By Patrick Markey
BOGOTA, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has won applause for his U.S.-backed crackdown on leftist rebels, but yet another scandal over illegal wiretapping by his intelligence agents risks tarnishing his security record.
The accusations that rogue agents bugged government officials, opposition lawmakers, journalists and magistrates have drawn comparisons to Peru’s Montesinos spy scandal, which eventually helped topple President Alberto Fujimori.
Uribe’s government has blamed corrupt agents in the pay of drug lords for the illicit recordings, saying they are a threat to national security. But critics think the government may have benefited the most from any wiretaps that gleaned information from some of president’s fiercest opponents.
Whatever the outcome, more trouble in the corridors of the top intelligence agency, which reports directly to the president, is another black eye for Uribe just as the Obama administration begins a review of its multibillion-dollar military and drug aid pact with Colombia.
"When the administration begins to focus on Colombia and the case for continued aid, the latest scandal will be another key factor to weigh," said Michael Shifter at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
One senior counter-intelligence agent has resigned and prosecutors are probing others after a weekly newsmagazine reported that a group of agents at the security service, known as DAS after its Spanish initials, was engaged in illegal wiretapping.
If investigators find the latest case is tied to drug traffickers buying influence inside the DAS as the government says, Uribe’s claim to be stamping out corruption in the world’s No. 1 cocaine producer will be questioned.
But opposition leaders believe the recordings were directed from within the top ranks of the government. That would stain the legitimacy of his security campaign, although Uribe’s officials say they gave no orders to spy on his foes.
"This could be in the interests of third parties trying to corrupt DAS agents to spy on people," said Alfredo Rangel at the Bogota think tank Security and Democracy. "The other could be officials who misunderstood their loyalty to the government and took their own initiative to carry out interceptions."
Scandals have long dogged the DAS, or Administrative Department of Security. Only four months ago its director resigned after acknowledging agents spied on opposition leaders. Another director is in jail for suspected ties to paramilitary death squads who carried out massacres.
Uribe, popular for his hardline stance against the FARC rebels, has reduced violence from the country’s four-decade-old conflict. Cities and highways once plagued by kidnappings and bombings are safer after FARC rebels were driven back into remote mountains and jungles.
But the success of the drug portion of the U.S.-backed program is less clear. Colombia still produces around 600 tonnes of cocaine a year and the United Nations says coca used to make the drug covered 27 percent more land in 2007 than a year ago.
Uribe’s defense minister traveled to Washington this week to lobby U.S. officials who are expected to demand more conditions on Colombia’s military and narcotics assistance package — the largest U.S. aid program to any country outside the Middle East.
Uribe, a favorite of the Bush government, has already fended off fallout from probes tying scores of his political allies to paramilitary death squads who massacred and trafficked cocaine before signing a peace deal.
His army chief resigned last year after investigations showed troops were tied to murdering civilians to present them as rebels killed in combat to inflate their "body count".
Washington barred three army units involved from receiving military aid.
Now the DAS case has prompted the leading newspaper El Tiempo to draw comparisons to the Montesinos scandal in Peru.
Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s all-powerful spy chief, built a huge espionage network secretly recording politicians, judges, reporters and businessmen during the 1990s. Fujimori later resigned and Montesinos was eventually jailed.
"The key theme here is legitimacy," the newspaper said in an editorial on Tuesday. "Intelligence, it must be accepted, is not the work of angels, but in Colombia it cannot become the occupation of demons." (Editing by Eric Walsh)