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Colombia's spy scandal

The intelligence agency has been spying on Colombians — but most don't care if it means they're safer from guerrillas.

Members of Colombia's intelligence agency, DAS, in Bogota, Jan. 27, 2006. (DAS-Photo/Handout/Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia – Wearing headphones and seated in front of computers, a dozen government spies eavesdrop on the telephone calls of suspected criminals.

The agents are members of the DAS, Colombia’s main intelligence agency, and they’ve received court orders to carry out these particular phone taps.

But for at least the past four years, DAS agents have also been illegally monitoring telephone calls made by Colombian politicians, human rights activists, judges and journalists.

Many are political adversaries of President Alvaro Uribe, who is trying to change the constitution in order to run for a third four-year term next year. And because the DAS operates under the direct authority of the president’s office, many critics suspect Uribe or his inner circle.

“The big question is who gave the order?” said Enrique Santos, editor of Semana, Colombia’s most influential news magazine, which uncovered the scandal earlier this year.

“It’s normal for an intelligence agency to monitor guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug lords,” he added. “But when the DAS wire taps journalists and the political opposition, you have a huge problem.” It’s not as if the Colombian government lacks for true enemies. The country’s guerrilla war has been grinding on for 45 years while the illegal narcotics trade remains as robust as ever.

But the DAS – the Spanish acronym for the Department of Administrative Security – has a long history of being infiltrated by criminals and of targeting innocents.

Just last month, police arrested a former DAS director after linking him to the 1989 murder of then-presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan.

Uribe’s first DAS chief has also been jailed on charges of colluding with death squads to assassinate three union leaders and a university professor. Since then, Uribe has gone through three more DAS directors who have failed to clean up the agency.

In the domestic spy scandal — dubbed DAS-gate — one of the main targets has been Ivan Velasquez, a Supreme Court justice who is leading an investigation into ties between pro-Uribe lawmakers and paramilitary death squads.

One of the illegal recordings to surface was a cell phone conversation between Velasquez and James Faulkner, the legal attache at the American Embassy in Bogota — which drew a sharp protest from the U.S. State Department.

Also spied upon was Rafael Pardo, a presidential candidate for the opposition Liberal Party who was monitored by the DAS in 2006.

“It was nothing relevant,” Pardo said of his phone conversations that the DAS recorded. “The problem for me is not the content. The problem is that this is a crime.”