The Washington Post ran a front-page story August 21, 2011 regarding the illegal wiretapping scandal involving Colombia’s intelligence agency, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS). The article, “A Case of Aid Gone Bad in Colombia,” summarizes how during the Uribe Administration, Colombia’s main intelligence agency, charged with investigating organized crime, insurgents and drug traffickers, conducted illegal surveillance on the Supreme Court, opposition politicians and civil society leaders. (See background to this issue in the Post’s timeline on DAS scandals and in the LAWGEF/USOC/WOLA/CIP 2010 report, Far Worse than Watergate.)
The illegal activities are believed to have been ordered from the top: four of Uribe’s top aides are under investigation, and his chief of staff is in jail “awaiting trial on conspiracy and other charges.” The Post reports that Colombian prosecutors say “the agency was directed by the president’s office to collect the banking records of magistrates, follow their families, bug their offices and analyze their court rulings.” Indeed, the story cites one former DAS chief of analysis claiming that targeting the court was the priority for the DAS under Uribe. “‘They hardly ever gave orders against narco-trafficking or the guerrillas.’” See also the Post’s story on the DAS secret agent, known in the press as Colombia’s Mata Hari, who infiltrated the courts.
The new element to this story is the Post’s contention that “American cash, equipment and training, supplied to elite units of the Colombian intelligence service over the past decade to help smash cocaine-trafficking rings, were used to carry out spying operations and smear campaigns against Supreme Court justices, Uribe’s political opponents, and civil society groups, according to law enforcement documents obtained by the Washington Post and interviews with prosecutors and former Colombian intelligence officials.” While the U.S. government has never denied providing assistance to the DAS, State Department officials have denied that any assistance went towards illegal activities, and continued to maintain this denial after the story was published.
However, the Post article claims that two of the specific units most involved in illegal activities received U.S. support. The National and International Observation Group, which focused on illegal surveillance of the Supreme Court justices, particularly on their investigations and prosecutions of politicians’ ties to paramilitaries, was “dependent on CIA resources,” according to former DAS officials. The Group to Analyze Terrorist Organization Media, which “assembled dossiers on labor leaders, broke into their offices and videotaped union activists,” received from the U.S. government “tens of thousands of dollars, according to an internal DAS report, and the unit’s members regularly met with an embassy official….” “When ‘we were advancing on certain activities, he would go to see how we were advancing,’… a former analyst in the unit said during a court hearing.”
The article notes that William Romero, who oversaw infiltration of the Supreme Court, “like many of the top DAS officials in jail or facing charges, received CIA training.” Romero claims that “DAS units depended on U.S.-supplied computers, wiretapping devices, cameras and mobile phone interception systems, as well as rent for safe houses and petty cash for gasoline.” Romero asserted that “‘We could have operated’ without U.S. assistance, ‘but not with the same effectiveness.'"
At a minimum, it is difficult to believe that the U.S. agents who related directly to the units most involved in illegal activities could have been completely unaware of their activities. And it is impossible to understand how State Department and embassy officials could say with certainty that no U.S. funding was used for criminal purposes.
Investigations and prosecutions of numerous DAS officials, as well as members of Uribe’s top staff, are ongoing. President Juan Manuel Santos has promised to disband the DAS, and replace it with a new intelligence agency. However, whether this new intelligence agency will have sufficient safeguards and oversight to prevent illegal activity, and whether the substantial prosecutions underway will be successfully concluded, remain to be seen. Human rights activists report that some surveillance, as well as incidence of break-ins to their offices, continues.
In April 2010, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, announced that all funds directed to the DAS would go to Colombia’s National Police. Previously, the foreign operations appropriations subcommittee had sensibly placed a ban on DAS funding, which affected only funding through the foreign operations bill.
To ensure that U.S. intelligence funding is not used to undermine democracy and the rule of law, the U.S. Congress should:
- Launch an investigation of U.S. funding for the DAS intelligence agency to determine if, how and under whose orders aid, equipment and training were used in illegal surveillance and criminal activities directed against the judiciary, human rights activists, unions, opposition politicians and journalists. Such an investigation should include recommendations to prevent similar abuses in other cases where the U.S. is providing substantial intelligence funding;
- Insist on the establishment of safeguards to ensure no U.S. funding, equipment, training or intelligence sharing with any Colombian intelligence agency (not only the DAS, but its successor agency, and military and police intelligence units) is used for illegal surveillance or other criminal activities;
- Prohibit any funding for the DAS, not only via the foreign operations bill, but via defense and intelligence bills;
- Urge the Colombian government to ensure that prosecutions are effectively conducted, including of those who ordered illegal surveillance; and
- Urge the Colombian government to ensure a new intelligence agency has adequate safeguards to prevent future abuses. This should include strong congressional and Inspector General oversight, screening out of agents who were engaged in illegal activities, and removing the capacity of the President to order operations without oversight.
The Los Angeles Times, noting that the Colombian Attorney General has been investigating the scandal, editorialized: “Now it's up to the United States to move quickly to determine how much aid was provided to the agency and what it was used for.” Congress, we’re waiting.