In March 2011, I became the first member of the Spanish-language media in the Americas to conduct and publish a full interview with Julian Assange. Readers of my weekly magazine, Semana, had a natural interest in the enigmatic blond Australian who was creating such an enormous international commotion by distributing secret US cables around the world. And Assange, much to my surprise, had an advanced awareness of Colombia.
“Colombia is a very interesting country for us,” he told me, citing the insurgency by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the military and paramilitary counterinsurgency, and the border conflict with Venezuela, among other issues. Even more important for him was the US role in Colombia: its counternarcotics operations, its massive economic aid program, and its corporate investments and business interests.
“The United States has invested more money in Colombia than in any other Latin American nation,” Assange said, adding that military contractors were “taking advantage of the situation” and contributing to the destabilization of Colombian democracy. This relationship, he told me, was “key to understanding the relations between the United States and Latin America.”
After such a dramatic introduction, we expected explosive revelations in the cables Semana obtained from Assange. The documents did provide considerable detail on Colombia’s tense border issues with Venezuela and Ecuador, on former President Álvaro Uribe’s secret operations against the FARC—including US support for counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations—and on the delicate dance surrounding the extradition of paramilitary leaders to the US on drug-trafficking charges. But relative to the major scandals Colombia has endured in the past several years—Uribe’s illegal domestic surveillance programs against opponents, human rights crimes by the military, and the alliances between key politicians and violent paramilitary groups—they were hardly the atomic bomb we’d been expecting.
The majority of the State Department cables disclosed how the US diplomatic corps tends to official business. That business could be trivial. One cable discussed the marriage of the son of an influential Colombian judge to an Ecuadorean businesswoman; the diplomat approved because the bride had “strong ties to the United States.” We had to remind ourselves that these were communications from State Department diplomats, not from the agencies (for example, the CIA or the Defense Intelligence Agency) that are assuredly responsible for far more sensitive information—and far more intrigue.
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Semana’s WikiLeaks experience began with an e-mail from London. In February 2011, I received an invitation to travel to England to “review relevant documents regarding Colombian politics.” When I arrived, a member of the WikiLeaks team met me and escorted me to a small office, the location of which was to be kept secret. I was given an encrypted memory card containing 2,400 documents sent between Washington and the US missions in Colombia, as well as the entire collection of cable traffic to and from Venezuela. I returned to Bogotá with a cache of more than 9,000 pages of still secret US records.
With a team of journalists, we organized the cables into a database according to classification—Secret, NO FORN (No Foreign Distribution), Confidential, Limited Distribution—and looked for key dates and common themes. Identifying stories was like gluing together a ceramic pot that had been broken into a hundred pieces. Dozens of cables would make brief references to a single issue. Piecing together those loose phrases with contextual analyses, we were able to produce fifty-two stories, published between March and July 2011, under the title “Los Secretos de Wikileaks.”
Among the key revelations in those stories:
§ Under President Uribe, the Colombian military “quietly” maintained a base on Venezuelan territory, home to “a 100-man counter-guerrilla company.” “Colombia Military Intelligence is running covert operations inside Venezuela and has arranged with Venezuelan police and military for the capture and delivery of more than 30 FARC and ELN members operating in Venezuela,” a secret April 2005 cable reported.
§ When Uribe’s cross-border operations provoked a conflict with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who temporarily closed the border and began mobilizing his troops, US officials sought to keep Washington out of any potential confrontation. In a cable titled “Colombians See Ubiquitous Venezuelan Threat,” the embassy reported that the Colombian foreign minister had “express[ed] concern,” suggesting that “helpful neutrality” was not what Uribe hoped for and adding that the president “would drive this point home” in a meeting with visiting State Department officials.
§ US and French officials disagreed over how to rescue hostages kidnapped and held by the FARC, among them presidential candidate (and French-Colombian citizen) Ingrid Betancourt. Diplomatic communications from Paris revealed that the French sought to press Uribe to arrange a prisoner swap with the FARC and to reach out to Chávez as an interlocutor. The French also repeatedly sent negotiators to meet with FARC officials without informing the Colombian government. In secret talks with US officials, the cables revealed, Uribe stated that “without U.S. assistance, a rescue effort would be impossible”; he also gave his assurance that Colombia “would not try to rescue the U.S. hostages without full coordination with the U.S.”—a standing order that was confirmed by then–Defense Minister (and current president) Juan Manuel Santos. Ultimately, in July 2008 the Colombian military mounted an elaborate rescue operation that managed to free all the hostages unharmed.
§ In Venezuela, the United States used its visa officers to identify potential sources of political and economic intelligence. One confidential cable sent to the State Department and the National Security Council in September 2009 reported that “an alert Consular Officer” had spotted a high-level official from Venezuela’s national petroleum agency in a visa line and arranged for him to be interviewed by embassy officers. The source provided “insight into [the oil agency’s] finances and strategy,” including details on Chávez’s plans to meet the $6.5 billion debt that Venezuela owed to oil services companies.
§ In March 2009, the US Embassy in Caracas requested a 43 percent increase in funding for “democracy promotion” programs by the US Agency for International Development that supported the anti-Chávez opposition. “Without our continued assistance,” the cable reads, “it is possible that the organizations we helped create, which arguably represent the best hope for a more open democratic system in Venezuela, could be forced to close as local funding options dry up for fear of possible government retaliation.”
(The stories on Venezuela were written in partnership with Arman-do.info, the information portal of the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad—Press and Society Institute—in Caracas.)
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Some of our reporting implied criminal activity. Colombian judges, however, promptly rejected the possibility that the cables could be used as evidence in a court of law, meaning that there would be few legal ramifications from any of our articles. But in the political world, the leaks created a sensation, though the revelation of who was talking caused more of a scandal than what they were saying. A significant sector of the ruling class, it turned out, had lined up to spill the beans on the country’s internal affairs to US diplomats.
In the wake of “Cablegate,” the debates about the meaning of the WikiLeaks phenomenon continue, in Colombia and around the world. WikiLeaks has reinforced the principle of the free press, reminding us that revealing state secrets that the public has a right to know will always be important in constructing more democratic societies. The documents have not only given us access to sensitive information; they have encouraged people to seek ways to share it. In Colombia, those of us in the media will continue to produce journalism that upholds these standards.
“What is the press for?” Assange asked me in England. Above all, it is to inform and advance the public’s right to be informed. WikiLeaks has revealed, dramatically, how much hidden information there is for us to find and has encouraged us to seek it out.