THE ANNOUNCEMENT last week that South Africa intends to prosecute the former white regime's top defense and intelligence officials may well bode ill for the Central Intelligence Agency.
The CIA's role in South Africa during the Cold War has mostly been written in invisible ink. Washington formally opposed apartheid, the rigid system of white rule that governed South Africa from 1948 to 1994. The CIA, however, was a silent partner of the same security services that were enforcing apartheid with blunt force. Yet almost nothing has emerged about CIA activities in South Africa beyond its covert partnership with Pretoria in the Angolan civil war.
Now that may change. Former Defense Minister Magnus Malan and other officials have been told to appear in the Durban court Dec. 1 to answer charges of murder relating to their alleged control of "third force" activities against opponents of apartheid. A "Truth Commission" is also gearing up for hearings on covert intelligence activities, some of which allegedly implicate the CIA in neutralizing South African domestic dissent.
Based on what has already leaked out, the CIA's role in South Africa could turn out to be every bit as embarrassing as disclosure of its activities in Haiti and Guatemala, where thugs were discovered on its payroll.
A consultant's story
One of the emerging stories involves Millard Shirley, a balding, paunchy American in his mid-50s who showed up in Johannesburg in 1985 as an intelligence consultant to Telcom, the government postal and communications agency. He arrived with several highly classified Pentagon manuals on "psychological warfare," according to Mike Leach, a former Telcom manager.
"The manuals he gave us were for booby traps, poisons, etcetera," Mr. Leach told the South African Broadcasting Corp. in June, then repeated to me in Cape Town last month. "One of the items he gave us was a recipe for prussic acid, a clear compound, which, if inhaled, would give a massive coronary. If a doctor's not looking for prussic acid he'll put [the cause of death] down to natural causes."
Mr. Shirley also taught Telcom trainees how to put other chemicals to imaginative use, too, Mr. Leach said. "One of the things [we] did during the negotiations with unions was to doctor the water on the table with chemicals to induce stomach cramps, to bring about a point where the union officials would want to hurry up the negotiations and just settle because they were physically uncomfortable." Another trick was to launder anti-apartheid T-shirts in a fiberglass solution and give them to demonstrators, who would soon be convulsed into to uncontrollable itching.
The Telcom unit also intercepted foreign donations to anti-apartheid groups, then sent back thank-you notes on phony letterheads and put the money into more "psychological warfare operations," said Mr. Leach, who "understood" the American to be a CIA agent.
Millard Shirley was "the top CIA operative in South Africa for many years," according to Gerard Ludi, a retired senior South African police operative. They were close friends and business partners in a private security firm at one point, he told me.
"The South African intelligence services didn't have decent training materials," Mr. Ludi said. "It was really pathetic. They asked Millard to update and do a proper training manual. Then he might've gone to Telcom as a free-lance thing. He did it for a year -- off and on for a year."
Asked whether his friend was still working for the CIA at that point, Mr. Ludi answered, "Who knows?" Mr. Shirley tried to retire "many times," he said, but the CIA kept calling him back to duty. "We gave him about 20 retirement parties."
Responding to my inquiry about Mr. Shirley, a CIA spokeswoman declined comment, saying it is against the agency's policy to discuss employees.
The CIA also trained Telcom security agents in bugging and wiretaps, according to Peter Ross, a Telcom manager involved in an internal audit of past intelligence operations by the telecommunications company. "They were sent to America to be trained in certain areas of monitoring," he said. "It went beyond the monitoring of lines to the placing of devices in rooms," some of which Telcom is still uncovering.
The cookie crumbles
Mr. Ross called the alleged training "very sinister." He suspects the CIA used the program to develop its own spies in Telcom "to protect its assets in the country at this time. The American government wanted to know which way the cookie would crumble."
Nelson Mandela's government strongly wants to stay on good terms with Washington, but relations may be strained by collateral damage arising from the Malan case. The former defense minister is being charged with murder for his alleged role in creating a top-secret paramilitary force within the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Zula-based rival to Mr. Mandela's African National Congress, which allegedly carried out a 1987 massacre of 13 people, including six children, during an attempt to assassinate a supporter of the then-outlawed ANC. A former South African intelligence operative, Martin Dolinchek, has said the CIA was involved "on the periphery" of the covert aid to Inkatha, without being specific.
To some South African observers, the Mandela government is not interested in prosecuting Mr. Malan and other top former security officials so much as using the indictments as a stick to beat them into confessing their sins to the Truth Commission, which has the power to grant them immunity. If so, the CIA might be wise to come forward now and clear its own slate, instead of having the ugly facts emerge one by one in South Africa's super-charged political atmosphere.
Among his many qualities, Nelson Mandela, now 77, has demonstrated that he is a leader of extraordinary tolerance, willing to "let bygones be bygones." His successors might not be so magnanimous.
Jeff Stein is a former deputy foreign news editor at UPI and author of "A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War." He recently returned from teaching investigative reporting in South Africa on a government grant.