Colombia’s troubled intelligence agency shuttered

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia’s intelligence service has been led by hard-charging men drawn to the cloak-and-dagger world in the government’s battle against drug traffickers and ultra-violent armed groups.

The new man in charge, however, is an affable bankruptcy lawyer and former university professor, and his role is decidedly different from his predecessors’. Ricardo Giraldo is dismantling the agency, which had once been considered a key component of the U.S.-backed effort to roll back the cocaine trade but has been paralyzed by one embarrassing scandal after another.

  • ( Fernando Vergara / AP ) - Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, right, and Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzo greet soldiers who took part in the raid that killed FARC leader Alfonso Cano. The military and police, not the DAS, have had the most success in infiltrating and battling the FARC.
  • ( Juan Forero / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Ricardo Giraldo is charged with dismantling the DAS.

( Fernando Vergara / AP ) - Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, right, and Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzo greet soldiers who took part in the raid that killed FARC leader Alfonso Cano. The military and police, not the DAS, have had the most success in infiltrating and battling the FARC.

One former director of the Administrative Department of Security, or DAS, as the agency is known here, has been convicted of conspiring to kill union activists. A former high-ranking manager is accused of collaborating with death squads to assassinate a television humorist. Dozens of agents have been implicated in what prosecutors call a systematic effort to illegally spy on the Supreme Court and opposition politicians, which some former DAS agents said was done with U.S. equipment and funding.

And in recent weeks, Semana magazine revealed how rogue agents tried to kill the current interior minister and how other agency employees provided drug trafficking organizations with secret files, including the names of undercover agents and informants.

Government officials have tried to downplay what some analysts call the transformation of the DAS into a criminal organization.

But what is clear is that the DAS has been “a deeply dysfunctional organization, without a clear mission, that is unable to deliver strategic intelligence,” as Douglas Porch, an intelligence expert at the California-based Naval Postgraduate School, put it in a long report. Indeed, it has been police and army intelligence agents — and not DAS operatives — who have infiltrated the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to help the military deliver paralyzing blows.

For Giraldo, 52, the job means taking apart the large, unwieldy agency and ensuring that a treasure trove of secret archives, including illegally obtained wiretaps and surveillance reports, is not stolen.

“This is not easy, to dismantle an organization with 58 years of history,” said Giraldo, who like a patient teacher explained his plans standing before a white board, magic marker in hand. “There is no romance in this job. It’s about organizing, about programming and planning.”

Tasks of reorganization

One of his overarching goals is to secure DAS documents, which are being sealed at the agency’s sprawling headquarters in Colombia’s capital and 27 satellite offices.

Under what is being informally called “the DAS archive project,” officials say they will classify and organize intelligence files and possibly permit the targets of illegal wiretaps and surveillance to review their own files, said Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s national security adviser.

“You set up a system so that the citizens can come forward and ask if they found their way into the DAS archive and ask for their own information,” Jaramillo said.

The DAS’s workforce of 5,500, meanwhile, is being transferred out to a variety of agencies. Though the DAS was known as a spy service, its agents did everything from provide security to high-ranking officials to stamp passports at airports.

More than 3,200 detectives, lab workers and crime-scene specialists are being shifted to the attorney general’s office. About 850 will work in the Foreign Ministry’s border control section, while 431 are being transferred to the National Police.

Jaramillo said a smaller and leaner intelligence service will rise in the DAS’s place.

“DAS was an institution from another age,” Jaramillo said. “It just wasn’t up to the task of what a modern intelligence agency in a liberal democracy should do. So we came to the conclusion that the only solution was to close it down and start from scratch.”

But that has not eased the concerns of observers such as Alfonso Gomez Mendez, a former attorney general who worries the closing of the DAS, which was announced by President Juan Manuel Santos on Oct. 31, may not end illegal spying.

“This is a very typical Colombian situation,” Gomez Mendez said. “Instead of sending people to jail, whoever they may be, we change the name of the institution and think we have resolved the problem.”

Critics fear coverups

Gustavo Gallon, director of a rights group called the Colombian Commission for Jurists, is also skeptical. A target of DAS agents for years, Gallon knows the inner workings of the agency better than most.

According to DAS orders, which have become public as prosecutors pursued cases against those involved in illegal surveillance activities, agents were to follow Gallon 24 hours a day. The agents were told to rent an apartment next to Gallon’s home and tail his teenage daughter, his siblings, even his elderly mother.

Yet the daily surveillance reports are now missing, Gallon said, though prosecutors have the official orders that were passed down to low-level agents.

Gallon wonders whether DAS agents destroyed the documents with the most salacious details of their operations against him. He also questions whether agents involved in illegal activities will be prevented from working in the new intelligence service.

“Here, many people took part, and we do not know, with certainty, that all of them have been identified and neutralized,” Gallon said.

Jaramillo, the national security adviser, said safeguards at the new National Intelligence Directorate will prevent those problems, from a merit-based career structure to the appointment of an inspector general to investigate allegations of malfeasance.

“It is out of crises that reform comes, but the trick is to learn to use the crisis and to see the opportunity in the crisis, and that is what we are trying to do,” he said. “To say, ‘Okay, look, enough is enough and it is possible to actually put together a competent, small and very professional agency.’ ”

 
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