Colombia spy chief works to clean up agency

Seldom has an intelligence agency fallen so deeply into disrepute as Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security, or DAS, a hybrid CIA- FBI-Homeland Security entity. Its officials have been accused of placing illegal wiretaps, conducting smear campaigns and even conspiring to commit murder.

This month, a prosecutor said he had proof that a DAS team had spied on public figures with the knowledge of officials in President Alvaro Uribe’s office. (Uribe, who favors dismantling DAS, denies the charges.)

But it is only the latest blow. Two of the last four DAS directors have been sent to jail. Names of DAS operatives surfaced recently in connection with the assassinations of presidential candidates two decades ago. U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said last week that U.S. assistance to DAS was being suspended indefinitely.

Felipe Munoz, 39, a lifelong technocrat who studied at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, was brought in to reform DAS in January 2009. He helped draft a proposal to break up and “re-brand” DAS that he said should be approved by Congress by June.

He spoke with The Times on Thursday about the task.

Former DAS director Jorge Noguera is in jail on charges of helping paramilitaries kill union and opposition figures. Ten DAS officials are charged with spying on Supreme Court justices. Others are suspected of carrying out “dirty tricks” campaigns against the opposition. How much have these scandals hurt Colombia?

Without a doubt they have generated enormous damage. It has impacted, or become tied to, our negotiations for free trade agreements with the United States, with Canada, with European Union. It’s a topic that has been brought up by human rights representatives of the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

What steps have you taken to clean up DAS?

I’ve taken decisions that have been politically costly and unpopular. Of paramount importance is the plan we have made to reinvent the agency. At the same time we have introduced stricter controls of wiretaps, we fired 120 people for being involved in certain activities, promoted a new intelligence law passed last March and prepared a white paper that next week will detail the reorganization.

Will the DAS disappear, and if so how will its current functions be distributed?

The DAS today is the same one founded 56 years ago, and its organizational structure has fallen way behind its responsibilities, which are too many. DAS does what in other countries five separate agencies do, from intelligence-gathering and counter-intelligence, to criminal investigations, immigration control and border patrol. This has generated all kinds of problems. With all the information coming in, there are too many portals through which it can leave. There were too few controls and too little oversight.

If the Congress approves the reform, many of the DAS functions will be transferred to the armed forces and the attorney general’s office. What will remain is an agency that will have responsibilities in intelligence and counter-intelligence and will consist of no more than 1,500 people. Now it has 6,000. The name DAS has to change. It will operate under a new brand.

How has the reorganization gone in your 15 months as director?

It has been difficult to focus on reforms with so many scandals emerging. Don’t forget that since I started, we’ve not only dealt with illegal wiretaps but also the resurgence of cases of alleged DAS involvement in the deaths of [presidential candidates] Luis Carlos Galan, Carlos Pizarro and Bernardo Jaramillo, even a bomb placed aboard an Avianca airliner. All of which is to remind people that these problems involving DAS and insufficient controls didn’t arise yesterday.

What sort of assistance was the U.S. giving DAS, and what triggered the decision to stop all cooperation?

There have been many years’ cooperation between the two countries in intelligence-sharing, training, and in things such as counterfeit currency enforcement. But no U.S. resource was used in these kinds of [illegal] activities. The trigger was not sudden: There has been more scrutiny on DAS and concern in the U.S. Congress over the scandals for many months.

Kraul is a special correspondent.