BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — President Juan Manuel Santos said Tuesday that enemies of his government's efforts to make peace with leftist rebels may have been behind reported spying by members of an elite army cyber-unit on the digital communications of government negotiators.
"This is totally unacceptable," Santos told reporters, saying he had ordered a full investigation. Hours later, two army generals were suspended from their posts.
Colombians had awakened to a report in the country's leading news magazine that the cyberspies, along with young civilian hackers they recruited, had for more than a year collected emails and text messages from Santos' negotiators at Havana peace talks.
"They were apparently gathering intelligence specifically from the negotiators," Santos said. He said the operation appeared aimed at derailing 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 rogue elements in the military" were allied with "dark forces" trying to undermine the talks.
He said, without specifying when, that he had been informed that the eavesdropping's apparent center of operations in the capital was searched last week.
The chief prosecutor, Eduardo Montealegre, said authorities seized 20 computers, memory sticks and other electronics in the Jan. 24 raid.
Late Tuesday, the government announced that two generals were being relieved of duty during the investigation. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon did not specify any relationship between the purported cyberspying and the two officers — Gen. Mauricio Zuniga, chief of army intelligence, and Gen. Jorge Andres Zuluaga, director of the army's national intelligence center.
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 said. 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, who is running for a Senate seat in March elections, denied as much in a statement emailed to reporters. Santos is up for re-election in May.
Semana said the eavesdroppers, operating under the code name "Andromeda," recruited young hackers at Bogota's annual "Campus Party" hacking fest.
The magazine said an army captain, whose name it did not release for security reasons, ran the operation. It said he was a member of the army's Technical Intelligence Battalion No. 1, known as BITEC-1, which it described as the backbone of DINTE, the military's intelligence arm.
The operation was halted when the eavesdroppers feared they had been found out, the magazine said. It said it 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.
In 2009, Semana 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.
Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia and Libardo Cardona in Bogota and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.