Witness Says Uganda Has Eavesdropped on LRA Communications for 17 years

A serving member of a Ugandan intelligence agency told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that the Ugandan government has been eavesdropping on radio communications of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for almost 17 years.

Witness P-059, who works as an interceptor for the Internal Security Organization (ISO), said on January 27 that since 2011 there has been minimal radio communication between LRA leaders. The witness said he had been intercepting LRA radio communications since 2000 and has been based in the northern Uganda town of Gulu.

The witness said the purpose of the intercept program, “first of all, is to let the government know the plan of the rebels, that is the LRA rebels, so that the government can find solutions or ways to protect the security of Ugandans.”

He said the other purpose of the program was to keep a record of everything, “because it would help in future.”

Witness P-059 is testifying in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, who the prosecution say was a battalion commander and then a brigade commander in the LRA.

Ongwen faces 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role as a commander in the LRA. He is accused of having coordinated or participated in attacks between 2003 and 2004 on the Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. He is also accused of having forcibly married seven women when they were girls and committed sexual crimes against them.

The Lord’s Resistance Army was formed in the late 1980s and for about 20 years fought the government in northern Uganda. The group moved out of northern Uganda after peace talks with the government failed in 2008. Since then it has been operating in the areas that form the border between the Central Africa Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.

Witness P-059 is testifying under in-court protective measures that the prosecution applied for at the request of the Ugandan government. The protective measures include distorting his face in public broadcasts and using a pseudonym when referring to him in court.

In his testimony on Friday, Witness P-059 described to the court his routine, particularly during the period from 2002 to 2005. The charges against Ongwen extend from July 1, 2002 to December 31, 2005. Witness P-059 said that during these years, his work schedule shadowed the radio call routines of the LRA.

He said the LRA usually communicated on radio six times in a day at fixed times. He said the LRA call times were nine in the morning; 11; one in the afternoon; three; four; and five in the evening. Witness P-059 said on occasion the LRA also communicated at six in the evening, and if there was “an operation,” they could also communicate at night. He said because of this he also slept in the same room where he monitored and recorded LRA radio communications.

Witness P-059 said he made rough notes of the conversations on radio, focusing on any communication that had to do with LRA attacks. He said the conversations were in Acholi, which he understands. The witness said he would write in English a clean version of his notes on a separate paper and then transfer that information to a notebook, which served as a logbook of the calls monitored. He said the information in the notebook also catalogued the corresponding cassettes on which the intercepts were recorded.

“You told us that you sound recorded the LRA communications. Why did you do this?” asked trial lawyer Julien Elderfield.

“This was done for record purposes. It was to be used as reference in the future, and if the need arose it was to be presented to a court, such as this one. Thirdly, my office instructed us to keep records,” answered the witness.

He said the rough notes, clean version of the notes, and notebooks were stored in the room he worked and slept in. The witness said these materials were eventually sent to the ISO headquarters in Kampala.

During his testimony on Friday, Witness P-059 identified a sketch of the compound and building where he works and photographs of the building. These were not shown to the public. He also named all the people he worked with in Gulu and Kampala and explained their role in the ISO LRA intercept program.

“Of all these people, including you, who was the main interceptor of communications, LRA communications?” asked Elderfield.

“The main interceptor of LRA communication is the one who sits and listens to the radio, and that would be me who is before you now,” the witness replied.

Witness P-059 told the court the LRA used code sheets known by the acronym TONFAS to keep their sensitive information secret when speaking on radio.

TONFAS refers to Time, Operator, Nicknames, Frequency, Address, Security. A former LRA radio operator testified about it on Monday. An analyst with the Office of the Prosecutor also testified about it on January 18.

On Friday, Witness P-059 said the Ugandan military seized some TONFAS code sheets during battle with the LRA. He said he cracked some of the LRA codes and was able to reconstruct some of the TONFAS code sheets. He said at time he was only able to partially break the LRA codes. Elderfield presented him with some of those code sheets and Witness P-059 explained how they were used and also pointed the ones that showed he was only able to partially break the LRA codes.

Witness P-059 will continue testifying on Monday.