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Beyond Rotten Apples: The Colombian Military Intelligence Needs to Be Reformed

MIAMI — Illegal surveillance of journalists, judges, human rights activists and politicians from the opposition has re-emerged in Colombia. And Colombians are not the only ones affected.

Using United States taxpayer money earmarked to fight drug trafficking and guerrillas, the Colombian Army has carried out illegal espionage operations against Americans in Colombia. A few days ago, the magazine Semana disclosed copies of the files found in a search operation by army intelligence officers who had been illegally collecting information on the whereabouts and news sources of reporters from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and NPR, and on a prominent photographer who was in Colombia on assignment for National Geographic.

A forensic report by Colombia’s Office of the Inspector General found photographs and reports on contacts, places of residence, social media activity and the movements of American journalists and dozens of Colombian reporters, including myself, on an intelligence sergeant’s desk. The files also contain information on human rights defenders, politicians from the opposition and the military.

Intelligence activities are, by their very nature, opaque. In Colombia, civil controls are practically inexistent. Discretion, while sometimes necessary, was used to foment human rights violations, excesses of power and the misuse of public resources.

An operation ordered by the Supreme Court uncovered the most recent scandal: a military facility was raided to establish whether illegal intelligence monitoring was being carried out from there, and in particular whether the recipient of that information was Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who is head of the Democratic Center party, or C.D., and a former president of Colombia. Mr. Uribe is the political boss of President Iván Duque, who has publicly called Mr. Uribe the “eternal president.”

The investigation found that the military had been collecting information on 130 people, some of whom were critical of the government and some of whom were politicians from the opposition. But there was also a surprise: Among those “profiled” was Jorge Mario Eastman. Mr. Eastman, Colombia’s ambassador to the Vatican, was Mr. Duque’s chief of staff during his administration’s first nine months. Mr. Eastman had also been the presidential adviser for communications and deputy minister of defense during the Uribe government.

Another person targeted was Lynsey Addario, a Pulitzer Prize winner who visited the jungles of Colombia to do a photo essay on the National Liberation Army, or E.L.N., guerrillas for National Geographic. Using social media analytics software and information from Ms. Addario’s social networks, the intelligence officers identified her possible contacts in Colombia.

Several Colombian reporters were also followed, among them the prestigious investigative journalist Ricardo Calderón, who was the one who ended up revealing the intelligence officials’ illegal activities.

Another target was Nicholas Casey, who covered Colombia as Andes bureau chief for The New York Times. Last May, Mr. Casey revealed the existence of written instructions from the army to double the number of criminals and militants killed or captured.

For many, the order signaled the return of the so-called false positives — the murder of young civilians by soldiers who were rewarded with cash bonuses, promotions and paid time off as part of a 2005 ministerial directive that stimulated the “body count” policy. The victims were then presented as guerrillas killed in confrontations with the army.

ImageNicholas Casey of The New York Times was surveilled by the Colombian military.
Credit…Josh Haner/The New York Times

Immediately after Mr. Casey’s report was published, members of the governing party accused him of supporting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Senator María Fernanda Cabal, one of the party’s most radical legislators, suggested, without evidence, that Mr. Casey was paid by the FARC to write false news articles.

Illegal surveilling of journalists and government critics has been commonplace in Colombia for at least 15 years. In 2009, during Alvaro Uribe’s second term, the Administrative Department of Security, a civilian intelligence agency that reported directly to the president, illegally spied on Supreme Court magistrates who were investigating ties between political leaders and paramilitary groups; hidden microphones were even planted in closed court sessions.

But that reform was the exception. Usually, whenever a scandal breaks out, the sitting president and his defense minister act surprised and some junior officers are called out as “rotten apples” and fired.

It also happened during the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos: The so-called Operation Andrómeda was uncovered, wherein military intelligence members tried to hack the communications of the negotiators with the FARC guerrillas during peace talks held in Havana.

It is also fair to say that Colombian intelligence, both military and police, has dealt blows to drug trafficking and decimated the power of the guerrillas, leading to negotiations with the FARC, which had become the largest and longest-lasting guerrilla group in the world. It has also significantly reduced the damage capacity of the still-active E.L.N.

Intelligence will continue to be essential for the security of Colombians. However, for it to survive and be respected, major surgery is necessary.

The governments of Colombia and the United States, which has used at least $10 billion in taxpayer money since 2000 to finance cooperative security and defense programs, must guarantee that military intelligence is effectively subordinated to civilian oversight and that it complies with the laws.

Intelligence law needs teeth for the government to effectively direct the actions of intelligence agencies and their budgets. Until now the role of civilians has been decorative, and the minimal oversight is exercised only within the military hierarchy. The government must assume political responsibility for what the military does or does not do. In addition, legislative intelligence and counterintelligence commissions, a purely ornamental entity, must open up to a meaningful and decisive presence of the opposition parties.

This is the only way for there to be controls against corruption and some politicians’ use of force to persecute adversaries, reduce public scrutiny and restrict the work of the national and international press.

Otherwise, there will soon be more rotten apples than good ones.

Daniel Coronell (@dcoronell) is a Colombian investigative journalist and the president for news for Univision in the United States.

Source: NY times

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