MODERN espionage is often a bumbling as well as a murky business. This is certainly true in South Africa, judging by a trove of recently leaked intelligence files. In one cable South Africa’s spy chief is miffed to discover that a foreign spook has his private mobile-phone number—and demands an inquiry into the outrage. Another reveals that an Israeli agent in South Africa is “out of his depth”, unable to find his way on local roads. And shops selling Persian carpets in Cape Town are suspected of being fronts for Iranian spies.

The source of the leak to the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera television company and to Britain’s Guardian has not been publicly revealed but must be someone with access to the files of South Africa’s intelligence service and the foreign documents that were shared with it. Many of the documents, dating from 2006-14, focus on spying by and on Israel and Iran. Others show efforts by agencies, including the CIA and Britain’s MI6, to get information from South Africa about foreigners in the country. In many cases they are interested in opposition politicians and campaigners, including Greenpeace and climate-change activists, rather than obvious security threats.

One of the leaked cables, from Mossad, Israel’s foreign-intelligence service, reveals in detail how South Africa’s spies hid the fact that Israel had got hold of blueprints for its Mokopa air-to-ground missile system. A deal was struck: South Africa asked for its blueprints back and Mossad agreed to return them on condition that an Israeli citizen involved in the affair would not be prosecuted.

Reports by South Africa’s spies seem largely drawn from public material. One cites newspaper articles in detailing its own co-operation on nuclear weapons with Israel. The image that emerges is of an intelligence service that gathers few secrets. It also frets about its ability to keep them—concerns that are well founded given this leak.