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Beyond Plan Colombia: Covert CIA Program Reveals Critical US Role in Killings of Rebel Leaders

A new report has exposed a secret CIA program in Colombia that has helped kill at least two dozen rebel leaders.

A new report has exposed a secret CIA program in Colombia that has helped kill at least two dozen rebel leaders. According to The Washington Post, the program relies on key help from the National Security Agency and is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It began under former President George W. Bush, but continues under President Obama. The program has crippled the FARC rebel group by targeting its leaders using bombs equipped with GPS guidance. Up until 2010, the CIA controlled the encryption keys that allowed the bombs to read GPS data. In one case, in 2008, the United States and Colombia discovered a FARC leader hiding in Ecuador. According to the report, “To conduct an airstrike meant a Colombian pilot flying a Colombian plane would hit the camp using a US-made bomb with a CIA-controlled brain.” The attack killed the rebel leader and sparked a major flareup of tensions with Ecuador and Venezuela. The U.S. role in that attack had not previously been reported. We’re joined by the reporter who broke this story, Dana Priest of The Washington Post. Priest is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter whose work focuses on intelligence and counterterrorism.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today in Colombia, where a shocking new report has exposed how a secret CIA program in Colombia helped kill at least two dozen rebel leaders. The Washington Post reports the program relies on key help from the National Security Agency and is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. The program began under President George W. Bush and continued under Obama. It has crippled the FARC rebel group by targeting its leaders using bombs equipped with GPS guidance. Up until 2010, the CIA controlled the encryption keys that allowed the bombs to read GPS data. In one case in 2008, the U.S. and Colombia discovered a FARC leader Raúl Reyes hiding in Ecuador. According to the report, quote, “To conduct an airstrike meant a Colombian pilot flying a Colombian plane would hit the camp using a US-made bomb with a CIA-controlled brain.” The attack killed the rebel leader and sparked a major flareup of tensions with Ecuador and Venezuela. This is the now-slain FARC commander, Raúl Reyes, speaking to independent reporter Mario Murillo in 1996.

RAÚL REYES: [translated] For peace, there has to be a policy that comes from the state. That means there has to be guarantees for the insurgency to sit with the government and to discuss about the new Colombia we should all construct. Right now, there are no guarantees. Right now, continued threats against the leaders of the guerrilla movements, the proliferation of murderers and massacres continues.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. role in the attack that killed Raúl Reyes had not previously been reported. Colombia’s government is downplaying the report. On Monday, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said collaboration with the U.S. intelligence and special forces has occurred for a while and is already known to have helped weaken the capacities of FARC.

Well, for more, we’re joined by the reporter who broke the story. Dana Priest is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at The Washington Post whose work focuses on intelligence and counterterrorism. This article is headlined “Covert Action in Colombia: U.S. Intelligence, GPS Bomb Kits Help Latin American Nation Cripple Rebel Forces.” Dana Priest joins us by Democracy Now! video stream

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dana. Talk about this exposé. What were your major findings?

DANA PRIEST: Well, I’m glad to be with you, Amy.

The major findings are mainly that the CIA had—and still has—a large covert action program in Colombia, really started in its present form in about 2003. As you might recall, Colombia was in such bad shape in the turn of the century, in 2000. The FARC, mainly, but also paramilitaries, were really—had created a situation of grave instability, where Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world. There were thousands of people being kidnapped. Human rights violations were terrible for anybody who was judged to be a sympathizer with the FARC. The government and the paramilitaries often disappeared people. Torture was commonplace. And the Colombians and the Americans, up until then, had had a close relationship. The Colombians had been trained by the U.S. for many years, especially starting in 2000 under Plan Colombia, which was the overt, non-classified military program to send billions of dollars of aid down to Colombia to help them fight the FARC.

And in about 2003, there were three U.S. hostages taken when their plane crashed. They were contractors for a company that was helping to do the coca eradication. And they were taken as hostages by the FARC, who had taken thousands of hostages by that time. And the U.S. sent a team of CIA people down to try to find them. And in order to do that, they set up a fusion center, which, by now, we’re pretty familiar with what they do, because they operate in other parts of the world, especially aimed at al-Qaeda. It fuses, it brings together, all sorts of intelligence from the many intelligence agencies of the U.S. government and then fusing that together with Colombian information.

Well, they had a hard time finding the hostages, and yet they had a lot more capacity down there at this point. They started an embassy fusion cell. They got a lot of help from the NSA, the National Security Agency, who brought in eavesdropping equipment so that they could basically spy on the FARC when they communicated with one another. They were doing the same thing with drug cartels already, and they brought that together to find the hostages, but they weren’t very successful. So they said, “You know, we’ve got all this capability here. Let’s turn it against the FARC leadership,” which is something they had done or they had begun to do successfully in other parts of the world against the al-Qaeda leadership, the so-called HVTs, high-value targets. So they started that same thing in Colombia using the equipment and personnel and partnership that they had begun with the Colombians.

And then, at a certain point, they realized—actually, it was one individual who was down there at the time, who had just been sent, who was a U.S. Air Force mission chief for all the air assets that were being deployed down there—took a look at the Plan Colombia budget and said, “Why aren’t we able to kill more FARC leaders? This would be—this is something that we should do.” And he analyzed it and discovered that one of the reasons they weren’t doing that is that the FARC leaders had a ring of security around their camps that extended for miles out, so that when they brought in ground troops by helicopter, the FARC camp could see them beforehand and flee. And so, he, being an Air Force guy, came up with this idea, actually said he googled around to find bombs and fighters, and came up with this idea of a precision-guided munition, which is a smart bomb, which has a GPS coordinate—or GPS antenna on it, which can tell the bomb where to go. And if you could find the person and program in the coordinates and link it up to GPS satellites that were already in the sky, then you could do what the U.S. had been doing for years before in various war scenarios. So, that’s what he proposed.

It took a while for the U.S. to agree to that, for various reasons that I’d be glad to discuss, but they eventually did. But because they didn’t trust the Colombians totally to use it as it was supposed to be used—they were worried, given their human rights record, that they might use it against political enemies—they kept what is described as the encryption key, which is the key that unlocks—it basically unlocks the scrambling of the communications between the plane—between the bomb and the GPS satellite. So you need that key in order to get the GPS satellite to link down to the bomb, and so it will know where it is at all times that it’s flying, but also where to go to hit the target. And they kept that for three years, until they trusted that the Colombians would do what they promised to do, and they eventually gave that to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Dana Priest, describe what happened in 2008 with the killing of the most famous face of the FARC, Raúl Reyes.

DANA PRIEST: Well, Raúl Reyes had been on their radar for some time, but they, you know, couldn’t exactly find him at the right moment, and you have to be able to, in this scenario, keep track of someone so that you know where they are when the planes are in the sky and when the missiles are launched. A combination of U.S. intelligence and a Colombian informant—the Colombians had a very good record of being able to penetrate the FARC camps by that time. Things came together. They found him. He was about a mile across the Putumayo River into Ecuador.

They decided that to use a legal—they decided they wanted to go after him, and the U.S. gave them what I call “tacit approval,” which really does mean that in their mind they had debated whether a cross-border attack into another sovereign country was going to be legal, and the lawyers who had done the analysis on, for instance, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan decided that it would be legal under a new interpretation of the law that they instituted, thought about after the 9/11 attacks, which basically was this: If another country is harboring terrorist organizations and either is unwilling or unable to do anything about it, the country that those groups are aiming towards—in al-Qaeda’s case, it was the U.S., but in Colombia’s case, Reyes was part of an organization that was bent on attacking Colombia—then it would be justified under the rules of war and self-defense for Colombia to go into Ecuador to kill or capture that person. So, that’s what they did. They stayed in Colombian airspace. They launched several missiles into Ecuador, which did have the intended effect of killing Reyes and members of his security force and others who traveled with him in the camps.

Of course, this caused a huge diplomatic dispute between Colombia and Ecuador—Ecuador, of course, you know, charging that it had violated international law by bombing the country. Venezuela weighed in, in its typical way, very anti-American, saying that they had—they were a terrorist nation. Nicaragua broke diplomatic relations with Colombia. The pressure mounted. The Organization of American States weighed in. There was lots of pressure against Uribe, who was the president at the time. And he eventually apologized in public, which caused a little anger back in the United States among the small group of people who knew the back story, because they thought that he was giving up a—publicly giving up the right of self-defense. But it didn’t damage relationships between Colombia and the United States, and in fact they carried on these secret PGM strikes against FARC members, leadership targets elsewhere inside Colombia. And while the fact of the bombing into Ecuador was well known, and at the time there was a lot of conspiracy theories that the U.S. did it, there was never any proof that the U.S. knew about it, or, certainly, they didn’t do it directly. So, this is one of the revelations in the stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Bunker, Dana Priest.

DANA PRIEST: Well, the Bunker was the nickname of the embassy fusion center in the embassy in Bogotá. And that was a site that brought together all of the U.S.—and it’s U.S. only; they don’t allow Colombians or other foreigners in it—but brought together the intelligence from the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, you know, the DEA sometimes, and the CIA—all the sort of intelligence that is possible to bring together from the U.S. side. And then flowing into that would be any sort of information, intelligence from informants, that the Colombians had.

By that time, by 2003, the Colombians were quite good at infiltrating camps. They were less good at technical types of eavesdropping. So, it was a combination, really, of the human—the so-called human—the human intelligence, the source building, and debriefings from deserters who had been in the FARC. This was actually—is actually a very important part of the intelligence gathering that is done in Colombia, mainly by the government there. The CIA did help them to do more thorough debriefings, interrogations of FARC members who agreed to take the offer by the Colombian government and desert the FARC, and they would be given, eventually, government payments and allowed to integrate back into society. And these people were very important to understand—for the government to understand how the FARC was organized, where its supply chain was, what type of armaments they had, what type of intelligence they had. And that sort of information was combined into the fusion cell. The CIA did help the Colombians do a better job at keeping that data and asking more thorough questions and creating the database that allowed the Colombians and the Americans to search information about the FARC.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, one of the people, the CIA officers, dispatched to Bogotá was an operator in his forties who The Washington Post, you’ve chosen not to identify, who created this U.S. embassy intelligence fusion cell called the Bunker. Is he still operating there?

DANA PRIEST: I don’t—no, he’s not in—he’s not in Colombia anymore. I believe he’s elsewhere. But what he was doing—and this was one of the intriguing parts to me, was—what I wanted to do in the story or why I got onto the story in the first place was to say, you know, we know what was happening now in Iraq and Afghanistan and, to some extent, Pakistan and Somalia and Yemen in the fight against al-Qaeda. What else was the CIA doing during that decade period of time when we were all focused on other places in the country—or in the world? And I did a story about Mexico several months ago that showed the intelligence relationship that had burgeoned there during that time period. And it was—and during that time is when I heard about the Colombian relationship.

So, what was—if you look at it in a bigger sense, what was happening in Colombia was some of the same types of techniques that they were learning about and sharing with their counterparts, the CIA counterparts, in other parts of the world, this—again, this sort of targeting of individuals, which is new—which is a new phenomenon that began after 9/11. The U.S. didn’t do that well, and it didn’t do it with the CIA prior to that. And so, you see that the—what they were—how they were doing things overseas in other places is sort of the same that they were doing it in Colombia, and they ended up using the same legal justification for targeting and killing an individual. As you know, the U.S. law prohibits assassination. And so, they had to work through, in the beginning, whether this would be considered an assassination. And the lawyers decided, no, it would not, because they were in an active war state with a non-state actor, and that being the terrorist organizations, the FARC, al-Qaeda, in this case. So they were doing some of the same things [inaudible] was the same sort of fusing of intelligence that you saw in other parts of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s interesting. By that definition, the U.S. could have killed Nelson Mandela, right? He was part of a terrorist organization. His, actually, location was identified by the CIA, when—and then he was put in prison. But he was part of what the U.S. called a terrorist organization, and he was a non-state actor.

DANA PRIEST: Well, I don’t know about that. As far as I know, they never tried to kill Nelson Mandela.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, but by that definition, is—of saying that you don’t call it an assassination.

DANA PRIEST: Well, you know, part of—I don’t think that’s true, because part of the—I don’t know. But in order to—for the U.S. to get involved, you know, they have to call an organization a terrorist organization, like they have the FARC, and that is something that, you know, takes a lot of different questions to be answered. You know, what sort of violence are they perpetrating? If you remember, the FARC started out in the ’60s as a peasant organization with a Marxist ideology, that wanted to be, you know, a peace and justice organization. And land reform in Colombia had a huge—and still does, but it’s less so—income inequity. But it transformed in the last 50 years into what the vast majority of Colombians, who were polled on this and who support the government doing this sort of thing, believe is a terrorist organization, run, fueled by drug money. They are heavily involved in the drug trade. They perpetrate indiscriminate killings against civilians, without any, you know, seeming remorse about it. So they have transitioned from a Marxist peasant—pro-peasant organization that wanted justice for poor people into an indiscriminate, violent, drug-fueled group that has very little support from Colombians, who have witnessed their assassinations, their kidnappings, their bombings, their car bombings, and the like.

AMY GOODMAN: The FARC were in peace talks at the time of this. Nine billion dollars went into Plan Colombia, as you point out, Dana Priest, in your piece. But this money that went into the targeted killings is beyond, that the NSA and the CIA is getting.

DANA PRIEST: That’s right. You know, all these programs are hidden from us in a black budget, a classified budget. And the $9 billion that went over since—that has been going to Colombia, mostly in military aid—there’s some non-military aid, but the vast majority is military—since 2000. One of the things that has been remarkable or unique about Plan Colombia is that Congress, certain members of Congress—Senator Leahy, in particular—has been very adamant that none of that aid will be given to U.S. military to participate directly in operations. And that is because of the scandals from the mid-’80s against—you know, the U.S. secret wars in Central America, in Nicaragua and Honduras and El Salvador. They did not want [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re having trouble hearing you, Dana. Go ahead with what you were saying.


AMY GOODMAN: No, sorry, we can’t—we can’t hear you right now. But I want to thank you for that report, Dana Priest, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at The Washington Post, whose work focuses on intelligence and counterterrorism. We’ll link to her piece, “Covert Action in Colombia: U.S. Intelligence, GPS Bomb Kits Help Latin American Nation Cripple Rebel Forces.”

When we come back, we’ll talk to a longtime Colombian-American journalist, Mario Murillo, as well as Charlie Roberts, a member of the Colombia Human Rights Committee and board chair of the U.S. Office on Colombia. He’s in Bogotá. Stay with us.

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