Pegasus: Espionage is good, but it must serve state policy

Saturday July 31 2021

Author, Asuman Bisiika. PHOTO/FILE

By Asuman Bisiika

What I know is that Pegasus is a software or app. It is a spyware that works like a virus. If it is ‘infected’ into one’s phone (and whatever other devices), it takes it over. In the end, the person who infected the said Pegasus into your phone can listen to all your phone conversation (yes, even those intimate conversations with people very close to you).

 To enhance their intelligence collections, some countries are said to be using Pegasus. In this region, only the Republic of Rwanda (under the wise leadership of Maj Gen Paul Kagame) was listed among countries suspected to be using Pegasus. 
In an interview captured in a video clip doing the rounds on social media in Uganda, President Paul Kagame gestured the accusations away in dismissal. However, his body language, tone of speech and delivery carried an element of chest-thumping. Indeed, he said his country was very resourceful in collecting intelligence using other methods.
All states have intelligence services; and in most cases they (intelligence service) operate outside the constricting administrative regulations of the government. Because of this, it is not uncommon for people in the intelligence services to say: where the government ends, the state begins. The state is the security apparatus (the centre of which is the intelligence).
The principal consumer of intelligence in any country is the head of state. World over, the objectives of all intelligence services are known and are similar. It is their (filed) operations that characterise this or that service for this or that country. Therefore, the head of state has a lot of influence on how the intelligence services operate and the objectives of their compact operations.

 The head of state does (or rather should) not work on personal whims; he works on policy objectives. So, when a head of state claims to be sitting on top of a good job of human intelligence, I may be tempted to ask: what are the policy objectives of this intelligence collection? Are there other tools the state can use to achieve the same objectives without engaging in espionage? Where is the good old diplomacy?
 Intelligence must fit in particular policy frame. Otherwise intelligence services without the balancing hand of policy behind it could end up characterising or being the defining image of a rogue regime. Yes, we have heard of intelligence chiefs going rogue with trading in drugs or minerals.

 So, a head of state who authorises spying on his colleague head of state is clearly inviting the rogue tag to his thin reputation. But do not mind, in intelligence, there is what they call deniability. Yes, the president may sanction spying on a colleague president, but there must a room for denial (with enough albi to convince your colleague president that you didn’t do it.
 State to state business operate on a high level of trust. But spying on a head of state (whether by Pegasus spyware or human intelligence) is not one of those good qualities of good neighbourliness and diplomatic relations that can attract trust from your counterpart.

 Espionage must be tapered by real diplomatic engagement. And since the head of state does not engage in policy bargains (in his day to day activities), any serious president would restrain himself from the temptation to spy on the leader of a sovereign state.  Even with the escape route of deniability, the trust breech caused by this suspicion is too much for normal diplomatic relations. So, the fallout from this Pegasus thing will remain around for some time. 

Mr Bisiika is the executive editor of the East African Flagpost. [email protected]