Listen to the story.
MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Colombia's intelligence agency, known as the DAS, keeps tabs on Marxist guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers. But recently, the DAS has been caught eavesdropping on Colombian politicians as well as human rights activists, judges and journalists. Many of these targets happen to be critics of Colombia's President, Alvaro Uribe. John Otis reports from the capital, Bogota.
JOHN OTIS: This cell phone conversation was illegally recorded by Colombian intelligence agents. On the line is James Faulkner, the legal attache at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. He's speaking with a Colombian Supreme Court justice who's investigating links between pro-Uribe lawmakers and right-wing paramilitaries. This illegal recording is one of the hundreds allegedly made by the DAS. The scandal has embarrassed Alvaro Uribe as he seeks to change the constitution to run for a third term in next year's election. The DAS is Latin America's largest intelligence agency ï¿½ and it has a history of problems. The first person Uribe named to head the agency was later jailed on charge of colluding with death squads to assassinate three union leaders and a University professor. Officials investigating the domestic spy scandal, which some have labeled ï¿½DAS-gateï¿½, say many of the wiretaps focused on critics of the Uribe government and members of the political opposition ï¿½ including a presidential candidate, Rafael Pardo. Pardo says even his most mundane conversations were recorded.
RAFAEL PARDO: Nothing relevant. The problem for me is not the content. The problem is that this is a crime. The government and the DAS and those persons are committing a crime.
OTIS: The recordings were first revealed in February by Semana, Colombia's most influential news magazine. Since then, more tapes have turned up, Semana Editor Enrique Santos says. The government has a legitimate right to eavesdrop, but he says that spies must obtain a court order and must focus on real enemies of the state. The focus on Uribe's political opposition has
led to a formal protest by the U.S. State Department, as well as a debate over why these figures were targeted in the first place. Again, Semana's Enrique Santos.
SANTOS: The big question behind this illegal wiretapping is who gave the order. Some say the government is behind it; some say it's bad apples working in intelligence and have this Cold War vision of ï¿½if you think different, if you from the left, you are a threat to democracy.ï¿½
OTIS: Meantime, a major reorganization is underway at DAS headquarters, a massive concrete bunker in the center of Bogota. Felipe Munoz was appointed to head the DAS earlier this year just as the spy scandal broke. On a tour of the building, he points to suitcases jammed with electronic surveillance equipment that have been examined and sealed up.
FELIPE MUNOZ: ï¿½Look, these are the machines that the DAS used to intercept calls. They've been sitting here since April. Here are the seals.ï¿½
OTIS: The DAS still intercepts calls, but Munoz insists it's all done under court orders. Munoz takes me into a surveillance room where he greets DAS agents in headphones, tapping into phone conversations. Munoz says the illegal eavesdropping was the work of rogue agents. He denies that President Uribe was involved in any wrongdoing.
MUNOZ: The only orders I've ever received from him is to combat criminals. He's never said, ï¿½Spy on judges,ï¿½ or ï¿½take a look at what the opposition is doing.ï¿½
OTIS: Average Colombians don't seem to care about the scandal. Enrique Santos, of Semana, says that's because Uribe's national security policies have reduced kidnappings and homicides and made Colombia safer.
SANTOS: For majority of Colombians, Uribe was great President and they want him to remain in power.
OTIS: But even President Uribe has given up on the DAS. This month, he announced the DAS will be dissolved and its functions taken over by the police, army, and other agencies. For The World, I'm John Otis in Bogota.