Colombian intelligence service wiretapped journalists

New York, February 25, 2009–The illegal wiretapping of prominent Colombian journalists endangers their work and compromises their confidential sources, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

In its Saturday edition, the leading newsweekly Semana revealed that agents of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), the national intelligence service, had spied on critical reporters, Supreme Court judges, opposition politicians, and officials in President Alvaro Uribe’s administration.    

“We call on Colombian authorities to conduct an exhaustive investigation and bring all those responsible to justice,” said CPJ Americas Senior Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría.

Citing five unnamed DAS agents, the magazine said that rogue intelligence officials had monitored and intercepted thousands of e-mails and telephone calls at the end of 2008. The information obtained, Semana said, could have been passed on to criminal groups who have allegedly infiltrated the spy agency. The newsweekly said that the recordings were being destroyed as of the beginning of January.

The magazine identified six well-known journalists among the group of people spied on: Semana’s director Alejandro Santos; the director of W Radio, Julio Sánchez Cristo; Caracol Radio’s director Darío Arizmendi; Ramiro Bejarano, a columnist for the daily El Espectador; Félix de Bedout with W Radio, and Daniel Coronell, news director of TV network Canal Uno and a columnist for Semana. Coronell is one of Uribe’s harshest critics.

On Sunday, Attorney General Mario Iguarán ordered a search of DAS headquarters and assigned two prosecutors to probe the agency, according to local and international news reports. Uribe said he didn’t order the wiretaps, which he blamed on a “mafia gang” within the intelligence service, according to news reports. The DAS, which reports directly to the Colombian president, has been plagued by scandals throughout Uribe’s time in office, the reports said.

“We are dismayed that President Uribe, who prides himself on having a firm grasp on the institutions of Colombia, would acknowledge that a spy agency that reports to him is running amok,” said Lauría. “The DAS must be reformed to ensure that it acts within the law.”

Since the scandal broke, three top DAS officials have resigned, the agency said in a statement. The department didn’t provide any explanation for their departures.  Its director resigned four months ago after admitting that agents spied on opposition leaders.