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Eavesdropping on Allies Nothing New For U.S.

September 4, 2013
Former Colombian President César Gaviria knows what it's like to be wiretapped by the U.S.

Former Colombian President César Gaviria knows what it’s like to be wiretapped by the U.S.

Those who were shocked (shocked!) to learn that the National Security Agency spies on friendly governments in Brazil and Mexico might want to revisit an Electronic Briefing Book published more than five years ago on the Archive website.

That article highlighted a “Secret/NODIS” cable in which U.S. Ambassador Morris Busby described evidence, gleaned from sensitive intelligence sources, that a U.S.-Colombia joint task force had been sharing information with the leader of notorious Colombian “paramilitary” death squad. The so-called “Search Block” (Bloque de Búsqueda) was formed in 1992 to hunt down and recapture fugitive Medellín Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Busby’s concern was that U.S. intelligence–gathered using some of the most sensitive eavesdropping techniques then available–was being shared with members of Los Pepes, a violent paramilitary group funded by the rival Cali Cartel to murder and intimidate people close to Escobar.

Busby’s cable recounts a series of secret, high-level meetings among top Colombian officials, attributing the information to “sensitive PALO reporting,” a designation that most likely refers to the Central Intelligence Agency.

PALO reports indicated that the Colombian National Police (CNP) director, General Miguel Antonio Gómez Padilla “had directed a senior CNP intelligence officer to maintain contact with Fidel Castaño, paramilitary leader of Los Pepes, for the purposes of intelligence collection.”

A second PALO report said that the Colombian President, César Gaviria, had ordered intelligence cooperation with Los Pepes to cease and told the police intelligence commander “to ‘pass the word’ that Los Pepes must be dissolved immediately.”

Under the circumstances, it’s not terribly surprising that the U.S. was spying on its allies in Colombia. The country was an important partner in the U.S. “War on Drugs” and was on the receiving end of all kinds of sensitive U.S. intelligence information. Besides the possible transfer of U.S. intelligence to Los Pepes, a big concern among U.S. officials was the possibility that information connecting Los Pepes to the Search Block—or an official investigation into the matter—would undermine the anti-Escobar effort, implicate the U.S. in serious human rights violations perpetrated by Los Pepes, and provide leverage to the Cali Cartel in surrender negotiations with the Colombian government.

Let’s face it. Intelligence is not a gentleman’s game. The very closeness of the U.S.-Colombia security relationship made it all the more important for U.S. policymakers to understand the intentions of Colombian leaders. Is it such a surprise, then, that the U.S. has now trained its electric ears on the leaders of most powerful states in Latin America? Given all that we now know about the NSA’s collection efforts on ordinary U.S. citizens, is it so shocking to learn that the U.S. is listening in on the communications of foreign governments? Should we be surprised to hear that the U.S. intelligence community is looking for information on the world’s ninth-largest oil producer?

Of course not.

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