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Colombia’s Intelligence Agency: Spying on Democracy

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October 2009

Following on the heels of the “falsos positivos” scandal involving soldiers killing
civilians and dressing them up as guerrillas killed in combat, a scandal far worse than
Watergate is unfolding featuring Colombia’s presidential intelligence agency, the
Administrative Security Department (DAS). Exposed by the Colombian news weekly
Semana and the subject of an Attorney General’s office investigation, the DAS is
revealed to have been illegally spying on many of the varied forces of Colombian
democracy: opposition politicians, human rights groups, journalists, clergy, unions, and
Supreme Court justices. The operation went deeper than surveillance, employing a
variety of dirty tricks, seeking to “neutralize and restrict” the normal activities of human
rights groups and any voices critical of the Uribe administration.

President Uribe recently agreed, finally, to disband the agency. But the persistence of
illegal surveillance, by other agencies as well as the DAS, means that any reform effort
must include systematic oversight to ensure abuses do not continue. Indeed, despite the
media outcry and the Attorney General’s investigation, illegal wiretapping continued this
year, focused against judges, human rights lawyers, presidential candidates and members
of Congress.
A U.S. Department of Justice official’s conversations with a Supreme
Court judge were recorded. And even the prosecutors investigating the DAS were
illegally wiretapped. The Uribe Administration has said that a new agency would
continue to be linked to the presidency, one of the structural problems that allowed
intelligence to become politicized.

Background. A special unit of the DAS, called the G-3, was created to carry out this
mission. Far from being a rogue unit, the G-3 reported to the head of the DAS,
coordinated activities with other DAS subdirectors and regional offices, and was
conveniently located next to the DAS planning and disciplinary control offices. The
Attorney General’s office investigation reveals that G-3 meetings were attended by a
variety of DAS subdirectors and its memos were generously cc’d. The DAS is directly at
the service of the Colombian president and his top advisors. Colombia’s Inspector
General, which can bring disciplinary but not criminal charges, has opened an
investigation into the top presidential advisors who may have ordered and been
consumers of this intelligence, including the President’s general secretary, his
spokesperson, his judicial secretary and a press secretary.

The surveillance was obtrusive and obsessive. According to Colombia’s Attorney
General, the DAS systematically and without warrants tapped the phones and email of
Colombia’s major human rights groups, prominent journalists, members of the Supreme
Court, opposition politicians, Afro-Colombian leaders, and the main labor federation.
Particular targets were the leadership and virtually all the employees of the Jose Alvear
Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective and award-winning documentarymaker Hollman Morris.
Union targets included the union federations CUT and CTC; and the hospital workers
union (ANTHOC), judiciary workers union (Asonal Judicial), health and social security
workers union (SINDESS), and telephone workers union (SINTRATELEFONOS).

The DAS investigated subjects’ homes, daily routines, their international travels and their
finances, supplementing information obtained via illegal wiretapping with data obtained
from Colombia’s banking system, immigration, and drivers’ license bureau. Not only did
DAS personnel spy on their targets, they spied on their families, taking photos of their
children, investigating where they went to school, and tapping the phones of their parents,
siblings and children. The DAS had a manual of spying methods for personnel to follow.

The DAS actions went far beyond surveillance. Information in the surveillance files
suggests that the DAS planted people in opposition rallies to “create chaos,” disguised
themselves as journalists, and planted false information in the press, among other actions
intended to disrupt or discredit civil society activities. Information contained in the DAS
files suggests that the DAS may have been behind some threats against defenders, such as
the bloody doll mailed to Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective leader Zoraya
Gutierrez which contained a threat against her young daughter. One objective of DAS
surveillance
appeared to be to gather material which could be used to bring baseless
criminal charges against human rights defenders.

Anything to do with human rights was fair game. Indeed, the principal aim of this
surveillance did not appear to be to investigate whether these groups and individuals had
guerrilla ties, or other real threats to national security. Rather, it was aimed at
investigating and undermining the activities of individuals and groups perceived to be
opposing President Uribe’s policies. Counterintelligence director Carlos Alberto Arzayus
Guerrero, for example, is cited in an October 2005 memo as having ordered “the
surveillance of organizations and individuals opposing government policy, with the goal
of restricting or neutralizing their actions.” Organizations and individuals were targeted,
the Attorney General’s investigation reveals, because they conducted such activities as
producing a book critical of Uribe’s “democratic security” policy; bringing human rights
cases to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights; producing documentaries on
the San Jose de Apartado massacre; and conducting advocacy on human rights issues in
Washington, DC. Anything with a human rights aspect was considered fair game.
When the Bogota city council approved adding a human rights curriculum to city schools,
the DAS ordered an investigation of all the city council members who voted in favor.

The illegal surveillance was directed at international and U.S. groups as well. Missions
by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and Nobel-Laureate Shirin Ebadi
were subjected to surveillance, as was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Email,
faxes and possibly phone conversations between Colombian human rights organizations
and journalists and U.S. human rights organizations such as the Latin America Working
Group, Washington Office on Latin America, Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch, regarding regular activities of human rights monitoring, were tapped. One of the
DAS documents sets out the objective of “defining activities of offensive intelligence”
against Human Rights Watch director of the Americas division, Jose Miguel Vivanco.

Supreme Court magistrates were among those targeted by the DAS for illegal
surveillance. One of the main targets was Ivan Velasquez, the chief investigator of the
parapolitics scandal, whom President Uribe had accused of slander. During just three
months the DAS intercepted 1,900 of his phone calls, many with fellow magistrates,
prosecutors and witnesses in the parapolitics investigation. Other members of the
Supreme Court were also put under constant surveillance. Semana quotes a DAS
detective as saying, “When the confrontation between the court and the presidency
worsened, about a year and a half ago, the order was to know as much as possible about
all the justices, using all necessary means, from human sources to technical measures.
When the confrontation began to diminish, the monitoring was concentrated only on
those deemed high priority, like Velasquez.” Even some members of the executive branch, including the vice president and defense minister, were subjects of DAS surveillance.

In a shocking revelation, the Attorney General’s office found information from the
Colombian government’s protection program in the files containing the results of illegal
surveillance. The U.S.-funded protection program provides protection such as
bodyguards, drivers, communication equipment and bullet-proof cars to the most
threatened human rights activists and trade union leaders. Information from the protection
program about the bodyguards, the kind of protective measures and daily routines was
evidently leaked to the DAS office conducting the illegal surveillance.

The G-3 conducted its operations from 2004-2005, when it was dissolved following the
discovery that the head of the DAS, Jorge Noguera, had passed names of union leaders
and other activists to be targeted for killing
to paramilitary leader Jorge 40. However,
other units, such as the so-called “National and International Investigative Group
(GONI),” continued warrantless surveillance, and Semana’s revelations that the illegal
activities continue today suggest that they are fairly standard practice within the DAS. A
major cover-up of the illegal surveillance occurred in 2009.

Other intelligence agencies besides the DAS have been involved in illegal surveillance,
including military intelligence and some police units. For example, in 2008 it was
revealed that 150 email accounts of human rights defenders, including trade union
leaders, international human rights organizations, academics and journalists were
unlawfully intercepted by the police intelligence agency SIJIN.

The Attorney General’s investigation. One positive development is the opening of an
investigation of the DAS by the Attorney General’s office, in which four former DAS
directors and some 30 other DAS personnel are being investigated. However, in January
2009, shortly before the Attorney General conducted a raid upon the DAS offices, DAS
security cameras caught on videotape DAS officials carting large boxes and computer
equipment out of the DAS offices. The AG’s investigation thus was unable to examine a
considerable portion of the evidence, and the removal of the evidence suggests either that
an informant within the AG’s office tipped off the DAS or that the DAS was conducting
wiretapping of the AG’s office. Moreover, the focus of the investigation appears to be
limited largely to 2005-06, with almost no emphasis, at least at the moment, on more
recent illegal activities. Finally, the status of the Attorney General’s investigation is in
question given the transfer of leadership from former Attorney General Mario Iguaran.
His term ended July 31, 2009, and the “terna” of three candidates supplied by the
President to the Supreme Court were deemed unsuitable by the Supreme Court, leaving
the leadership of the office uncertain.

U.S. assistance and the DAS. According to U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield, the
United States supplied surveillance equipment to the DAS. The ambassador stated in
June 2009 that while the United States did supply such equipment to the DAS, it was not
used in illegal surveillance. However, the Attorney General’s investigation suggests
that the G-3 did not have its own wiretapping equipment but rather relied upon the
common interception rooms, IT teams and mobile wiretapping units that were shared by
the DAS office. It is important to investigate whether U.S. training and equipment were
used in these illegal operations and to establish guarantees that no U.S. training and
equipment can be used for illicit purposes in the future.

Recommendations:

  • Prohibit assistance to the DAS and investigate whether any U.S. funding, equipment or training was provided to its illegal activities.
  • Insist upon the establishment of safeguards to ensure no U.S. funding, equipment, training or intelligence sharing with any Colombian intelligence agencies is used for illegal surveillance.
  • Insist that the State Department and U.S. Embassy carefully monitor and encourage the Attorney General’s and Inspector General’s investigation of illegal surveillance, urging this investigation to encompass activities up to the present and to include those outside the DAS who ordered and were consumers of illegal intelligence. Call on Ambassador Brownfield to meet with the interim Attorney-General to ensure the investigation into the DAS intelligence scandal continue in an effective, vigorous and timely manner.
  • Urge the Colombian government to guarantee that human rights defenders have access to information about themselves contained in intelligence files, as specified by the Habeas Data Law of 2008, and to permit the Inspector General, with supervision by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office, to regularly review the intelligence files and remove unfounded, damaging material,particularly regarding human rights defenders.
  • Encourage changes in Colombia’s intelligence operations to remove the capacity of the President and his advisors to order intelligence operations without safeguards or oversight, in a way that encourages politicization of intelligence.Strengthen the Colombian Congress’s oversight of intelligence operations. These changes are just as essential if the DAS itself is disbanded or reorganized.
  • Encourage the U.S. Embassy make public as well as private expressions of concern regarding illegal surveillance, and publicly demonstrate support for targets such as human rights groups, journalists, and judges through public appearances and events, including visits to the offices of the organizations and individuals most affected by illegal surveillance.

To read this document in PDF form with footnotes, click here.
Para leer este documento en español, haga clíc aquí.

Written by Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund; Kelly Nicholls,
US Office on Colombia; Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Washington Office on Latin America.