little scope for public oversight. The Inspector General of Intelligence was not found to have operational independence from the bodies that required oversight, and the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence in Parliament (the legislative oversight body) meets almost entirely in secret, which erodes public participation.
The Commission also found that the state’s surveillance powers were not adequately regulated. The Commission established that the state’s National Communications Centre facility was conducting mass surveillance (‘bulk monitoring’), a practice that is not regulated by law in South Africa and which the Commission found to be unconstitutional.
The Matthews Commission called for a public review of the intelligence mandate and for a host of measures to improve accountability. Yet these findings have largely been ignored. (The report was never formally tabled in Cabinet or Parliament, and therefore is regarded as a ‘no-status’ document – it can be accessed here.)
A key problem with the GILAB or Spy Bill is that it seems to completely ignore the issues raised in this extensive report – it does little to address the issues of accountability, and does nothing to address the issue of illegal monitoring of communications, except to create a loophole that appears to legalise it.