Secret Revolution

Title:                      Secret Revolution

Author:                 Niël Barnard

Barnard, Niël (2015). Secret Revolution: Memoirs of A Spy Boss. Cape Town: Tafelberg

LCCN:    2015453364

DT1972.B376 A3 2015


Date Posted:      March 22, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Change at the top often results in a period of bureaucratic, if not operational, uncertainty in an intelligence agency. And when the new chief is in his 30s, comes from academia, has no prior intelligence experience, and arrives with a mission to bring order to a chaotic security situation, the chances of success are slim. These were the circumstances that Niël Barnard faced in 1980 when South Africa’s Prime Minister P. W. Botha suddenly appointed him to head the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Curiously, Botha never explained his choice, and the surprised Barnard never asked. (p. 35)

Bernard’s initial marching orders were to provide the Prime Minister with honest assessments of the data his service was given for analysis. Of course this required receipt of accurate and timely information. But at that time collection was the province of the military and the police, and both bureaucracies wanted to be the one to inform the PM. The initial result was chaos. But in the end, Barnard, with Botha’s backing, won the day. He redefined the NIS mission to include responsibility for relations with foreign intelligence services, collection of foreign intelligence, a separate cryptologic capability, and the protection of foreign dignitaries. Domestic security responsibilities were parceled out to other agencies.

With these issues settled, Barnard describes in general terms the NIS relationships and operations with various foreign services in Africa, Russia, and the West. He clearly admires the MI6, the German BND, and the Mossad but dismisses CIA with the comment that it “would not win many gold medals in an intelligence Olympiad.” (p. 86) As to the KGB, he is proud that NIS honored its request to keep their extensive contacts secret from the CIA. (p. 91)

By 1986, with NIS providing reliable intelligence, Botha “accepted, perhaps with reluctance, that a negotiated settlement was the best option to solve our political predicament” with the increasingly violent African National Congress (ANC). (p. 150) Progress was slow. In 1988, Botha charged Barnard, by now a trusted confidant, with heading up a small government team to conduct more formal exploratory talks. Barnard writes that Botha acknowledged that the only result would be a majority black government with Mandela as president. Barnard met with Mandela some 50 times, during which he tried to get Mandela to halt the violence before he and his colleagues were released and elections held. Mandela refused and eventually Botha and his successor, F.W. de Klerk, gave in.

Apartheid was abolished in February 1990; Mandela was released; and Barnard resigned, returning to his family and academia. Secret Revolution tells an unusual success story that demonstrates what sound management practices can achieve when applied firmly and how a trusted intelligence chief quietly accomplished a delicate political mission that helped create a new democratic government.

[1] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, pp. 120-121). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at

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