JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A mass leak of South African espionage secrets will cause many foreign agencies to think twice before sharing information with Pretoria, hampering its efforts to walk a delicate diplomatic tightrope between East and West, experts said on Tuesday.
Britain’s Guardian paper and Gulf TV channel Al Jazeera said they had obtained hundreds of dossiers, files and cables from the world’s top spy agencies to and from South Africa, dubbing it “one of the biggest spy leaks in recent times”.
The biggest revelation so far is an assessment by Mossad that counters Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - backed by a cartoon picture of a bomb - asserting at the United Nations in 2012 that Iran was a year away from making a nuclear device.
Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons”, the Israeli agency said in one report that outlined its understanding of Tehran’s attempts to produce enriched uranium, the main ingredient for a nuclear bomb.
More seriously for South Africa, a prominent ‘non-aligned’ state reluctant to take sides in international disputes, another cable reveals how Washington coerced Pretoria into spying on Iran, with which it enjoys firm diplomatic and commercial ties.
Even though the National Intelligence Agency stressed it did not see Tehran as a threat, it still set up a covert operation to compile the names, addresses and personal habits of every suspected Iranian agent in South Africa.
Suggestions South African spooks scoped out Persian carpet shops in the belief they were a front for Iranian spies were easy fodder for newspapers, with the Times reporting the leaks under the front page headline “Ali Baba and the forty spies”.
Besides the immediate embarrassment, experts said the security breach meant foreign cooperation with South African agencies would be likely to come under review for fear of other potentially more damaging secrets being unearthed.
Other cables show Washington enlisted Pretoria’s help in getting in touch with a potential North Korean double agent and reaching out to Palestinian group Hamas.
“A leak like this affects the credibility of the agencies and how they cooperate,” said Mike Hough, a retired professor from Pretoria University’s Institute for Strategic Studies. “It could lead to the termination of certain projects.”
The agency was already in hot water for using a cell-phone signal jammer in parliament this month at President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address, a move that prompted a media outcry and walkout by furious opposition MPs.
Forced to explain, Security Minister David Mahlobo told Johannesburg’s Talk Radio 702 the device had been deployed to create a ‘no-fly zone’ for drones to protect Zuma, but then said it had also been turned on in error.
There has no official response from the government to the Guardian and Al Jazeera reports.
“There’s no country in the world that would comment on this sort of thing,” one foreign ministry spokesman said.
Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky