While I was an exchange student at L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, otherwise known as Sciences Po, I took a class called “Intelligence Agencies in Democratic Societies.” My professor was an interesting fellow, very knowledgeable about the inner workings of the American CIA, the British MI6, and the French Renseignements Generaux (RG), among other agencies. To be honest, I did not pay much attention in class throughout the semester, partly because I ended up in that course by some mistake of Science Po’s scheduling software. However, an event in Colombia last week reminded me of some of the things I learned in that class and I would like to start take this column from there.
On one of our first sessions in that class, I had to give an oral presentation about the following question: Is espionage a trans-historical phenomenon? (L’espionnage est-il un phenomene transhistorique ?). In other words, is espionage (euphemistically called “intelligence” in modern times) an element inherent to human civilization? Soon after I started my research, some ancient voices spoke to me with a very clear answer.
Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist who lived around the year 500 BC and author of the classic “The Art of War,” wrote the following words: “Whether the object be to crush an army, to storm a city, or to assassinate an individual, it is always necessary to begin by finding out the names of the attendants, the aides-de-camp, and door-keepers and sentries of the general in command. Our spies must be commissioned to ascertain these.” Sun Tzu kept talking to me with that soft and reptile-like voice of his: “Hence it is that which none in the whole army are more intimate relations to be maintained than with spies. None should be more liberally rewarded. In no other business should greater secrecy be preserved.”
Besides Sun Tzu, I found other men of ancient times who also used spies to weaken their enemies. The Book of Deuteronomy (1:22) tells of how Moses decided to use espionage against the people of Canaan: “Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report…” On his side, Kautilya (born circa 350 BC), a strategist and an advisor to an Indian emperor, wrote in his treatise on statecraft, “The Arthashastra,” that a piece of information brought by spy could not be trusted until there was confirmation from two other independent sources. The Pharaoh Ramses II is also said to have defeated the Hittites thanks to his network of counterespionage, which realized that two seemingly repentant Hittite soldiers were actually giving false information to the Egyptians on purpose.
So yes, espionage is as old as human civilization. It is a weapon of war – and perhaps the only one that can be used during peacetime. It involves secrecy and deceit. By definition, there can be no such thing as “clean” or “decent” espionage. It is a dirty game of lies, fabrications and backstabbing. And that is precisely the reason why “intelligence” and “legal” usually do not mix well together in modern Western societies. How can you wiretap someone’s telephone in order to prevent them from committing a crime, without violating their right to privacy and the presumption of innocence? How strong should the indication that someone is a threat to others be in order for the state to be allowed to trigger its espionage machinery against him? If getting a warrant from a judge is a requirement for conducting “legal” spying on somebody, could that judicial procedure alert that person who, in turn, could act to hide all his wrongdoings? There are no easy answers to these questions.
All this rambling about espionage is part of this column for a reason. Last week, the Office of Colombia’s Prosecutor General made public a series of documents that had been taken from the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), one of the country’s intelligence agencies. The information that those documents contain is truly hair-raising. For a long time, Colombia has known that DAS had wiretapped the telephones of some magistrates of the Supreme Court, of politicians in opposition, of certain journalists who were critical of the government, and even of certain officials who work directly for the President. However, what the Office of the Prosecutor General published this week is even worse. According to a witness in the investigation, DAS eavesdropped on some of the private meetings of the Supreme Court, when the magistrates were discussing topics like the President’s possible re-election or the extradition of drug offenders to the US. According to the witness, DAS had been doing that in order to give that information to government officials, something that still has to be proven.
And if listening secretly to the discussions of the Supreme Court does not look bad enough to you, read this. Some of the documents show that DAS orchestrated a wide-ranging campaign to discredit opposition politicians and create them legal trouble. The documents have titles like “Political War” and they outline the objectives of several DAS operations. Those documents clearly say things like: “Piedad Cordoba [a senator from the Liberal Party]: Create links with the AUC … Horacio Serpa Uribe [current governor of the Santander department]: Create links with ELN … Gustavo Petro [current presidential candidate for the Polo Democratico]: Generate links with FARC.” Other DAS documents explicitly pinpoint some NGOs (for instance, Redepaz), international organizations (such as the European Human Rights Commission and the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights), and a law firm (CCAJAR) as targets of “sabotage” and “discrediting.” The document that describes the actions that will be taken against CCAJAR reads: “Create links between CCAJAR and ELN … ACTION: Exchanging a message with an ELN commander, which will be found during a raid.” In other words, DAS planned to forge evidence to put the CCAJAR lawyers in jail.
If these documents are real, and there is reason to believe that they are, somebody has some serious explaining to do. DAS seems to have forgotten that we do not live in Sun Tzu or Kautilya’s times of sovereigns with unlimited power and no accountability. If Colombia wants to deserve the names of “democracy” and “free nation” (and not a “partly free” one, as the Freedom House has it), then all this illegal espionage must cease immediately. Perhaps nobody at DAS has been informed that Colombia is a republic of citizens, and not a tyranny of subjects. And citizens have rights. This situation is simply unacceptable, and I would like to see some heads roll. I am not keeping my hopes up, though.
If you have read my previous columns, you certainly know that I am one of those Colombians who are deeply thankful to President Uribe for all the good changes he has brought to Colombia. To be sure, I am the most uribista of all the columnists in Colombia Reports, and I have written in favor of the government’s actions many times. But not this time. The Supreme Court, opposition politicians, NGOs, international organizations – all these must be off-limits for the state’s intelligence apparatus. Unless there is clear and overwhelming indication that someone is associated with terrorists (and simply agreeing with them does not qualify as such), he cannot be spied on. And do not even get me started on the forgery of evidence. That is immoral, illegal, and disgusting.
As Juan Gossain, one of Colombia’s most influential journalists said recently in an excellent radio editorial, it is time we understand that the government and the state are not the same thing. The political enemies of the ruling administration are not the enemies of the state. On the contrary, they have the right and the duty to dissent and to argue against the government. To have an active opposition is the only road to democracy. The government has to win against them in the battlefield of ideas and policymaking, not through wiretapping and fabrications. The enemy within, it seems to me, is not the opposition or the Supreme Court, but a bunch of power hungry DAS agents and their self-righteous masters.
I hope that those who ordered these illegalities face justice and pay for their actions. Many questions are still unanswered, and given the incredibly slow pace of the Colombian judiciary, as well as the interests involved in this case, chances are that nothing will happen. I hope I am wrong. But if I learned something from that class in Paris is that states have used and abused their intelligence machineries since times immemorial. The challenge of democracy is to restrain these organizations that work mostly in secret, accountable to very few people. It remains to be seen whether Colombia’s fragile democracy is up to the task.