Far Worse Than Watergate: Report Reveals Widening Scandal Regarding Intelligence Agency as New Government Takes Office in Colombia

As Colombians prepare to elect a new president on Sunday, a new report reveals the shocking details of the Colombian intelligence agency's Watergate-like scandal, which went well beyond illegally spying on key players in the country's democracy. The Department of Administrative Security (DAS), Colombia's intelligence agency, actually orchestrated active efforts to sabotage the activities of Colombian judges, journalists, human rights defenders, international organizations and political opponents.

The authors of Far Worse than Watergate, the U.S. Office on Colombia, the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, the Center for International Policy and the Washington Office on Latin America, reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from the Colombian Attorney General and other sources, revealing how the DAS developed elaborate defamation campaigns -- with titles like "Operation Halloween"-- to destabilize NGOs, create divisions within opposition movements, fabricate false ties to guerrilla groups to ruin defenders' reputations, and undermine the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the DAS was even behind grotesque threats issued to a human rights defender and a journalist -- and their daughters.

The scandal highlights the need to clean up Colombian intelligence operations. To maintain credibility, Colombia's next president -- to be elected on June 20th -- will have to address the dirty tricks, death threats and sabotage efforts against numerous defenders of democracy in Colombia. The new president should also take steps to remove the capacity of the President and his advisors to order intelligence operations without safeguards and oversight. In order to avoid repeat offenses and a politicization of intelligence, the Colombian Congress should be encouraged to exert oversight. The Colombian government must demonstrate that security does not come at the cost of fundamental freedoms.

But U.S. policymakers have cause for concern as well. Did the United States fund these illegal efforts, and in so doing endanger important human rights proponents and political actors? According to U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield, the United States has supplied surveillance equipment to the DAS, although he has claimed it was not used for illegal purposes. But we can not rest assured. During the trial of former DAS director Jorge Noguera, a detective testified that he had been part of a U.S.-funded special unit that apparently tracked union activities. The U.S. Congress appropriately responded to this Watergate-like scandal by including a prohibition of funding for the DAS in the FY2010 foreign operations bill. This is a vital first step. But the same prohibition must be included in defense and intelligence appropriation bills. Congress must investigate whether or not U.S. training and equipment were used for the sinister purpose of undermining the work of legitimate political actors. And most importantly, the U.S. government must establish guarantees to ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are never used for criminal ends.

By: Kelly Nicholls, U.S. Office on Colombia, Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund, Abigail Poe, Center for International Policy and Gimena Sanchez, Washington Office on Latin America.