ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Colombia, that nation's intelligence agency has been mired in scandal. Agents illegally wire-tapped government critics. Some sold classified information to drug lords and the former director was convicted of plotting assassinations. The U.S. backed the agency for decades, but cut off aid in 2010 and now the Colombian government, Washington's closest ally in Latin America, is scrapping the agency and starting over.
NPR's Juan Forero reports from Bogota.
JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Late last year, President Juan Manuel Santos announced he was liquidating the troubled agency called the Administrative Department of Security, or DOS.
PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: (Foreign language spoken).
FORERO: The country, he said, very well knew why. The DOS was huge and had too many roles, not just intelligence gathering, but evidence collection at crime scenes. It also provided security for high officials and oversaw immigration control, says the national security advisor, Sergio Jaramillo.
SERGIO JARAMILLO: So, structurally, it had big problems. It just wasn't up to the task of what a modern intelligence agency in a liberal democracy should do.
FORERO: Even worse was that the intelligence agents were engaged in serious crimes. A handful of agency managers are now serving time. Dozens more agents are under investigation or facing charges of having compiled illegal dossiers on opposition figures for former President Alvaro Uribe.
Here in the archival rooms on the 10th floor of the intelligence service are boxes filled with secret papers from one of the world's longest running armed conflicts: the U.S.-backed defensive against drug gangs and Marxist guerrillas.
ORLANDO DIAZ: (Foreign language spoken).
FORERO: On a recent day, as part of the mothballing, the documents were sealed under the gaze of the agency's archives director, Orlando Diaz. To show Colombians that the documents were secure and not being used for illegal purposes, Diaz explains how boxes are shut tight behind lock and key.
The man overseeing the whole process is a bankruptcy lawyer named Ricardo Giraldo.
RICARDO GIRALDO: (Foreign language spoken).
FORERO: We want to guarantee that the archive will not disappear nor be manipulated, Giraldo says. Once sorted, the useful classified documents will go to other agencies, including what will be the new intelligence service: the National Intelligence Directorate.
The question for Santos's government now is what to do with the rest of the material held by the DOS: reams of documents, photographs and tapes that were illegally gathered.
Jaramillo, the national security director, says one option the government is considering is to make the files available to those who were illegally targeted for surveillance.
JARAMILLO: You purge the archive, and also you set up a system so that its citizens can come forward and ask if they've found their way into the DOS archive and ask for their own information.
FORERO: There is a precedent, Jaramillo says: the former East Germany, where citizens can now retrieve their once secret files. But some have their doubts, such as Gustavo Gallon, a human rights activist and target of the intelligence service. Prosecutors have the DOS orders that were handed down to agents to tail Gallon and his family.
GUSTAVO GALLON: (Foreign language spoken).
FORERO: Yet Gallon says the daily surveillance reports are now missing. Another critic is former Attorney General Alfonso Gomez, who questions how far the reforms truly go in the new intelligence agency.
ALFONSO GOMEZ: (Foreign language spoken).
FORERO: As in the other scandals in other state agencies in our history, Gomez says, the solution has been to simply change the name. And he wonders how many of those agents involved in questionable activities will somehow remain active, perhaps in the new agency.
Jaramillo, the national security director, counters that the new agency will be tightly managed.
JARAMILLO: The new intelligence service will have almost nothing to do with DOS as it exists today. It will not be in the same building. It will not do the same things.
FORERO: Jaramillo also says it won't have the same people. Thousands are being transferred to the national police, the prosecutor's office and other state agencies. He says the new agency will be focused solely on intelligence gathering and that those accused of crimes at the old agency are out.
Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.