Jeremy Paxman once explained the secret of his interviewing technique – before speaking to a politician, he simply asks himself “why is this lying bastard lying to me?” In the case of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, a journalist would be well advised to stiffen the measure: “Why is this blood-thirsty, amoral gangster lying to me?” But when it comes to Colombia, few journalists seem to bother asking any questions at all.
This breath-taking credulity was very much in evidence when Interpol announced the results of its investigation into the files allegedly recovered from a FARC base in Ecuador by the Colombian army. To judge by the reaction of the western media, the international crime agency had delivered a hammer blow to the credibility of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and his Ecuadorian counterpart Rafael Correa.
Here’s Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker:
“In mid-May, the Interpol team investigating the captured FARC laptops announced that the hard drives had not been tampered with since their discovery. The investigators cautioned that they did not verify the authorship or the accuracy of the e-mails, but the report was damning.”
Happily, the Internet allows us to read the Interpol findings with the scepticism that eluded so many paid journos, and we can see for ourselves just how “damning” the report was.
First of all, it’s worth lingering for a moment over the introductory remarks by Interpol chief Ronald Noble at the press conference launching the report, as he was quite happy to chuck any pretence of objectivity to the winds:
“No person, no country, and not even INTERPOL, the world’s largest international police organization, can fully understand the extent to which the terrorist group FARC has prevented the Colombian people from leading their lives as freely as possible without fear of deadly attack, kidnapping, extortion or other crimes. Only in the last 10 years, FARC has perpetrated 16,500 terrorist attacks; murdered 7,500 people; injured another 9,500; and kidnapped more than 12,000 … seated next to me is the Head of your Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, Ms Hurtado Afanador, who herself was seriously injured in a FARC terrorist bombing … this, and many other personal tragedies, explains why the Head of your National Police, General Naranjo, seated at my other side, and other police officers like him have dedicated their lives and careers to combating the FARC for more than 40 years.”
Noble did not refer to the suffering inflicted on the people of Colombia by the state and its paramilitary allies, who are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths. Ms Hurtado Afandor’s predecessor as head of the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), Jorge Noguera, is currently awaiting trial for passing on the details of trade union members to the paramilitary death squads so they could be targeted and murdered. In that context, Noble’s tribute to the heroic integrity of Colombia’s law enforcement agencies, and their supposed efforts to protect the Colombian people from terrorism, was nothing short of obscene.
Interpol made it clear that it had deliberately narrowed the scope of its inquiry, which did not “include the analysis of the content of documents, folders or other material on the eight seized FARC computer exhibits. The accuracy and source of the user files contained in the eight seized FARC computer exhibits are and always have been outside the scope of INTERPOL’s computer forensic examination.” Its computer experts did not speak Spanish – their sole mandate was to examine the laptops, hard drives and other items and say whether or not they had been tampered with between March 1st, when the Colombian army claims to have discovered them at the destroyed FARC camp in Ecuador, and March 10th, when they were handed over to Interpol for examination.
Nor, for that matter, did they ask whether the seized items actually came from the FARC camp. The report constantly refers to the “eight seized FARC computer exhibits”, but offers no proof of their origins.
Interpol has since issued another statement insisting that:
“based on a review of all the information and material provided by Colombia, including a classified oral briefing, INTERPOL was able to satisfy itself, and clearly stated in its report, that the seized computer exhibits it was requested to forensically examine were taken from the FARC terrorist camp on 1 March 2008 and belonged to Raul Reyes.”
But this evidence was not published. Reliance on a “classified oral briefing” from the agencies of the Colombian state suggests that Interpol could also do with a lesson from Jeremy Paxman.
The same clarification emphasised a point that was obvious all along:
“Validating the contents of the computer exhibits were not manipulated after their seizure by Colombian authorities is not in any way, shape or form the same as saying that the contents of the user files are true and accurate. INTERPOL therefore objects to those who suggest that INTERPOL’s report validates the source and accuracy of any particular document or user file contained therein. INTERPOL’s report states exactly the contrary.”
The most interesting nuggets of information contained in the report were the ones Ronald Noble chose not to highlight. For example, we are told that the seized items contained almost one thousand encrypted files:
“To break the 983 encrypted files, INTERPOL’s experts linked and ran 10 computers simultaneously 24 hours a day / 7 days a week for two weeks.”
This suggests a certain line of thought for those lucky enough to possess a modest reserve of common sense. If the FARC’s second-in-command was in the habit of encrypting sensitive files, wouldn’t he have taken care to do so with documents providing evidence that Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa were supporting the guerrillas – easily the most sensitive piece of data any FARC leader could have in his or her possession? In that case, it would have taken a full two weeks for anyone to break the code and uncover the evidence. But instead, we are asked to believe that Raul Reyes left the incriminating file in a handy format that could be accessed by the Colombian army within the space of a few hours. The FARC have been accused of many things, but idiocy is not one of them.
Let us assume that Interpol has it right when it tells us that the seized computers really did belong to Raul Reyes, and that no files were modified or created between March 1st and March 10th (although we are also told that for a period of two days between the 1st and 3rd of March, “access to the data … did not conform to internationally recognized principles for handling electronic evidence by law enforcement“). This is a generous assumption to make, since Interpol has demonstrated its lack of impartiality beyond any doubt. But let’s make it all the same.
This does not prove that Alvaro Uribe’s claim about Venezuelan support for the FARC was accurate. Another explanation is the one offered by Greg Palast, among others, at the time of the raid which killed Raul Reyes: that the Colombian authorities combed through the laptops and put their own spin on documents that had a completely different meaning. They desperately needed something to take the heat off Uribe after the illegal attack on Ecuadorian soil and grabbed hold of the first, flimsiest piece of data they could find. Uribe and his allies must have felt confident that they would get a very soft reception from the US and European media – hostility to Chavez, and indulgence towards a rare US ally in the region, would overcome any trace of journalistic professionalism. And boy, were they right … 
Meanwhile, the evidence of systematic collaboration between the Uribe administration and the paramilitary death squads continues to mount – the president’s cousin Mario, a close political ally, was arrested in April on suspicion of paramilitary links. If you want evidence that a Latin American government has been supporting narco-terrrorists, you don’t need to scrutinise dodgy laptops – the work of Colombian magistrates is far more valuable and revealing.
Let no journalist or newspaper hold up their hands in the future and claim they were misled, as the New York Times did when its role as a mouthpiece for black propaganda about Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” became an embarrassment. The problem is not gullibility, but willing subservience to the agenda of power elites. It leads you to wonder – could they not save themselves a lot of trouble and expense, sack all their reporters, and just publish the statements and press releases of Uribe, Bush and company verbatim? At least then we would all know exactly where we stood.
 It says a lot about the quality of most journalism on Colombia and Venezuela these days that Anderson’s piece is still one of the more useful ones you could read. Nonetheless, he manages to write about Alvaro Uribe without once mentioning the “para-politics” scandal revealing links between his government and the right-wing death squads – by far the most important issue in Colombian politics over the past two years. Along with this unforgivable omission, Anderson writes that “Chávez had shown himself capable of sparking a regional confrontation and then, by defusing it, appearing as the peacemaker”, suggesting that the responsibility for “sparking a regional confrontation” does not lie with the man who ordered an illegal attack on another state’s territory in order to sabotage hostage releases and then lied about it, but with those who objected to such behaviour. I’ve written about the political background to the regional crisis in much greater detail in this Indymedia article.
 Readers may find it instructive and amusing to glance over this article from Germany’s Der Spiegel, noting the number of times the reporter uses the words “apparently” and “allegedly”, his reliance on Colombian intelligence sources, and the speed with which unverified claims are transformed into proven facts from one sentence to the next, without passing through any stage of confirmation in the meantime.
Image above taken from the post Professors School Reporters on Crappy Magic Laptop Coverage on the blog borev.net.
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