Inside how DIS manipulated the media

18 Dec 2017

In as far as categories of credibility go, this source is perfectly unimpeachable. In terms of what information can do to the mind, the one that comes out of the source’s mouth in dramatic dribs and drabs would make any prosperity-gospel pastor finally turn to God. The background first. When the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) nabbed two Kgori Capital executives, Bakang Seretse and Botho Leburu, and the former Director of the Department of Energy, Kenneth Kerekang, a media frenzy was the natural outcome.

At the Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS) some people got very worried about this turn of events. They wasted no time in putting together an elaborate plan to leverage the power of that same media to steer the news cycle far away from something that is even more scandalous. The plan was activated shortly thereafter. As the three suspects made court appearances in the week following their arrest, a deluge of highly confidential information was leaked to the press and soon thereafter, was plastered on the front pages of various newspapers. On the surface, the information has the appearance of being explosive. At the start, the Director General of DIS, Isaac Kgosi, sought money from the National Petroleum Fund, to build fuel storage facilities for his department. Kgori Capital, the company that Seretse was Managing Director of at the time, had been managing the Fund since last year. Kerekang gave his approval and released the money thereafter.

Kgosi then wrote back to say due to a changed security environment that required DIS to neutralise what are largely undefined threats, the money would instead be used to buy armaments. If you combine the leaked information, court filings, news reports on the oral arguments in court by the lawyers, the circus inside and outside the courtroom – some of it promptly posted on Facebook - you have a full-stable circus to keep the public riveted for days on end. “But that is not the real story,” says the source, vigorously shaking his head to complement the verbal denial. The real story, the source explains, is that no armaments were ever bought and that the money that was drawn from the National Petroleum Fund “ended up in the pockets of some people.”

If that is what happened, there would be deeply disturbing questions about how long that has been happening and how much money is involved. According to the source, the culprits got very jittery when DCEC investigators arrested Bakang & Co. and feared that the news reportage might get around to enquiring about the armaments. To distract the media’s attention, they carpeted newsrooms with mountains of confidential documents while they planned their next move. The story that the newspaper would subsequently tell was what DIS wanted the public to know. “Ask yourself why so much confidential information concerning DIS is being leaked. When has that ever happened? Ask yourself why that information came out soon after Seretse was arrested,” poses the source, who counts on his fingers the names of papers that were targetted for relaying this information.

On close inspection, the documents don’t reveal anything blatantly criminal, just procedurally suspect conduct of government business which can be easily explained away to the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, frowned upon and forgotten. For as long as the one most explosive detail remained suppressed, the alleged culprits are said to have been hoping to maneuver the matter around to a point where their actions would be deemed as unprocedural and not criminal. There is a controversial precedent. Before it could carry out its cloak-and-mostly-dagger work in earnest, DIS needed to set up a brick-and-mortar operation in the middle of a financial year and the funds that were used to set up that operation were drawn from the Department of National Disaster Management.

This was later deemed to have been unprocedural and no one was held criminally liable. Years after the fact however, Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi apologised to parliament for the manner in which the whole matter was handled. Among the leaked documents, the most important is missing and the media will never get it – the invoice that shows that armaments were indeed purchased. Such invoice reportedly doesn’t exist because no armaments were ever bought. However, DIS may yet have an ace up its sleeve with regard to this point: it can claim that the invoice contains confidential information that it can’t freely share “for security reasons.” Indeed that is how it has always explained away not just the secrecy around its operations but the money it acquires for them.

While this option remains on the table, its utility may be whittled down to nothingness when DIS has to deal with investigative agencies like DCEC and the Financial Intelligence Agency (FIA) whose officers have top-secret clearance. There would be cause to panic on the part of the alleged wrongdoers. For the first time in its 10-year history, DIS is not dealing with a local media which has a severely limited capacity to access its highly confidential information. Following Al Qaeda’s attacks in Washington and New York on September, 11, 2011, United States intelligence agencies discovered that the Islamist organisation wove an intricate financial web through which it was able to strike at the heart of American financial (Twin Towers) and military (Pentagon) power.

The USA PATRIOT Act that President George Bush signed into law the following month has anti-money laundering provisions, notably the International Money Laundering Abatement and Anti-terrorism Act. This provision had the effect of not just hobbling Al Qaeda but organisations like Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers which was not a security threat to the US. Truth be told, Botswana is a US client state and the former’s intelligence agency (DIS) is no threat to the latter. However, suspicious multi-jurisdictional transactions involving millions of dollars will always make Americans think of what they call 9/11. Anti-money laundering statutes in the US are enforced by the Financial Crimes Section of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On the basis of the latter, it is more than likely that DIS came under a radar operated by the best and very well-resourced sleuths in the world.

The ahistorical assertiveness that DCEC is said to be displaying with DIS could be an indication that the former feels super-confident about its case. In one sense, this case marks a coming-out party for the FIA which has kept a low profile for a little too long. If first impressions matter to this agency, it would want to come out of the Regional Magistrate Court in Broadhurst smelling of roses on the day that the final judgement is handed down. As described, this case would have eerie echoes of what happened with an intelligence agency of a neighbouring state.

As Zambia’s president, Frederick Chiluba laundered millions of dollars through this agency and once out of office, it was discovered that he had stolen an equivalent of P570 million. When Zambia’s Attorney General sued Chiluba in a civil action in London, it was found that under the latter’s presidency, the Zambian intelligence agency had set up a bank account in Britain “primarily to steal government money." The official explanation was that the account had been set up to fund operations abroad and that such operations couldn’t be publicly disclosed for “security reasons.”