(IPS) – While the world’s attention was riveted on the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama, an operation was surreptitiously being carried out Jan. 19-21 at the headquarters of Colombia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), which answers directly to the president’s office.
Over the course of those three days, dozens of boxes of files, computer hard drives, tape recordings and transcripts containing the results of months or even years of spying on Supreme Court judges, prosecutors, human rights defenders, opposition politicians and journalists were destroyed on orders from above.
A month later, on Feb. 21, the operation was reported by the Bogota magazine Semana and the Noticias Uno TV newscast.
On Jan. 16, three days before – according to Semana – the government issued the order to gather up the recordings and documents from the DAS offices, a new DAS director had been appointed, Felipe Muñoz, who assumed the position on Jan. 22 – the day after the destruction of the files was completed.
"Of all the boxes taken to DAS Counterintelligence (the section in charge of verifying the loyalty of DAS agents and officials), containing documents, recordings, etc, only one was left, which was removed from (Counterintelligence on) the 11th floor on the evening of Wednesday Jan. 21," said a DAS employee who spoke to Semana anonymously. "I don’t know what they left in that box, or where it was taken. I only know that the rest was destroyed."
In reaction to the media reports, the Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones (CTI – the Attorney General’s Office’s judicial police), searched DAS offices on Sunday Feb. 22 – after the agency’s director was notified about the operation.
On Monday Feb. 23, an ad hoc committee of prosecutors visited DAS to join the CTI unit that was still carrying out the search.
The CTI carried out further inspections from Mar. 1-19, which were "significant" in terms of the information gathered, according to a 228-page CTI report to which IPS had access.
The report was addressed to the prosecutors working on the case, whose first goal was to locate the source of the leak to the press on the illegal DAS wiretapping operations.
The CTI computer experts discovered digital tracks in computers that had been "cleaned" by the DAS Counterintelligence office on the 11th floor, as well as in wiretapping equipment on two other floors of the building. The results of their report have not yet been divulged.
Material that was not destroyed, which has been held in DAS archives since 2007, marked "top secret," included 104 A-Z expanding files dated 2004 to 2005 and containing records and minutes of meetings from the highest levels of the domestic intelligence agency, along with other documents and photos handed over to the CTI by the new DAS leadership.
The first 46 pages of the 228-page CTI report sum up the content of the A-Z accordion files considered of greatest interest in judicial terms.
Eighty percent of the files referred to "operation Transmilenio", which involved spying on the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, a human rights group, and especially its director, human rights lawyer Alirio Uribe.
The DAS also kept human rights defender Gustavo Gallón, head of the Colombian Commission of Jurists – a non-governmental organisation with United Nations consultative status – under close surveillance, along with his entire family, under "operation Cascabel".
In addition, files were kept on Jesuit priest Javier Giraldo, the director of the databank of the Jesuit Centre for Popular Research and Education (CINEP), which documents the victims of Colombia’s long-ranging civil war.
Files were also found on the San José de Apartadó Peace Community in the banana-producing Urabá region in the northwestern province of Antioquia.
That community, of which Giraldo is one of the staunchest defenders, is an association of small farmers opposed to the use of weapons who have declared themselves neutral in the armed conflict.
Right-wing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe does not accept neutrality in the war, and accuses the community of being allied with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, which emerged 45 years ago.
Another peace group, the National Network of Initiatives for Peace and Against War, also fell under the suspicion of the Uribe administration, whose flagship "democratic security" policies include engaging the civilian population more actively in fighting the guerrillas.
Two files titled "Puerto Asís" were dedicated, according to the CTI report, to journalist Hollman Morris, director of the TV news programme "Contravía", which the reporter has described as "the voice of the voiceless in Colombia" because of its work uncovering human rights abuses and giving visibility to the victims.
The reporters critical of the government who were spied on by the DAS also included Carlos Lozano, director of the Communist newspaper Voz; Daniel Coronell, director of the Noticias Uno TV news programme; Félix de Bedout with the W Radio station; and Swedish reporter Dick Emanuelsson, a correspondent for several media outlets from his country.
Other files show that the phone conversations and e-mails of politicians belonging to opposition parties and Supreme Court magistrates were also intercepted, as the DAS wiretapping scandal continues to snowball.
The file named "Blancos políticos" (political targets), containing 541 sheets of paper, shows that presidential candidates were followed ahead of the 2006 elections: Carlos Gaviria of the left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA); Horacio Serpa of the Liberal Party; and Álvaro Leyva Durán, a former Conservative Party cabinet minister who announced his independent candidacy before withdrawing from the race.
"Blancos políticos" also included PDA members Luis Eduardo Garzón, then mayor of Bogotá; Antonio Navarro, the current governor of the southwestern province of Nariño; Senator Gustavo Petro; and lawmaker Wilson Borja. Another was Piedad Córdoba, a Liberal Party senator internationally known for her role in achieving the release of hostages held by the FARC.
Other "political targets" were former mayor of San José de Apartadó Gloria Cuartas and former attorney general Alfonso Gómez Méndez, a contender for the Liberal Party’s presidential candidacy.
On May 28, Attorney General Mario Iguarán announced that 34 DAS officials and former officials – including the agency’s last four directors – would be called in for questioning.
The Attorney General’s Office is in the process of determining whether to charge the DAS officials with conspiracy to commit crimes, illegal use of surveillance equipment, abuse of authority, tampering with public documents, the destruction, suppression or concealment of public documents, or other charges.
At the same time, the Procuraduría General de la Nación (office of the inspector general) opened disciplinary investigations into 16 DAS officials in mid-May.
It also linked the case to three key presidential aides: Bernardo Moreno, the general secretary of the presidency; Uribe’s press secretary César Mauricio Velásquez; and his communications adviser, Jorge Mario Eastman.
The Procuraduría will be investigating meetings held by the three aides and the then heads of the DAS Intelligence and Counterintelligence offices.
In the meetings, the three presidential aides reportedly received classified information on the wiretapping of Supreme Court judges, with whom Uribe was at loggerheads due to their investigations of dozens of the president’s allies in Congress – including his cousin, Mario Uribe – accused of ties with the far-right paramilitary militias.
Iguarán’s term ends Jul. 31, and his successor will be chosen by the Supreme Court – from a short-list provided by the president.
*This is the first part of a special series of articles on the DAS wiretap scandal.