DCEO probes M28 million spy equipment scandal

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—equipment used to snoop on civilians

Keiso Mohloboli

THE Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) is investigating claims that the former coalition government purchased M28, 4 million worth of cyber equipment to spy on members of the security agencies and ordinary civilians, the Lesotho Times has learnt.

Authoritative government sources this week told this publication that even though the former government had taken delivery of the spying equipment from a South African company, it had not paid the full amount because it diverted part of the M28, 4 million to fund the election campaign of one of the former governing parties.

DCEO Director General Borotho Matsoso yesterday told the Lesotho Times that the DCEO had “opened a case to investigate why such equipment was bought and where the budget came from”.

“The former Minister of Defence and National Security Tšeliso Mokhosi and the former NSS Director General Tumo Lekhooa skipped the country and went into exile after they had been called for interrogation by DCEO investigators on the issue.

“I can only assure you that the payment for the cyber security equipment was stopped before the funds could be released by Ministry of Finance. What we are currently busy with is to establish whether or not the equipment had already been delivered and if so, we want to establish where it is kept because it is not at the National Security Service (NSS) or Military Intelligence (MI) offices,” Mr Matsoso said.

He added: “The DCEO is busy with investigations and hopefully we will get a report on what exactly happened.

“There are people within the (defence) ministry who still insist that the equipment was bought and it was already being used (when the former government was still in power). Others say that the equipment never came because it was not paid for….We are trying to ascertain the facts”.

Although Mr Matsoso said the DCEO was seeking to establish where the budget for the spying equipment came from, the latest report by the Auditor General, Lucy Liphafa, shows that the purchase of the spying equipment was among the nearly half a billion maloti in irregular and unbudgeted expenses made by the former government.

Ms Liphafa’s audit report for the 2016/17 financial year,  released a fortnight ago, shows that the former government also diverted part of the M450 million meant for student bursaries to fund the termination of the controversial Bidvest fleet services tender which was mired in corruption as well as funding the June 3 2017 elections.

The Lesotho Times has learnt that the snooping devices were actually delivered and used by a team comprising of NSS and MI officers to spy on soldiers, the police, Lesotho Correctional Service (LCS) staff and even other NSS officers.

The equipment was also used to spy on civilian political activists and some media houses as the former seven parties’ coalition became increasingly paranoid in the face of growing opposition to its rule  which was finally ended by its electoral defeat on 3 June 2017.

Relations among staffers in security cluster agencies were also far from cordial with suspicions running deep that some supported the opposition. A number of soldiers had been jailed from within the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) over alleged mutinous behaviour while police officers were generally regarded as sympathetic to the All Basotho Convention (ABC).

According to sources close to the matter, the spying devices were used to hack peoples’ emails and mobile phones to discover who they communicated with as well as the content of their communications.

“There was a team of soldiers and National Security Intelligence officers who were specifically assigned to spy on people using that equipment,” one source said.

“Initially, that team of spies worked from one of the offices at NSS headquarters in Maseru but they later moved to work at the MI office at Ha Ratjomose Barracks,” another source said.

Another source said that although the former government purchased M28, 4 million worth of spying equipment and it was in fact delivered, it had not paid the full amount because it diverted at least M18 million to finance the election campaign of one of the parties that was in the former governing coalition.  The suppliers of the equipment had nonetheless believed they would get their money since they were dealing with government.

“They (the former government) did not use all the M28, 4 million for its intended purpose of paying for the spying equipment bought from a South African company.

“This was because they diverted some of the money to finance the election campaign of one of the parties that was in government. As a consequence, we had to halt plans that were already underway to release an additional M18 million from treasury to settle the arrears when we assumed the reins of power last year,” the source from the current government said.

The NSS Director General, Pheello Ralenkoane, yesterday issued a brief response, confirming to this publication that during the 2016/17 financial year, the NSS requested M28, 4 million to purchase the equipment as indicated in the Auditor General’s report.

“What I will only confirm is that the M28, 4 million that appears in the Auditor General’s report is true. That kind of money was requested in the name of NSS,” Mr Ralenkoane said, adding this was as far he could comment on the issue.

On his part, the Minister of Defence and National Security, Sentje Lebona, yesterday said he could not say for certain whether or not the equipment had indeed been purchased as the army and the DCEO were still investigating the matter.

Mr Lebona said that he began the probe immediately after his appointment last year because there were allegations that his ministry had been turned into a spy agency, a position he had wanted to “prove wrong”.

“The issues of this country are unpredictable and therefore I won’t deny that there was a procurement of cyber security equipment. However, both my investigations and those of the DCEO have not been completed,” Mr Lebona said.

Mr Lebona added that what he knew so far is that when the current government assumed office in June last year, they stopped the payment for the cyber security equipment. He however, said it was still not clear whether the payment that was stopped was for additional equipment or for equipment that had already been bought.

Meanwhile, LDF Public Affairs Officer, Captain Sakeng Lekola, yesterday said although the current LDF command was aware of the allegations that the Mosisili government purchased the spying equipment, “today there is no such equipment at LDF offices”.

In addition to the purchase of spying equipment, the former government had sought to shut down the popular social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter in November 2016.

The Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA) had directed the country’s two telecommunications operators, Vodacom Lesotho (VCL) and Econet Telecom Lesotho (ETL) to justify the continued provision of Facebook and Twitter services.

The LCA directive was roundly condemned by different sections of society including the Consumers’ Protection Association (CPA) which said the move by the then government stemmed from the “unjustified fear by politicians to be held accountable”.

 

 

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