The Slatest

South African Leaks Offer Rare Glimpse Into World of Espionage

In another major intelligence leak, Al Jazeera and the Guardian have received a digital cache of hundreds of secret documents from South Africa’s intelligence agency, the State Security Agency, revealing both internal communications and correspondence with other spy agencies including the CIA, Israel’s Mossad, Britain’s MI6 and Russia’s FSB.

Both outlets have already published several stories based on the leaks and more are coming soon.

So far, the biggest blockbuster seems to be a 2012 Mossad cable that discusses the progress of Iran’s nuclear program in starkly different terms than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did in his now famous cartoon bomb speech at the United Nations just a few weeks earlier. Both outlets headline the cable as “contradicting” Netanyahu’s speech, though the prime minister’s remarks on when Iran would be ready to “move on to the final stage” of producing highly-enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb were vague enough to leave him some wiggle room.

The tone and sense of urgency are undoubtedly different though: While Netanyahu made the case that Iran could be only months away from being able to produce a bomb, Mossad said that while Iran was continuing to research and develop nuclear weapons, and was producing 20 percent enriched uranium—which is more than what’s needed for a civilian program—it “at this stage is not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.” If he wasn’t factually contradicting what his intelligence services were saying, Netanyahu at least seems to have been spinning it pretty hard.

Another cable suggests that in 2012, a CIA officer talked to a South African counterpart about setting up a meeting with Hamas, which the U.S. had designated as a terrorist organization, meaning the U.S. government is formally banned from contacting it. It’s not clear if the meeting ever actually took place.

One cable describes an effort by MI6 to enlist South Africa’s help in recruiting a North Korean informant. Another details Iran’s efforts to use front companies in South Africa to evade sanctions. That cable also alleges that Iran’s “Ministries of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Committees make use of the diplomatic bag to send arms to the Iranian Embassies abroad.” Others discuss South Korean intelligence targeting Greenpeace and South Africa spying on Russia over a controversial satellite deal.

Based on what’s been published so far, these cables, which span from 2006 to 2014 and   describe the workaday world of human intelligence, seem unlikely to have the impact of Edward Snowden’s leaks, which revealed the U.S. government’s largely unknown data collection capabilities. Still, it’s a fascinating look into how espionage work is conducted on a daily basis. It’s also likely to be highly embarrassing for South Africa—a rare country that has at least cordial relations with the U.S., Iran, Israel, Hamas, and Russia— and could make intelligence agencies around the world even more concerned about what they share with their friends.