NATIONAL SECURITY AND THE WAR ON CORRRUPTION: A CASE FOR PROTECTING NIGERIA’S NATIONAL SECURITY FROM THE PERNICIOUS ACTIONS OF LEAKERS
BY ISHIAKA ADAMU
“Any sources and methods of intelligence will remain guarded in secret. My administration will not talk about how we gather intelligence, if we gather intelligence, and what intelligence says. That’s for the protection of the American people”
President George W. Bush, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Last week, with the fanfare that is now its signature calling card, the EFCC “uncovered” monies in various currencies amounting to about 13 billion naira in an apartment in Ikoyi, Lagos. Coming after recent large seizures of cash from other locations by the anti-graft agency, Nigerians were alarmed, justifiably so. In the aftermath of the cash seizures, Nigerians asked questions, and demanded answers, as they should. President Muhammadu Buhari did not disappoint. He promptly suspended the Director General of the National Intelligence Agency, Ambassador Ayo Oke, and formed a high-powered Investigation Committee, headed by Vice President, Mr. Yemi Osinbajo, to look into circumstances surrounding NIA’s possession of the cash. The Osinbajo Committee is also to look into allegations of violations of due process made against the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. David Babachir Lawal, in the award of contracts under the presidential Initiative on the North East (PINE). Mr. Lawal was also suspended.
The Osinbajo Committee has 14 days to complete its assignment, but this much is already known. The money recovered from the Ikoyi apartment belonged to the NIA, part of covert operations funds duly approved for the Agency way back in 2015. Whereas investigations into allegations of violation of due process leveled against the Secretary to the Government of the Federation are routine and can be dealt with without harming Nigeria’s national security interests, those concerning the NIA are much more complicated, given that the media is already awash with unauthorized classified information on processes and operations of the Agency. This commentary focuses on the consequences of unauthorized disclosures of classified intelligence information, as exemplified in the stream of leaks about the NIA, one of Nigeria’s better run public institutions.
The Osinbajo Committee would, in due time, determine the status of the seized NIA cash, in line with its terms of reference. However, the damage to Nigeria’s national security is already building up. Thanks to the criminal leaks of classified information by renegade government officials, the whole world now know what should not ever have to be known about the NIA, a secret organization. For instance, enemies of Nigeria, from both within and without, now know that the NIA has a Cyber Task Force, nimble team of hackers, and a network of non-diplomatic agents who work for Nigeria’s interests abroad under risky conditions. These damaging disclosures were contained in a leaked document entitled “Brief on Critical Infrastructural Development and Covert Operations of the National Intelligence Agency 2015-2018.”
As reported in the media, the leaked document was prepared by the NIA in defense of the Agency’s use of duly approved covert operations funds, now the subject of controversy following EFCC’s questionable raid on one of its safe houses in Lagos. What in hell is going on here? The head of an intelligence agency prepares a confidential report to his principals, usually an extremely tight circle of top government functionaries, and almost immediately the contents of the report are being quoted in the news media, including internet news sites of dubious pedigree. In normal countries, such unauthorized disclosure of classified intelligence information would precipitate a national security crisis, but here in Nigeria the word is mute. Since the media began publishing contents of the leaked NIA document, not a word of concern has been raised by responsible Committees in both the Senate and House of representatives with mandates for national security and intelligence matters, or the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation. The last time I checked, the State Security Service had a role in protecting state secrets. It is baffling that across government, no one appears attentive to the damage these leaks pose to national security.
By all means the government must fight and defeat corruption. Nigerians do not agree much on anything, but there is broad support for the anti-corruption posture of the Buhari administration. Questions have been raised about the scope of the efforts and, even more significantly, about the methodology of EFCC. Whatever misgivings Nigerians have about EFCC’s methods and penchant for publicity, the intensity of public revulsion against corruption more than compensates for the flaws of the ant-graft agency. This is good for Nigeria, because accountability, transparency and integrity in the conduct of government business are essential to the country’s long term development, stability, and prosperity. The delicate dance the Buhari administration must balance is how to promote accountability and openness in government, while also protecting national security. Preserving the nation must be as essential, if not more urgent, as building a culture of accountability and openness in government, not least because without a country, no other purposes of government could ever be achieved. It is arguable but no governmental interest is more compelling than the security of the nation.
There is no suggestion here that Nigeria’s intelligence and security services be allowed a free reign. That cannot be the case in a democracy. While the intelligence profession demands secrecy, it is critically important that there be full and open discourse on intelligence matters, but only, repeat, only with the appropriate oversight Committees of the national Assembly and statutory Executive oversight bodies. Oversight of intelligence agencies is a delicate responsibility that should not ever be conducted in the media, certainly not in beer parlors and on social media platforms.
Intelligence is an essential tool not only in protecting the state from harm, but also in securing other vital interests of the state. The security risks that confronts Nigeria today require covert operations by NIA officers in hostile and often risky environments. Intelligence requires secrecy, but as we are witnessing in the leaks surrounding the NIA cash saga, secrecy and the integrity of intelligence operations is under assault.The consequences could be disastrous. Officers of the Agency routinely operate under dangerous conditions. Just about a decade ago, an NIA officer was killed in a foreign country in the line of duty. The Government of Nigeria is duty-bound to protect intelligence officers and their families who could be exposed to danger through leaks about what they do, how they carry out their work, and where some of these operations are conducted.
In the aftermath of the EFCC raid on NIA’s safe house in Lagos, much of the public discourse has been on the secret dealings of the intelligence agency, but little about the good and the necessary that the Agency does in secret. The future of the NIA and, indeed, the entire Nigeria intelligence and security community, depends to a very significant degree on maintaining the secrecy of its collection methods, sources and analytical techniques. What is the benefit to the Nigerian people that the NIA has a team of hackers, or that it keeps safe houses in Nigeria and abroad? Nothing, I dare say, except that foreign intelligence services would be alerted to NIA’s capabilities. While all deceptions require secrecy, all secrecy is not meant to deceive. When secrecy is breached, as in the leaked NIA document, foreign targets of the Agency’s intelligence operations learn about and then develop countermeasures to NIA’s techniques and operations. This naturally diminishes the effectiveness of NIA operations, to the detriment of national security. In the end, citizens who are now applauding the EFCC‘s overreach would be poorly served.
There are two problems national security planners in Nigeria must quickly address. These relate to EFCC’s overzealousness and indiscretion and leaks of classified intelligence information. It is difficult to tell which of the two does more damage to national security, but cumulatively, both could cause real harm. The question must be asked whether the anti-graft agency took all necessary precautions to shield the NIA from undue exposure, even as it pursued a discreet investigation on the evidence of information available to it. Old hands in the intelligence business that I spoke to assert that the EFCC did not exhaust discreet investigative options before exposing the cash seizures in the media. It is also doubtful if the head of the anti-graft agency briefed the Presidency before its investigation of the NIA, another government agency. Unless the motive was simply to embarrass the leadership of the NIA, these old spooks questioned the judgement of the EFCC leadership, who they say should have contemplated the wider security repercussions of his highly public exposure of the NIA.
A related issue concerns the leaks that have accompanied the NIA cash saga. Leaks have always been problematic for intelligence agencies, but the problem has grown worse in the age of the Internet and social media. Again, as is evident from proliferating leaks in the Nigerian media and blogosphere, these leaks reveal much about how the NIA operates and, by implication, how to defeat its operations. These leaks provide substantial information to foreign adversaries, including those operating right inside Nigeria. While leaks of classified information are often intended to influence domestic policy, foreign intelligence operatives in Nigeria are voracious readers of the Nigerian press. These foreign operatives are keenly alert to revelations of classified information. Classified intelligence information in the Nigerian media is the effective equivalent of intelligence gathered through foreign espionage, yet the government appears unconcerned about this danger.
Consider the responses in other countries. In Australia, the Secret Intelligence Operations Act criminalizes the “intentional exposure, by anyone and forever, of any information that relates to an intelligence operative, in circumstances where the person making the exposure either knows the information to an intelligence officer, or is reckless about it.” Similar expansive protections are common in most Western countries, including the United States of America. For example, former U. S Army Private, Bradley (Chelsea) Manning, who leaked thousands of classified U. S diplomatic cables in 2010 was charged and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and contractor to the National Security Agency, whose leaks disclosed numerous U.S clandestine foreign and domestic intelligence operations, escaped from the country and remains today a fugitive from justice in Russia. Only recently, it was reported that the U. S Government was considering bringing criminal charges against leaders and members of WikiLeaks, an organization that has routinely posted leaked classified U. S documents on its website. In all cases, the goal of prosecution is to deter leakers and safeguard national security interests of these countries.
It is impossible to measure the damage to Nigeria’s national security through these leaks, but senior intelligence operatives I spoke to assess the cumulative impact as truly significant. Some loses could be recovered, but much are permanent and irreversible.For instance, effective intelligence depends on cooperative relationships with friendly foreign intelligence services, who trust the NIA to protect their confidences, including methods and joint operations. Egregious disclosures of classified intelligence information can and often undermines these relationships as foreign intelligence services become reluctant to share information because of fears that the NIA cannot be trusted to keep its secret.Security planners and keepers of state secrets must quickly unravel these leaks and hold those responsible accountable under existing laws. If existing laws are inadequate to address what is becoming a clear and present danger to national security, then perhaps it is about time the National Assembly reviewed these laws with a view to strengthening them.
Sensitive intelligence information is classified by government for good reasons, and the justification is that their protection is essential to the security of the nation. Until the federal government holds those who, without authority, reveal and publish classified information accountable for their actions, they will have no reason to stop their harmful actions. Effective enforcement of existing laws will require real political will on the part of government. The National Assembly has a big role to play to ensure that existing laws, if inadequate, are reviewed to reflect a changing social environment with proliferating media platforms. Both the government and law makers must recognize that leakers and the journalists who publish classified intelligence materials do the equivalent work of foreign spies. Even if their motives differ, the effects can be the same. Indeed, if leakers and the journalists who publish these leaks were caught providing the same classified information clandestinely to a foreign power, it is conceivable that they would be prosecuted for espionage. When these same people publish the same materials in the media, they enjoy immunity from prosecution only because the government lacks the will to enforce its laws. This must change to protect our nation’s security.
It is important that we keep in mind that foreign countries and their intelligence agents who operate in Nigeria rely heavily on the Nigerian media to acquire sensitive information about Nigeria’s foreign intelligence operations in order to deploy countermeasures against them. Since such disclosures have the same effect as espionage, it is vital to national security that government treats leakers and their collaborators, no matter how highly placed they may be, as subject to the same laws that applies to spies who work clandestinely with foreign powers.
Unless comprehensive and robust measures are taken to identify and hold leakers and their collaborators in the media accountable for the damage they are inflicting on Nigeria’s intelligence efforts, the damage will continue unabated. Conceivably, the situation could get worse and cause irreversible damage to Nigeria’s security interests. Better laws and enforcement of these laws will provide the protection members of Nigeria’s intelligence services need to go about their delicate work of protecting Nigeria from harm. If the Federal Government should continue to be paralyzed by a failure of will, the current climate of permissive neglect will become one of pernicious neglect. The Nigerian nation would be badly served from the consequences of the pernicious neglect of protecting intelligence officers and their operations from willful leakers and their collaborators in the Nigerian media.President George W. Bush of the United States fully understood the goal of intelligence and the importance of security in intelligence operations, as evidenced in the opening quotation in this commentary. President Buhari would do well to reflect on Mr. Bush’s perceptive insights about intelligence and move quickly to prevent the hemorrhage of the NIA and, indeed, the entire Nigeria security apparatus from leaks.