BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — President Juan Manuel Santos said Thursday that he is seeking clarification from Washington on whether its intelligence-gathering in Colombia has overstepped the countries’ joint operations against drug traffickers and illegal armed groups.
Santos said in an interview with The Associated Press that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called him about the issue following revelations by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that massive U.S digital snooping has targeted allies as well as foes.
He said Biden offered a series of technical explanations. Asked if he was satisfied with them, Santos replied curtly, “We are in that process.”
Colombia has long been Washington’s closest ally in South America with Washington supplying it with eavesdropping equipment, technicians and aerial surveillance.
Santos said “in that alliance we have had joint intelligence operations, using technical intelligence to fight common enemies, including drug-trafficking (and) terrorism.”
He said during the 20-minute interview in a salon of the presidential palace that officials of both nations “are at this time in conversations to see if that was everything that was done or if some other type of espionage occurred.”
Santos said a delegation examining the question includes deputy defense minister Jorge Bedoya.
Santos, 61, will host U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit that begins Sunday night. On Monday evening, Kerry travels to Brazil.
Santos said he did not expect the issue to come up with Kerry as he was already dealing with Biden on it.
Last month, the Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported based on documents provided by Snowden that Brazil was a principal target of data collection by the U.S. National Security Agency, for which he worked as a contractor. The report said other countries in the region targeted by the NSA included Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela.
It said the NSA collected information about topics including energy, oil and military purchases.
Colombia said in a brief July 10 communique that it would seek explanations from the United States on the subject.
U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley has repeatedly declined to respond to questions about whether his country has engaged in unauthorized espionage in Colombia.
Among the NSA programs exposed by Snowden in leaks to the Guardian newspaper was one called XKeyscore that supports his claim the United States has the ability to spy on “the vast majority of human communications.”
A series of training slides published by the paper indicates that analysts can use the tool to selectively search digital communications. The slides show Colombia as one of four South American countries hosting an XKeyscore server. The others are Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil.
Before his 2010 election, Santos was defense minister for three years and was among Colombian officials who sought and welcomed U.S. technical support in electronic eavesdropping.
The country is currently holding peace talks to end a half century-old conflict with the Western Hemisphere’s most potent rebel army, a rebel force diminished in strength thanks in considerable measure to U.S. military and intelligence support.
U.S. counterdrug agents employing sophisticated technology have also helped Colombia lock up major drug traffickers.
Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.