Years ago, I was a member of a team considering possible charges against some suspects. We worked hard combing a jungle of documentary evidence, drafting and debating the most appropriate charges.
We had decided to go about it as clandestinely as we could in a bid to avoid meddlesome interlopers. For the uninitiated, a meddlesome interloper is an acceptable, alternative appellation for a politician. We were at count six of an ever expanding catalogue of crimes when the reception staff asked if they could put a call through. A politician was on the line. He wanted to know if it was true that we were intending to charge the suspect and when that would be. I dithered. Then he asked if a charge sheet had been prepared. Politely, he told me he was in some plush hotel by a crocodile infested river in northern Botswana. My correspondent was well known to me. I would otherwise have told him to take a hike and waited for the dismissal letter. I conceived a picture of this gentleman with our draft charge sheet on hand, sipping on a martini with bikini clad girls watching elephants mating when I had had only three hours of sleep. Calling his bluff, I asked him to fax a copy through. In a moment, a young lady entered my office and politely handed me a fax copy of our six count draft. The team was rattled. It took a thorough and successful enquiry for team morale to be fully restored. Leaks can be useful to the media. They can also be very disruptive to service.
On two successive issues, the Sunday Standard featured categorically distinct communication allegedly sourced from and forming part of the Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS) intelligence work. Not unexpectedly, the source was concealed. Its correctness cannot, therefore, be ascertained. One is a strategic report on positions to adopt against the opposition in order to prolong Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) rule.
The other regards ostensibly operational communication intercepts on opposition activists. Citing confidential sources is indispensable to media reporting and whistleblowing is not in and of itself bad. Without sources, the battle against crime in all its manifestations would be an exercise in futility. Leaking is, however, fraught with perils at both factual and legal levels.
In the first instance, the gullible public may take an inaccurate story as the gospel truth. That can have the effect of unduly polluting socio-political discourse leading to unnecessary political tensions and civil unrest. Depending on the subject and its sensitivity, lives can be lost. On the second, irreparable reputational damage may be occasioned to innocent individuals and institutions. Where the information is correct, however, the citizenry may owe an eternal debt of gratitude to
I will not attempt a discourse over “leakers” and “sources”. To governments, those who leak to it are “sources” and those who leak from it are “leakers”. It is all about which side the drip is falling. I am concerned that the leaks, if true, may betray a preparedness on the part of some agency operatives to unlawfully profit from intelligence work or to settle institutional politics. The exception would be where a leak is inspired by ethical considerations. Be that as it may, leaks have the natural consequence of breach of trust and can have a chilling effect on team morale thereby impacting negatively upon the discharge of proper and lawful institutional functions.
Intelligence leaks have occurred before. It is unusual, however, for a media house to give an ultra-secretive outfit like the DIS a bloody nose and to parade its scalp in the public square. Assuming, without conceding, the veracity of the allegations that would be a cause of concern. A security agency cannot be an open library and still inspire public confidence.
One can only trust that the Director General is truthful in distancing the agency from the information. Critically, the present spat espouses the public relations situation that arises when an organisation conceived to be ultra-secretive takes center stage in socio-political discourse.
A meaningful public relations campaign cannot be marshalled from the darkness of institutional secrecy. Right or wrong, the agency can never have a fair hearing. Which brings me to another point; the need for a credible oversight body which can be trusted by the public to keep the agency in check.
On this score, I pointedly blame the Office of the President for flooding the DIS tribunal with party activists and relatives of the President. The cynical, tactless and absurd move left the agency with no credible and proper platform for rebuttal of ethical charges. It also left the public without a credible grievance platform.
In the case instant, the agency could be pointing its accusers to a credible tribunal. Bare denials carry considerably less credibility. Credibility, a DIS value, is as key consideration in the art of persuasion. In trial advocacy, it gives wings to facts and to logic. It settles stalemates and reinforces public confidence. Without credibility, one must work harder to be believed.
Getting the agency soiled in politics and media spats is not in the interest of its noble mandate. But then, it is an armed and disciplined entity reporting to politicians. The media, and politicians, should appreciate the importance of preserving DIS integrity.