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Spying on wrong `enemy’

By Haggai Matsiko

Opposition leaders want international sanctions on police, CMI

Since Privacy International, a U.K non-governmental organisation that defends the right to privacy of citizens, published a report on the dark surveillance methods the police and Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) use to crush perceived opponents of President Yoweri Museveni, they have been on the defensive. They have denied knowledge of and existence of such surveillance operations. But Privacy International warns that the government is in fact likely to increase such activity as the country heads towards the 2016 general elections.

The Privacy International report is titled `For God and My President: Surveillance in Uganda’. It reveals that Uganda Police and CMI, are the masterminds of the operation codenamed ‘Fungua Macho’ loosely translated as ‘open your eyes’ which has since 2011 involved planting surveillance tools on perceived enemies of President Yoweri Museveni.

In their own word, they “spy on the enemy, collect data, intrude enemy systems, intercept enemy communication and also manipulate transmissions”.

It says the suppliers of the equipment, led by Gamma/FinFisher International Managing Director, Stephan Oelkers, have been frequenting Uganda. Oelkers, who is among the top three world leaders in selling hacking software, travelled to Uganda three times in 2013. The report also points out that since the money used to buy such gadgets is from the classified budget, it is a danger sign that up to Shs607 billion in the 2015-2016 Defence budget is classified. It also notes the Defence budget is at its highest ever – Shs1.4 trillion.

According to Privacy International, Police and CMI acquired gadgets that allow spies to hack into phones, computers, offices and homes of journalists, MPs, opposition politicians, and networks of top hotels. They gather and record information of what is stored and exchanged on computers, and phone conversations. They use malicious software called FinFisher which embeds in legitimate programmes like emails, social media, Apple iTunes, Mozilla Firefox, and hotspot portals.

FinFisher fake access points were created in the Munyonyo and Kololo neighbourhoods in central Kampala, as well as upmarket Lubowa and Kensington housing estates, and in 21 mostly high-end hotels in Kampala, Entebbe and Masaka.

These hotels were specifically selected because they were known to be meeting points for politicians and journalists as well as hosting political events.

Passwords, files, cameras, and microphones on infected gadgets and Local Area Networks (LANs) in offices and hotels by targeted individuals were viewed and manipulated without the target’s knowledge.

David Pulkol, a former spy chief under Museveni says that the UK should blacklist the Uganda government and ensure that its firms do not sell such technology to a government that is using them “to abuse people’s freedoms and liberties”.

The surveillance equipment was allegedly supplied by Gamma International, which has offices in the UK and has previously worked with some of the most feared governments in Egypt under the dictator Hosni Mubarak, Syria, in Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa and others.

The report, which has attracted local and international attention, shows how the security agencies use sophisticated gadgets to spy on opposition politicians and report directly to Museveni.

According to the report, the CMI Director of Technical Intelligence, Michael Bbosa, on January19, 2012 wrote an operational update of a surveillance project to President Yoweri Museveni.

“People deemed dangerous to state security like government officials and opposition politicians are being surveilled,” Bbosa reportedly told Museveni.

“Given the caliber of our negative minded politicians, we stand a very high chance of easily crushing them by being a step ahead,” Bbosa added in the same brief.

“This can be testified by the success rate we have had especially in curtailing the walk-to-work demos that started this week,” the brief notes, “with our implants and imbeds, we have been able to get hordes of information, revealing secret plans, especially of FDC, even before they act upon them.”

At the time, Museveni’s biggest threat was the Walk-to-Work demos. Bbosa assured President Museveni that Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Zimbabwe – governments “facing civil disobedience” – were users of FinFisher. All these governments in all these countries have been accused of massive human rights violations.

The first round of Walk-to-Work protests by Activists for Change (A4C) caught the security forces off-guard. In an attempt to contain them, security forces, in the first month alone killed at least nine unarmed People, and injured over 100. Besigye, who inspired the protests was brutally dragged from his vehicle and pepper sprayed in the face, sustaining serious injuries forcing him to seek medical attention for a while.

Over all, some 600 people were arrested and detained without charge. Legislators were arrested, manhandled and placed under 24-hour surveillance and preventative detention.

To contain the protests, the spies targeted “all MPs and influential people involved”. Local and international journalists and media houses were all illegally targeted.

Breaking the law

Under the law, these security agencies are supposed to be non-partisan but, according to a report by Privacy International, they routinely break the law to crush perceived opponents of President Museveni.

The Regulation of Interception of Communication Act, 2010 gives the army, police, and internal and external security the right to spy on and tap into communications of citizens. But under Section 2 titled “Control of Interception” the law says they must seek and acquire a warrant from a designated judge. It is not clear if this was done.  So far, the government has denied knowledge of and existence of the operation.

Under the law, warrants can only be issued against individuals or groups that pose a death threat, are drug traffickers, or threaten international relations and national, economic, and public safety and for specified periods.

But targeted politicians like former FDC President, Kizza Besigye, who led the Walk-to-Work protests, say they are not surprised by the Privacy International revelations.

Besigye says he has always been aware that intelligence bodies target opposition politicians.

Although Besigye is the FDC presidential flag bearer in the 2016 election, he continues to be brutalised, teargassed, and harassed by the police. They have blocked all his political activity and movement.

Pulkol told The Independent that “The NRM’s use of intelligence services to spy on opposition political, which are legitimate organisations, is illegal and intended to defeat democracy and liberties and freedoms of people.”

Pulkol, who once headed the External Security Organisation (ESO) and is now an official of the opposition Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), likens what the state is doing to what colonial governments, dictators and single party states that replaced them.

Historically, he said, the colonial governments used intelligence bodies to spy on and crush African freedom fighters. He explained that the dictatorial regimes and single party states that replaced the colonial governments perpetrated this by using intelligence services for regime protection.

In Uganda, he cited the examples of Special Branch and State Research Bureau, which he said served to protect the regimes and not the security interests of the country and its citizens.

“But later,” Pulkol added, “the focus of intelligence services shifted from protecting individuals to state institutions. The 1987 Act, which established ESO and ISO mandated them to collect, analyse and report to the president on security threats facing the country.”

In essence, Pulkol says, the two services are subject to scrutiny unlike CMI, which was established under the UPDF. “That is why it (CMI) easily escapes scrutiny and that is why I understand why such things can easily happen under it,” Pulkol told The Independent.

But even with CMI, Pulkol added, the focus should be on security threats to Uganda and not regime protection.

“The introduction of multipartyism,” he said, “meant that political parties became legimate organisations that do not constitute a threat to the state. They should freely carry out activities like rallies, opening offices, choosing leaders among others. It is wrong for those manning the state, therefore, to use intelligence man power, equipment and financial resources.”

To Pulkol, what the government is doing is not only illegal, it tantamounts to misuse of state resources and sons and daughters of Uganda in intelligence and is intended to defeat democracy and liberties and freedoms of people.

For Pulkol, however, it is clear why intelligence services are being abused.

He explains that the problem is that at the time ISO and ESO were formally established, those who joined these services are taken for cadre courses and trained in NRM ideology, those who were in other parties like UPC were not enlisted.

“It is those loyal to the regime that are recruited and promoted,” he said.

He explains that when he was appointed to head ESO over 70 % of the agents there hailed from western Uganda and on close scrutiny, they were from a specific county.

“In some cases it was as bad as a specific parish yet these services must have a national character,” he said.

He says that he talked to the president about it and had embarked on reforms to address the situation before he left the service.

He says this happens because when those who were recruited during the 1981-86 bush war to collect intelligence for the National Resistance Army (NRA) came into government, they continued with their loyalty to Museveni and his government. According to him, “the umbilical cord” between the NRA and the intelligence services has never been cut.

“That is why you find that the Kale Kayihuras (Uganda Police chief), are functioning like militias for the ruling party and the intelligence services like intelligence wings of the ruling party,” he says.

Pulkol says as long as the services focus on protecting the regime instead of dealing with security threats, the country is exposed.

Oppose is naive

But Simon Mulongo, a legislator, who sits on Parliament’s Defence and Internal Affairs Committee, says the argument that intelligence services focus more on crushing the opposition and not dealing with security threats “is nonsense”.

“That is an exaggerated fear,” he told The Independent, “Intelligence services are dealing with so many other security threats. The interest in the opposition is limited.”

He explained that opposition politicians are not a threat at all unless they are involved in subversive activities.

“But the state has to watch all of us all the time,” Mulongo said, “it has to have capabilities to do so all the time. It cannot just wait until there is a problem to act.”

He explained that, for instance, there are laws that allow intelligence officers to access certain information with leave of court. But that for court to give this leave, they must demonstrate that there is a trail of activities that shows why they are interested. “And how do you get this trail?” Mulongo asked, “Through surveillance.”

Mulongo added that espionage and counter-espionage are a norm all over the world and should not raise concerns as long as it is done in a manner that does not break the law.

He believes that every government must know what the opposition is doing but that claiming that sophisticated equipment is intended for the opposition politicians is stretching the truth.

“These opposition people are soft targets,” Mulongo said.

He challenged Privacy International to reveal how much of those tools are planted against the opposition and how much against real security threats.

“I can tell you that 99 percent of the threats have nothing to do with opposition politicians because in any case information about their activities is abundantly available through infiltration by doubles,” Mulongo said.

High project costs

The project costs are high. In one of the documents distributed by Privacy International, CMI complained about the “meagre funds” available to “bribe more collaborators especially from the inside circles of opposition members”. The collaborators are supposed to make the phones, computers, homes and offices of targets accessible for direct infiltration by police and CMI.

Apparently, the operation involved seventy-three ‘operatives’ but required 150 operatives and much more money.

It involved planting surveillance tools in the buildings of the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), External Security Organisation (ESO), Parliament and also the two main agencies responsible for the operation – the UPF and CMI, the report notes and that the operation targeted specific people. The budgets of the intelligence organisations, including ESO and ISO, are under the Office of the President.

Critics have for long said urgent reforms in intelligence are critical if a country is to fight major security threats like terrorism. As a sign of poor intelligence and police work, they point at a spate of unsolved high profile murders and attacks. These include the murder of top prosecutor, Joan Kagezi, the slaying of numerous Muslim leaders, and eruption of ethnic attacks in western Uganda.

Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, the Kyadondo East MP who sits on the Defence Committee, says intelligence service organisations need to be moved out of the Office of the President.

He says as long as the services are under Museveni, “they will continue to dance to his tunes and focus more on Besigye and other opposition politicians than critical issues of national interest”.

Privacy International warns that along with more heavy-handed tactics, the use of surveillance technology has chilled free speech and legitimate expressions of political dissent. It says covert, extrajudicial surveillance projects like those documented in this report have contributed towards making Uganda a less open and democratic country in the name of national security.

“This situation is unlikely to improve any time soon, particularly with the eventual addition of the centralised communications monitoring centre under the intelligence services’ control,” the report adds, “Until and unless this is addressed, claims that Uganda is a burgeoning democracy ring hollow.”

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