'Spy' tells of secret bid to tap cellphones

07 August 2016 - 02:00 By STEPHAN HOFSTATTER


Explosive court documents have lifted the lid on what is shaping up to be one of South Africa's biggest spy scandals. Details of how a government official allegedly persuaded a Welkom millionaire to fork out more than R15-million for one of the world's most sophisticated mobile spy gadgets are revealed in an affidavit that describes a plot worthy of a James Bond movie.Road construction magnate Johannes Cronje is the mystery financier for the Verint Engage Gi2 Tactical Mobile Interception System, dubbed a "grabber", that was seized last year in a Hawks sting operation.On Friday an Mpumalanga farmer, Willie Lotter, and an official in the Department of Public Service and Administration, Joseph Pooe, appeared in the Pretoria Magistrate's Court on a string of charges related to illegally importing the grabber.The charges carry a maximum of 10 years in prison or a fine of R2-million. The case was postponed to next month and a trial date has not been set yet.story_article_left1In his affidavit, seen by the Sunday Times, Cronje - who has not been charged and is likely to be a state witness in the case - outlines how he became entangled in the spy drama.He said that in April 2013 a businessman from Bloemfontein introduced him to Lotter and Pooe at his Pretoria office. "Pooe was introduced to me as a representative of ... National Intelligence," he said.Pooe and Lotter told him they wanted to import the spy gadget, made by Israeli security company Verint, to monitor crime syndicates trafficking in gold, cigarettes and rhino horn.A grabber can intercept 10,000 phone lines simultaneously within a 3km radius. It works by switching off the nearest cellphone tower and imitating it so that all active cellphones in the area connect with the pseudo-tower instead of the real tower.Because of its level of sophistication, importing a grabber requires the permission of the US and Russian intelligence agencies and an end-user certificate issued by the South African government similar to those needed for weapons imports.The Sunday Times has seen an end-user certificate dated July 2 2013 signed by Pooe as head of "information security management" at the Department of Public Service and Administration. He is listed as the buyer on behalf of the South African government.Pooe said he did not want to follow the normal procedure of importing and paying for the grabber through one of the security agencies as this would compromise the operation because crime syndicates had infiltrated the state agencies.The device would be installed in a car "that will fit in a VIP entourage like a BMW X5", Cronje was told."Our discussion left me speechless, to say the least," he said.Cronje agreed to fund the operation on condition he could accompany Pooe to Israel to meet representatives of Verint. Their trip to Israel almost a year later, on March 10 2014, reads like something out of a spy movie.He describes landing in Tel Aviv, being whisked through customs and immigration by "two unknown men dressed in black suits" and being taken to Verint's offices four storeys underground "filled with huge computers literally the size of double- door fridges". He was told the computers "capture, record and store all the activities of interception devices sold by Verint".block_quotes_start The system can send a silent SMS to your target's phone to retrieve the information about the phone and switch on the target's phone without him or her knowing block_quotes_endCronje paid about R15-million for the grabber and bought a BMW X5 for R874,000 which he modified. He says the deal was that he would be reimbursed in instalments.Getting the grabber to South Africa required further cloak and dagger antics. E-mails reveal it was shipped through one of Cronje's companies in Cape Town.In one e-mail to a Sam Rabin of Verint, copied to Cronje, Pooe writes: "Let me remind you why there was a need for the system. It was to serve the sitting president and the ruling party. It was to help us make a decision as we collect information to better governance."When the agency met with the president, we were clear of what we need. The president even emphasised intelligence and relationship between the two countries."When the grabber arrived, Pooe and Cronje sent four people to Cape Town to be trained by Verint.When they arrived they realised it was too large to fit into the X5 because several add-ons had been ordered. It was installed in Cronje's Mercedes-Benz Viano instead and returned to his home in Welkom afterwards to be stored.Another training session was held over several days at a hotel in Gauteng early last year. Cronje says on one of the days Pooe held a demonstration - from which he was barred - for three senior security services officials, including the then acting head of crime intelligence, Major-General Thuso Tshika. Tshika this week denied the claim, saying he was not aware of the meeting.Several months later Cronje was becoming "increasingly agitated" because he had not been paid. "I resolved to dispose of the device in order to recover my losses," he says.In mid-2015 Lotter allegedly contacted him to say he had secured a prospective buyer and should arrange a demonstration at a house he owned in Kempton Park.Those who attended included Lotter, a South African representative of Verint and the "buyers" - an undercover police agent and a dog handler at the police narcotics unit. Their cover story was that they were working for a company vying for state water tenders and wanted an edge on rivals.In sworn statements the dog handler describes the demonstration."[A technician,] Tony sat down behind a computer showing maps and all the cellphone towers around the area. Tony then clicked on a number and suddenly we would hear somebody talking on a cellphone. It was a live call. Tony then said the system can send a silent SMS to your target's phone to retrieve the information about the phone and switch on the target's phone without him or her knowing."story_article_right2Lotter wanted R30-million for the grabber. The dog handler agreed to meet him at Irene Mall in Pretoria the following morning to transfer the purchase price, where he was arrested by the Hawks.Pooe was later added to the charge sheet, accused of fraud for pretending to Cronje and Verint that he worked for the State Security Agency and for signing the end-user certificate as a government employee knowing "he was not the authorised signatory".This week Pooe said the operation was authorised by the government and that he would reveal who had sanctioned it "at the right time".State Security Agency spokesman Brian Dube said he was not aware of Pooe "working for state security".Hawks spokesman Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi declined to comment on details of the case this week."This matter will be dealt with through the courts of law because it's very sensitive," he said. "Commenting on anything now will jeopardise our case."A statement by the Department of Public Service and Administration's director-general, Mashwahle Diphofa, said Pooe had no authority to sign contracts or buy spying equipment on the department's behalf."My department is not aware of any special investigation ... by Mr Pooe on its behalf," Diphofa said.ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa said the ANC was not aware of the allegation that the device was illegally imported to serve the ANC.Zuma's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.Lotter declined to comment.stephanh@sundaytimes.co.za

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