Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Tuesday that the Colombian military’s alleged wiretapping of government and FARC rebel delegations to ongoing peace talks being held in Havana, Cuba between the Colombian state and the country’s largest rebel group is unacceptable, calling the covert intelligence program “illicit” and assuring that the truth of the mater will be uncovered.
The president’s statement came amid a growing scandal, after Colombia’s Semana newspaper released the findings of a 15-month investigation into a secret surveillance center in the Colombian capital of Bogota on Monday. The military now stands accused of using United States Central Intelligence Agency funding and support to monitor the electronic communications of opposition politicians in Colombia, and representatives from the government and FARC rebel group involved in the peace process in Cuba.
President Santos emphasized that regular and covert intelligence gathering against “enemies of the State” are an “obligation” and “necessary,” but said that “what is not acceptable under any point of view is for that same intelligence to be used against legitimate citizens […] against political opposition, and much less against functionaries of the very State,” according to a copy of the president’s speech released by his office.
In his speech, Santos echoed the sentiments of Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzon and Senate President Juan Fernando Cristo, both of whom had previously expressed their consternation and announced that investigations would be carried out looking into the allegations.
“I have given explicit instructions,” said Santos, “to the Minister of Defense and to the senior commanders of the Armed Forces and the Army, to carry this investigation through to the end, to whatever extent this illegal use of intelligence has reached, to whoever is behind this, whoever could be interested in monitoring and recording and intercepting [the communications of] our peace negotiators, whatever dark forces are behind this.”
The president professed his own ignorance of the intelligence unit’s operations, but referred to his prior experience dealing with similar issues and assured that his hand “has never shaken in combatting the illegal use of intelligence.”
Santos served as Defense Minister under ex-President Alvaro Uribe Velez, overseeing Colombia’s intelligence community throughout a scandal involving the now-defunct Administrative Security Department (DAS). The DAS, closed as a result of the ensuing revelations, was found to have engaged in the widespread illegal wiretapping of opposition politicians, Supreme Court judges, journalists and human rights organizations.
Santos emerged from the scandal politically unscathed, and pointed out in Tuesday’s speech that he had called for the DAS’ closure, despite some political opposition to the move at the time. Santos did not, however, acknowledge his own role in promoting intelligence cooperation between the United States and Colombia, a relationship that has since led to a number of revelations regarding the overreach Colombia’s armed forces.
Indeed, the unit allegedly responsible for the most recent wiretapping scandal is the same team behind 2008’s widely popularized Operation Jaque, which Santos oversaw with the aid of US intelligence forces.
The president also failed to indicate what actions would be taken against the parties behind the surveillance operations, despite some early political pressure to discipline various members of the intelligence community.
In an interview with Colombia Reports, for example, Colombian House Representative Ivan Cepeda seconded earlier calls for the immediate resignation of Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon.
“I think, whether he knew about what was happening or not, he is responsible for not taking the necessary measures to ensure something like this didn’t happen,” said Cepeda, one of the few opposition political leaders already identified as being targeted by the most recent wiretapping.
Cepeda stopped short of accusing any prominent government of being directly complicit in the surveillance activity, but did say the potential involvement of Santos’ predecessor merits investigation.
“This was an action very clearly intended to destabilize the peace process in Havana. I think this action has been publicly promoted by ex-President Alvaro Uribe, and that the ex-president should be investigated for this situation.”
Uribe has not held official office since 2010, but has used his power in the conservative Democratic Center party to advocate against the peace process. Santos did not mention Uribe by name in his speech, but did allude to “dark forces” trying to “sabotage” the peace process, suggesting that these anonymous groups might have “internal contacts” within the defense community.
Cepeda said that he expects the Senate’s Intelligence Committee to declare a formal investigation into the matter on Wednesday, and hopes that the various forthcoming investigations prove more effective than others currently being administered in the Congress, including one leveled against Uribe for his role in his administration’s surveillance activities.
“We are asking the government to take this seriously. This is a grave attack against the peace process, and it deserves a serious response.”
Maren Soendergaard contributed in the researching and writing of this article.
- Interview with Ivan Cepeda
- Declaración del Presidente Juan Manuel Santos al término de la reunión de balance sobre las ‘ollas’ y sobre denuncias de interceptaciones ilegales (President’s Office)