The details behind South Africa’s grabber spy scandal

Court documents have revealed the details behind one of South Africa’s biggest spy scandals, showing how a government official allegedly persuaded a Welkom millionaire to buy a mobile spy gadget known as a grabber.

The Sunday Times reported that businessman Johannes Cronje financed the purchase of the grabber – the Verint Engage Gi2 Tactical Mobile Interception System – that was seized by the Hawks in 2015.

This comes after farmer Willie Lotter and Department of Public Service and Administration official Joseph Pooe appeared in the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court on charges related to importing the grabber.

Cronje said he was introduced to Lotter and Pooe in 2013, where Pooe was said to be a representative of National Intelligence.

“Pooe and Lotter told him they wanted to import the spy gadget to monitor crime syndicates trafficking in gold, cigarettes, and rhino horn,” stated the report.

A grabber can intercept 10,000 phone lines simultaneously within a 3km radius. It works by accessing the nearest cellphone tower, switching it off, and taking its cellular connections.

Importing a grabber requires the permission of the president and the US and Russian intelligence agencies.

The newspaper reported that documents show Pooe is listed as the buyer on behalf of the SA government, as head of “information security management” at the Department of Public Service and Administration.

He said he did not follow the normal importing procedures as they would compromise crime operations due to criminals having infiltrated state agencies.

Cronje agreed to fund the operation, and went to Israel with Pooe to buy the grabber.

“Cronje 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 installments,” stated the report.

South Africans were then trained by Verint to use the grabber, and it was eventually installed in Cronje’s Mercedes-Benz Viano.

No payment

After not receiving payment for several months, Cronje tried to sell the grabber – and in mid-2015 Lotter said he had found a buyer.

Undercover police agents posing as businessmen met with Cronje to buy the device, after which he was arrested by the Hawks and charges brought against the parties involved.

Pooe said the operation was authorised by the government and that he would reveal who had sanctioned it “at the right time”.

He added that he has a history of intelligence work for the government and Umkhonto weSizwe.

State Security Agency spokesman Brian Dube said he was not aware of Pooe “working for state security”.

The Grabber

The full report is in the Sunday Times of 7 August 2016.

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The details behind South Africa’s grabber spy scandal