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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.

Even though government investigators have yet to get to identify the culprits, the president’s critics are trying to use DAS-gate to scuttle his re-election plans.

They claim that Uribe has amassed too much power and that the illegal phone tapping is a telltale sign of a paranoid government that sees enemies around every corner.

“This has become a political debate and people are trying to take advantage,” said Felipe Munoz, who was named director of the DAS earlier this year.

Munoz pointed out that even high government officials, like Vice President Francisco Santos, were targeted by the DAS. And just as opponents of Richard Nixon were disappointed when their names didn’t show up on the infamous White House “enemies list,” Munoz said he’s heard from Colombian politicians who were crestfallen to learn their phones hadn’t been tapped by the DAS.

At DAS headquarters, a massive concrete bunker in the center of Bogota, Munoz tried to demystify the agency. Wearing a wool sweater and a smile, he showed off his private office which contained several suitcases that were sealed shut with tape and filled with electronic eavesdropping equipment labeled “Triggerfish 4000.” The bulky equipment brought to mind the 1980s-era surveillance gear featured in “The Lives of Others,” the Oscar-winning film about Stasi agents spying on East German artists. Munoz said he turned the machines over to government investigators who later returned them to the DAS, but he has refused to put them back into operation.

“They’ve been sitting here since April,” Munoz said.

Still, Munoz admitted that much of the illegal spying took place outside the DAS building and from the inside of panel trucks outfitted with mobile surveillance equipment.

He blamed the problems on the enormous size of the DAS. Thought to be Latin America’s largest spy agency, the DAS employs more than 6,500 people. Besides gathering intelligence, its duties include stamping passports at border checkpoints, providing security at airports and protecting government officials.

Rather than a master plan emanating from the presidential palace, Munoz said, the domestic spying was likely the work of rogue agents. He argued that Uribe is the most popular president in recent Colombian history and has no need to spy on his opponents.

“He’s never said: ‘Check out what that judge is doing’ or ‘Find out what the opposition is up to.’” Munoz said. “The only instruction I’ve ever received from the president is to fight the criminals.”

Earlier this month, Uribe announced that he would close the DAS and farm out its activities to the army, police and other government agencies. But the scandal has made no dent in his job-approval rating, mainly because his hard-line security policies have reduced kidnappings and homicides and made Colombia safer.

“The people from the ruling class, academia and the media talk about how dangerous it would be for Uribe to remain in power,” said Santos of Semana magazine. “But for the majority of Colombians, Uribe has been a great president and they want him to remain in power.”