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Colombian Army Surveillance of American Journalists Widespread, Reports Semana

Extract: “Special Report: The Secret Files”

May 1, 2020

Semana [Colombian newsmagazine]

[For background: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/08/opinion/colombia-spying-corruption.html]

https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/espionaje-del-ejercito-nacional-las-carpetas-secretas-investigacion-semana/667616

 

SEMANA reveals evidence of an Army computer surveillance program in which most of the targets were journalists, including several Americans. Politicians, generals, NGO staff and union activists were also among the 130 subjects.

Army units carried out for several months one of the most sensitive intelligence investigations in the country’s recent history. Between February and early December of last year, the activities of more than 130 citizens were targeted for what the military termed “profiling” and “special tasks.”

Using digital tools and software, these missions involved searches and massive, indiscriminate collection of all available information on targets in order to assemble military intelligence reports. The profiles included phone numbers, home and work addresses, email addresses, friends, relatives, children, colleagues, contacts, traffic offenses and even voting precincts.

SEMANA has obtained dozens of these documents. Over a period of weeks, the magazine interviewed more than 10 sources, many of whom participated in the operation, which targeted at least 130 people, including journalists, ex-ministers, Presidential aides, generals, politicians and union activists, among others.

Without a doubt, the case will give rise to major controversy within Colombia and abroad. One of the reasons is that the military units involved received economic assistance from a foreign intelligence agency. Some of those resources were used to acquire spying tools to surveil U.S. citizens – specifically, journalists. “The Americans are not going to like the fact that some of their own money, taxpayer funds, as they say, were re-routed from the legitimate purposes for which they were intended – the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking – and wound up being used to dig into the lives of journalists from major media of their own country. This is going to be a mess,” one of the military sources who carried out the work told SEMANA, asking not to be named. The source was not mistaken.

…..The work was carried out by some cyber-intelligence battalions (BACIB) belonging to military intelligence brigades and the Security Counter-Intelligence Battalion (BACSI). Both report to the Military Intelligence Support Command(CAIMI) and the Military Counter-Intelligence Support Command (CACIM)…

…One of the first victims of these irregular activities was American journalist Nick Casey, a New York Times correspondent. On May 18 of last year he had published an article that revealed the existence of forms that military commanders had to fill out to project numbers of casualties, among other variables. These documents unleashed major controversy because they could be interpreted as a return to so-called “false positives.” [Nicholas Casey, The New York Times May 18, 2019: The new orders have sent a chill down the ranks of the army. Colombia’s military remains under investigation for the series of illegal killings in the mid-2000s, known as “false positives.”

Soldiers repeatedly killed peasants and claimed they were guerrilla fighters, sometimes even dressing them in fatigues and planting weapons near their bodies.]

Ten days after publication of the report, which caused an uproar in Colombia, the government sent then Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo to New York to meet with the newspaper’s editorial board. He was accompanied by the Colombian ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, and the ambassador to the United Nations, Guillermo Fernández de Soto.

As they made their case to Casey’s superiors, military units in Colombia monitored the journalist’s comings and going in Colombia. His file listed his contacts, some sources and the people with whom he interacted, including some of his own editors in New York.

Following orders from above, members of the cyber-intelligence battalion started searching for whatever intelligence was available on the American journalists. They put together a 15-page document entitled “Special Project Number 1,” to which they kept adding information. One of those pages lists biographical data, mail, phone numbers and his location, among other data. Other pages list what are described as source graphics.

What this amounts to is a kind of organization chart, with photos and a brief description of the people with whom Casey has a work, personal or family relationship. Several of his friends, bosses and colleagues in Colombia and the United States are included. Likewise, the investigators took the time to list his social media followers and those who posted “likes” of his articles. In another annex, Casey appears in the center of a page, with a series of lines that indicate his possible sources.

From these data, among many others, the military analysts drew their own conclusions. “He has access to and direct contacts with the GAOR [residual organized armed groups]…he has access to FARC [Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces] zones of influence, his contact to enter is…,” say some of the remarks in his file.

“The order from BACIB, CAIMI and CACI commanders was that, by the general’s instruction, we had to obtain everything possible about the gringo journalist, especially because, considering what he published, he was attacking the [military] institution and specifically, Gen. Martínez. We had to find out who he was talking to for that, and, in addition, obtain information to try to discredit him and his newspaper. This was done using some websites,” one of the officers assigned to the project told SEMANA. “Rozo was one of those in charge of paying, among others, a so-called journalist who was well known for being involved in criminal cases of beating women, to publish false, rigged information based on these profiles.

…This search for information about the correspondent caused a sort of domino effect in which other American journalists were also “profiled” for the simple fact of being colleagues, friends or having had contact with him, or because of their own reports or comments. This is what happened to Juan Forero, a well-known and respected journalist who has covered Colombia and the Andean region for newspapers including the Washington Post. He now works for the Wall Street Journal. Information on him appears in the profile assembled by the military, along with a photo of his father, the journalist confirmed to SEMANA.

…Another target of these reports is John Otis, who has lived in Colombia for more than 20 years and is the Latin America correspondent for NPR and has also published in TIME Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. He is also a correspondent for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

This kind of journalist profiling went beyond those who reviewed or wrote about corruption issues in the Army or the armed conflict in Colombia. “They also used tools to try to get to the sources, where there were targets who in many cases were targets of ours,” one of the troops who had been ordered to carry out these activities told SEMANA.

That was the case of Lynsey Addario. She is a renowned photojournalist whose work has appeared in TIME and other media. In one of the files, also categorized as a “special project,” the military worked up a complete profile on her because she had photographed members of the ELN in the Chocó region in February for a report in National Geographic. In addition to her personal data, the document contains the names of friends and contacts in the country and abroad. Also included is a map of Colombia with geo-location data on the places she had visited…

[The military intelligence profiles also targeted several Colombian journalists, including María Alejandra Villamizar of Noticias Caracol and La luciérnaga. In addition a file on the League against Silence, a free-press advocacy organization and investigative cooperative, contains the names of Yolana Ruiz of RCN Radio; and Daniel Coronell of Univisión.]

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