Alleged cyber-spying on Colombian negotiators

President Juan Manuel Santos denied Tuesday that his administration was in any way involved in the reported spying by members of an elite army cyber-unit on the digital communications of government peace negotiators and at least two top leftist politicians.

“This is totally unacceptable,” Santos told reporters in brief remarks at police headquarters. He said he had ordered a full investigation.

Colombians had awoken to a report in the country’s leading news magazine that the cyberspies, along with young civilian hackers they recruited, had collected for more than a year emails and text messages from his negotiators at Havana peace talks.

“They were apparently gathering intelligence specifically from the negotiators,” the president said, adding that the operation appeared aimed at seeking to derail peace talks launched in November 2012 to end a half-century conflict with The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Santos said a probe would determine “if there are rogue elements in the military.” He said, without specifying when, that he had been informed that the eavesdropping’s apparent center of operations in the capital was searched 10 days before. The magazine, Semana, is edited by a nephew of the president.

Semana’s report said the spy ring operated for 15 months ending in October from a clandestine storefront that sold cheap lunches and also billed itself as offering website design and cybersecurity classes.

The eavesdroppers did not intercept voice communications but were ordered to break into email accounts and intercept messages from the popular WhatsApp service as well as obtain the Blackberry PINs of targets, the magazine said

Their targets included chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle and peace commissioner Sergio Jaramillo as well as politicians not directly involved in the negotiations including leftist congressman Ivan Cepeda and former Sen. Piedad Cordoba, a key go-between with the FARC, Semana reported. The eavesdroppers also were engaged in spying on urban rebels, the magazine said.

Semana said government negotiators would likely not have discussed sensitive issues in their digital communications, mindful that intelligence agencies including the Cubans were likely monitoring them.

Cordoba and Cepeda, reached by The Associated Press, called the spying an attempt to sabotage the peace talks.

FARC negotiators in Havana had no immediate comment.

“Either the government was doing a kind of counterintelligence of its own people or this was an operation by a dissident sector in the military acting against the peace process,” Cepeda said.

He suggested that former President Alvaro Uribe, a fierce foe of peace talks, might be behind the operation. Uribe denied as much in a statement emailed to reporters.

Cepeda also called on Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon to take responsibility and resign.

Semana offered copious details on how the eavesdroppers, under the code name “Andromeda,” operated. It said they recruited young hackers at the city’s annual “Campus Party” hacking fest.

Semana said an army captain, whom it did not name for security reasons, ran the operation. It identified him as a member of the army’s Technical Intelligence Battalion No. 1, known as BITEC-1.

The magazine said the battalion is a backbone of DINTE, the military’s intelligence arm.

The operation was halted when the eavesdroppers feared they had been found out, said the magazine, adding that it had investigated the operation for 15 months and consulted with multiple high-level sources including U.S. intelligence officials, who have long assisted the Bogota government in its war against the FARC.

Semana has broken major news on domestic spying before. In 2009, it uncovered a scandal that eventually led to the dismantling of the DAS domestic intelligence agency.

The investigation determined that DAS agents were illegally intercepting the telephone communications of leading politicians, journalists and Supreme Court justices.

The scandal led to the imprisonment of several top DAS officials and badly tainted the Uribe administration.

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Alleged cyber-spying on Colombian negotiators