Since 2019 before the testimony of The Gambia’s Intelligence Chief Ousman Sowe at the just-concluded Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), on the 6th and 7th January 2021, doubts have been raised in some corners as to whether the country’s national security has been compromised or not.
Such alleged compromise by the SIS could be looked observed in three folds:
*First is the acceptance of the SIS top brass to have the visit of the TRRC officials to the NIA Headquarters televised on 15th February 2019.
*Second is the handing over of the NIA files to the TRRC.
*Third is the SIS boss Ousman Sowe’s admission of tampering with evidence during his testimony at the TRRC.
Although the SIS has since 2017, taken a new approach to its operational strategies but also some errors were made considering the three points mentioned above.
The visit of the TRRC
Based on the Intelligence Module, the visit of the TRRC to the NIA headquarters in 2019 should not have been exposed to the media and the general public in the first place, simply because the delegation was allegedly given access to some key units like the Analysis Unit of the NIA. That unit should not have been exposed to the TRRC because it is the place where the entire Intelligence Reports are disseminated for second to last analysis before action for the final consumption.
Intelligence is the backbone of any government in every country around the world and the Analysis Unit is the only place where the top and classified materials including security details are kept.
Moreover, one should ask how many classified archived files are kept in the Analysis Unit too? Therefore, exposing the Analysis Unit is just like disclosing an armory in a military installation.
Despite the fact that the TRRC was an Act of Parliament and has a search warrant to visit any place of interest in the pursuit of justice and reconciliation, in the case of the NIA headquarters, absolute care should have been taken and certain information and details should not have been made public. Some details at the SIS should be accessible by only a few among the TRRC top brass for evidence purposes and then work continues.
Therefore, DG Ousman Sowe should know better and should have done his job well to protect the country’s Intelligence.
The country’s Spy Chief should have advised the TRRC during their visit to the NIA headquarters, not to make public, their visit (no videos, no filming for the general public and on social media) and should not have exposed the Analysis Unit to them. The Analysis Unit is the nucleus of the country’s intelligence set-up and its serves as the brain and back-up of the government’s backbone.
Therefore, as head of the country’s Intelligence, Mr. Sowe should understand that any threat challenges a nation’s power and disrupts its well-being.
Mr. Sowe should have stood his ground, and raised the alarm to the TRRC through its chairman, on the security implications of such exposure, which could pose a serious threat to national security. He can also justify his advice using its implications based on the Intelligence Module.
Handing over the NIA files to the TRRC
During his testimony before the TRRC, Ousman Sowe made a mistake by allegedly exposing the secret of the country’s Intelligence when the TRRC requested the NIA files. He allegedly handed over classified documents and files containing the identities of all the Intelligence officers of the NIA, including those on covert and overt missions.
When Mr. Sowe was asked about such files, he should have also used his intelligence background to inform the former Lead Counsel Essa Faal of certain security implications if he submits all the files especially those from the Analysis Unit during his testimony. He could have defended his institution and his staff.
However, Mr. Faal has repeatedly advised and guided Mr. Sowe that his testimony was an intelligence matter, and they (the Commission) will not want to go into full details of certain issues that might have a burden on national security matters. This shows that Mr. Essa Faal and the Truth Commission are aware of the national security implications in case of any breach of security by way of exposing what needs to be protected in the country’s interest. In fact, in certain cases during the Intelligence chief’s testimony at the TRRC, the Lead Counsel Mr. Faal told him (Mr. Sowe) that he (Faal) is contented with a ‘Yes or No’ answer without going into full details, just to avoid security implications.
Therefore, if such a commission is reminded of certain security implications during their visit to the NIA headquarters and during Sowe’s testimony, they will definitely respect the advice and guidance given to them.
Unfortunately, Mr. Sowe, instead of guiding the Truth Commission on sensitive intelligence issues, exposed the agents of the NIA by allegedly giving out the classified files, reports, etc, which may contain the names and identities of the agents, their code names, units, roles, and responsibilities, etc. This is very dangerous for a nation because these are secret files that even some senior intelligence officers and agents don’t have access to. They could be used anywhere by the enemy (e.g. hostile country) in the future if classified documents fall into the wrong hands.
All that the TRRC need is to identify only those implicated in rights violations but not the entire set-up.
Mr. Sowe should know that some NIA officers do go on international missions or operations. Some are on covered missions, while some are on overt missions and if they are not implicated in any right violations, their identities should be protected.
He could have used his intelligence knowledge and expertise to advise the TRRC on the security implications of giving out certain files as requested. And if the TRRC refused to listen to his advice, he could easily declare them a threat to national security and then classify their action as sabotage, aimed at weakening the country’s Intel and its set-up in its entirety through obstruction.
If this had happened, then the former Chairman of the TRRC Dr. Lamin J. Sise would have taken time with his team to study the situation and analyze it critically, before making any move that could have the potential to affect our country instead of reconciliation, pursuing justice and nation-building.
In as much as the TRRC has a mandate to investigate and pursue justice and reconcile victims and perpetrators, they will not also want to go to an extent that they will likely be seen as a threat to national security. The Chairman Dr. Lamin J. Sise is an honorable man of dignity who had served as Special Advisor and Chief of Staff to the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He was also Director of Legal Affairs, Human Rights, and Special Assignments in the Executive Office of the UN Secretary General.
Therefore, such a high-caliber individual will definitely understand if you advise or alert him on any action that could pose a threat to national security. At the end of the day, the issue of making the visit to the Intelligence Headquarters public and accessing certain classified files could have been taken to the President of the Republic and the Parliament where the TRRC Act was established, for a national debate, and then a decision will be taken and approved in the nation’s interest.
Destruction and tampering with evidence
Ousman Sowe has confessed to tampering with evidence at the NIA headquarters by refurbishing and painting the torture chambers, among others, during his testimony at the TRRC. The action is unfortunate because if an intelligence officer of Sowe’s nature who spent over 20 years in the service fails to distinguish between evidence tampering and rehabilitation, then there is a serious problem.
The Lead Counsel of the TRRC Essa Faal has put it to Mr. Sowe that even an officer who spent three months in the service will know that his action is tantamount to tampering with evidence.
What Mr. Sowe could have done is to preserve the Bambadinka, NIA Clinic, and other important security establishments by keeping a written record including photographs, drawings, sketches, plan maps, and charts.
He should have made sure that such classified information is safeguarded in documentary form from such unauthorized places.
The Intelligence in any country is the backbone of the government in the whole world. In fact, normally, a sketch plan of Bambadinka or the NIA clinic where seriously tortured detainees were admitted, should have been made. In drawing such a sketch plan for such detention centers, like the clinic, the NIA should have drawn the clinic in its entirety, the beds where patients were admitted, the table where the medical officer sits, the distance between the medical officer’s desk and the admitted patients, the medicines and cupboard used to keep medicines, the handcuffs and the leg shackles on the patients’ beds, etc should all be captured in such a sketch plan.
Unfortunately, Ousman Sowe has tampered with all these and the building has now been renovated to a standard whereby one cannot see any of these features like it was originally designed as an NIA clinic for tortured detainees or Bambadinka detention center as well.
Also, in order to keep a record of that previous look, photographs, sketch plans, etc, should have been done and kept in a video documentary.
DG Sowe should have used his expertise to save and keep such records, materials, and evidence for future use in any legal proceedings.
If the three issues discussed earlier are confirmed, then one could possibly think that our national security is somehow compromised by the SIS.
The current reform agenda of the SIS is good but should be strengthened to a more advanced level. The SIS should not boast of not arresting any individual since 2017 under the new government and that should not be considered an achievement as part of its reform agenda. The answer to that statement is very simple, the NIA (SIS) has been asked to stop those useless arrests and detention without any reason just like they have been doing for 22 years under former dictator Yahya Jammeh.
What we are expecting to see following the transformation of the NIA to SIS, is, how trained, intelligent and effective are the intelligence officers in information gathering, data collection, and analysis of real security threats, advice to the president and the government institutions as per their Intelligence Reports, etc.
What the SIS needs, is to build the capacity of its staff to have the required knowledge and expertise to move the country’s intelligence set-up to a more professional agency.
It is high time for President Barrow to look into the operations of the SIS with proper advice from senior security advisors around him, including the Top echelons of the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA). The SIS is negligent in some ways. If the agency had functioned effectively, a lot of incidents that happened under Barrow’s Administration such as the Faraba incident, Farato and Tanji youth protests, and the Kanilai incident in which Haruna Jatta was shot dead, among others, could have been avoided. The signs of all the above-mentioned protests were clear and all they needed was effective communication, sharing of information, and acting on the matters immediately.
The Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency needs to improve its standard of operation and professionalism in data collection, and intelligence analysis, among other security issues concerning the country.