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Colombia dissolves scandal-hit intelligence agency

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has shuttered the nation’s intelligence agency after a scandal that landed dozens of government officials from the previous administration in jail, suspected of being involved in spying on political opponents, journalists and judges.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos addresses the 66th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 21, 2011. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/Files

The agency, known as the DAS, was dissolved by executive order and the bulk of its functions will be reassigned to the police, the interior ministry and the foreign ministry, Santos said late on Monday.

A new, slimmed down intelligence bureau would be created with a more limited brief, replacing a vast apparatus that played a role in the fight against leftist guerrillas and drug trafficking, provided bodyguards for public officials, and handled immigration and other judicial matters.

Santos had previously announced his intention to close the agency and the formal dissolution had been expected.

“This is not a transformation of the DAS, this is not a reform, in the case of the DAS it’s a complete closure, the DAS is eliminated,” Santos said after signing the decree.

The DAS was found to have used wiretaps and other illegal means to spy on opponents during former President Alvaro Uribe’s eight years in office.

Former DAS director Jorge Noguera in September was sentenced to 25 years in prison for scheming with right-wing paramilitaries that targeted union activists for murder.

Uribe’s chief of staff Bernardo Moreno was arrested in July and is awaiting trial for involvement in the illegal wiretapping. Uribe, a close ally of the United States during his administration, has denied any knowledge of the spying.

The DAS also is alleged to have passed information to drug traffickers and spied on Supreme Court justices during sessions. Bugging devices were placed under court tables by coffee ladies on the DAS payroll and chauffeurs used to listen in on conversations.

“The new agency will be much more concentrated in intelligence, it will be streamlined, and much more controllable and transparent than before. This is a good move,” said Alfredo Rangel a private security analyst in Bogota.

Uribe is credited with setting back Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas, halving its fighting force to about 8,000 during his 2002-2010 government, and attracting billions of dollars of oil and mining investment to Latin America’s No. 4 oil producer.

But his reputation has been damaged since leaving office last year. Several close aides have been dogged by accusations of graft and being involved in the murder of civilians to pass them off as insurgents.

In July, Andres Felipe Arias, once considered Uribe’s hand-picked successor, was arrested and is awaiting trial on charges of giving supporters subsidies. He was also banned from holding office for 16 years.

The spy scandal has contributed to a growing rift between Santos and Uribe. They are still allies but have become more distant in recent months as Uribe has used his Twitter account to criticize Santos and his day-to-day management of the country.

Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Osterman