Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Press Freedom

At wola.org: A New Scandal Underscores Colombia’s Stubborn Inability to Reform Military Intelligence

Last Friday, when the Colombian newsmagazine Semana published still more shocking revelations about the country’s army intelligence units spying on law-abiding people, I knew I had to write something explaining all of this to an English-language audience. For a year now, there has been a steady drumbeat of revelations of malfeasance in Colombia’s U.S.-aided military—an institution of which U.S. diplomats and military officers speak with reverential tones.

Because each bit of bad news keeps getting layered on top of the last, I saw a need for a single resource to walk the reader through the whole narrative. I pulled everything I had from my database over the weekend, and sat down to write in every spare moment during the first few days of the week.

Here’s what I came up with. The whole 4,000-word (but not boring!) commentary is at WOLA’s website.

Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.

Semana has a long record of revealing malfeasance in the security forces. The last five covers are from the past twelve months.

This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.

The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.

Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.

What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.

Continue reading at WOLA’s website.

Illegal Surveillance by Colombia’s Military is Unacceptable

Still more revelations have emerged of Colombia’s military spying on people who are not military targets. Here’s a statement WOLA put out today. I’m working on a longer piece about all of this right now.

In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military. 

Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.

The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation. 

Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.

Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.

In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.  

While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists. 

Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.” 

That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.

Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership. 

Lights are going out around the region

What a horrible three days for press freedom in the Americas.

  • On Friday, Nicaraguan police raided, and trashed, the offices of the investigative web publication Confidencial, which has been an indispensable and very credible source of coverage of the country’s slide into democracy. Confidencial has been around since 1996.
  • Over the weekend El Nacional, which was just about the last independent daily published newspaper in Venezuela, stopped issuing a print edition, moving to a web-only format that is unlikely to be able to sustain its 90-person staff. It was unable to obtain newsprint paper, which the government made deliberately scarce, among other obstacles. El Nacional has been around since 1943.

Not hard to imagine that the 1930s felt like this across Europe.

Whoa I’ve been libeled! (and really sloppily too)

Here’s an English translation of a note I just dashed off to Roberto Pombo, director of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. 

(Other than a conversation or two with lawyers, this is the last thing I want to do about this today—there are more important things to do. But I’m looking forward to pursuing this as far as it goes. Enough of this lying crap.)

Dear Dr. Pombo,

In his column today, Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza [prominent author and right-wing columnist] says the following about me:

While Col. Mejía is denied conditional liberty, Guzmán lives today in Maryland, where he was brought by Adam Isacson, a FARC-protecting lawyer.

It would be hard for you to publish something more false.

  • I’m not a lawyer.
  • I didn’t bring anyone to the United States. Edwin Guzmán’s lawyers asked me to serve as an expert witness in his asylum case. I wrote an affidavit and appeared before an immigration judge, working pro bono. And that’s it. I still believe that Edwin Guzmán acted with courage by denouncing the criminal acts of his boss, Col. Hernán Mejía (now in prison). For this act, he received strong threats.
    [Note: Guzmán accused Col. Mejía, one of Colombia’s most decorated army officers, of conspiring with paramilitaries to boost his unit’s body count. Here’s what I wrote about the case when the news broke in 2007.]
  • I haven’t had contact with anyone identifying him or herself as a FARC member since 1999 and 2001, when I participated in meetings, with the full knowledge of the Colombian government, to discuss the peace process that was active at that moment. On those occasions, I voiced many complaints and disagreements about issues like kidnapping, coca, and the need to respect international humanitarian law.

What is certain is: El Tiempo just published in its pages a piece tying a private citizen with a group on his country’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. And it did so without any effort to verify what was written. This is very serious.

I request a published rectification, done in a fast, clear, and prominent manner.

In both of our countries, we’re living through a special moment. In this moment, many participants in public life are slandering and libeling with impunity. You, as journalists, are frequent victims of this phenomenon. Whether it comes from Uribe or from Trump, it’s important to resist this wherever it appears. And for that reason, I’m prepared to bring this issue to its legal consequences if necessary.

Sincerely,

Adam Isacson

Point that saber somewhere else

From The Washington Post, reporting on a May 17 Coast Guard Academy graduation ceremony:

During the commencement, Trump was presented with a ceremonial saber. After accepting it to applause, he returned to his seat next to Secretary of Homeland Security Gen. John F. Kelly.

Smiling, Kelly leaned over the president and said, of the saber, “You can use that on the press.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Trump, as Kelly laughed.

And then, the very next day, Gen. Kelly met with the foreign minister and interior minister of Mexico, where at least six journalists have been murdered since early March.

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