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.”

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.”

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