Our Man in South Africa

Prussic acid and itching powder were among the dirty tricks in the bag of a CIA agent who helped disrupt the anti-apartheid movement for years.

Published November 14, 1996 6:36PM (EST)

He was a big, blustery man with twinkling eyes and a demonic chortle,
and when he showed up at the offices of South African intelligence, he
had a box of dirty tricks as big as the veldt.

Millard Shirley, according to those who worked with him, was a longtime
"Africa hand" with the Central Intelligence Agency, a senior covert
action specialist who came out of retirement in 1985 to help the
white regime neutralize anti-apartheid activists.

His arsenal of tricks was varied and inventive, drawn from highly
classified Pentagon manuals on "psychological warfare," according to
Mike Leach, a former South African operative who worked with Shirley. They ranged from
disruption to death.

"The manuals he gave us were for booby traps, poisons, etcetera," Leach
told me. "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."

A CIA spokeswoman said it was against agency policy to comment on its
employees. Shirley died in an automobile accident in Swaziland in 1990, but
South Africa's "Truth and Reconciliation Commission," a government-sponsored body aimed at uncovering the secrets of the apartheid years, is looking into his activities.

Shirley was "the top CIA operative in South Africa for many years,"
according to Gerard Ludi, a retired senior South African intelligence
agent who says he is a close friend and former business partner of Shirley.

It was Shirley who tipped off the South African police to the
whereabouts of Nelson Mandela in 1962, allowing them to throw up a
roadblock and capture him, according to Ludi. "Shirley had a high-ranking 'deep throat,' a Durban-based Indian, within South African Communist party ranks," Ludi told The Johannesburg Sunday Times in 1990.

"I can only guess that Shirley was instructed by his government to
supply the information to the South Africans because it was in America's
interest to have Mr. Mandela out of the way."

The Times story followed an initial report of CIA complicity in
Mandela's arrest by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published a week
earlier. The Journal-Constitution story did not identify Shirley as the CIA officer who supplied the tip.

The stories set off a storm of acrimony and anguish in South Africa.
The African National Congress characterized them as a "dirty trick" by the security services to create friction between Washington and the ANC.

In addition to Shirley's activities, the CIA also offered training in bugging and wiretaps, according to an official involved in an internal audit of past intelligence operations by the South African telecommunications agency, or Telcom. "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, he said.

Shirley officially retired from the CIA in 1973, at which point, says Ludi, the two went into business operating a private security firm. Then, in
1985, came the call from a secret South African government unit called Stratcom (Strategic Communications), whose function was to disrupt and destroy anti-apartheid groups. Shirley was hired to train the unit's operatives and develop a covert operations training manual.

"The South African intelligence services didn't have decent training
materials," Ludi said. "They asked Millard to update and do a proper
training manual. 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,
Ludi answered, "Who knows? Shirley tried to retire many times, but the
CIA kept calling him back to duty. We gave him about 20 retirement

According to Leach, who also worked for Stratcom, the manuals used by Shirley had U.S. Department of Defense stamped on their covers. But Shirley's activities went beyond designing training manuals, according to Leach.

"One of the things Shirley 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 hand them out to demonstrators, who would soon be convulsed
in uncontrollable itching.

The Stratcom 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 Leach.

The CIA's involvement in these activities is unclear, but Leach claims the agency sent
South Africans to a facility in Taiwan for advanced
psychological warfare training. The Telcom auditing official called the CIA's
alleged wiretap 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," he said

Quote of the day

Dance fever

"My wife loves me a million more times when I take her out dancing.
But we rarely dance with each other; we both have excellent dance instructors.
My wife is born to dance. Wow!"

 former Senator Rene Saguisag, doing the tango with another woman at the
Inter-Continental Hotel in Manila. (From "In Philippine Ballroom Fad, Women Lead," in Thursday's
New York Times)

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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