ASUNCION, Paraguay—The Paraguayan government worked closely with the DEA earlier this year to expand its capacity to spy on cell phone calls to confront the threat posed by a band of leftist rebels, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.
The cable, dated Feb. 18, 2010, and published Wednesday night on the internet site, said the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency had been intercepting the phone calls of suspected traffickers since Sept. 2009, but was leery of helping Paraguay’s interior ministry use the technology to go after the so-called Paraguayan People’s Army.
The DEA had closely guarded the technology while running the spying program in conjunction with Paraguay’s anti-narcotics office, which acts only through court orders and focused exclusively on drug traffickers, the cable said.
Interior Minister Rafael Filizzola wanted the same technology to track down the group known by its Spanish initials as the EPP, but the embassy repeatedly denied his requests for unrestricted access to its software. So he turned to Brazil, buying $1.2 million in intercept equipment that, if implemented without DEA cooperation, would shut down the U.S. spying program, the cable said.
“Counternarcotics are important … but won’t topple our government. The EPP could,” the cable quoted Filizzola as saying.
It took the DEA more than a year to install the spying equipment using the Personal phone network and it was still working to be able to intercept calls using Paraguay’s other major cell phone provider, TIGO. So rather than lose the DEA’s hard-won spying capacity, the embassy recommended giving the ministry enough access to its technology so that both programs could function, and show President Fernando Lugo that the U.S. is a trustworthy partner.
Still, the effort apparently raised serious concerns in the embassy, which noted in the cable that the president of Paraguay’s supreme court and the head of its anti-drug office expressed doubts about the legality of intercepting the calls of people who aren’t drug suspects.
“The Ambassador made clear that the U.S. had no interest in involving itself in the intercept program if the potential existed for it to be abused for political gain, but confirmed U.S. interest in cooperating on an intercept program with safeguards, as long as it included counternarcotics,” the cable said.
Ambassador Liliana Ayalde also warned that other less trustworthy government officials might abuse the technology in the future—a risk that Filizzola said both he and the president were keenly aware of. But the minister said he believed three or four clandestine pieces of equipment—purchased by the previous government and removed as Lugo took office—were already being used to spy on cell phone calls in Paraguay, the cable said.
It’s not clear what came of the efforts in February. The government has arrested a number of EPP members since then, but failed to capture its three main leaders.
The cable said a DEA technology specialist would help the ministry install the spying program in a way that also would protect the DEA’s software and secrets. But it also said the embassy asked Filizzola to provide “copies of the laws that serve as a legal basis for the expanded program.”
According to the cable, Filizzola assured the ambassador that his plans were supported by Paraguay’s legal authorities and constitution. But his hoped-for anti-kidnapping law, which would expand police powers against so-called terrorists, didn’t pass, and the cable noted that Paraguay’s Supreme Court president had doubts about the legality of expanding the spying program.
The embassy declined to comment Thursday, and Filizzola, clearly upset over the leak, refused in a news conference to address questions raised by the cable.
“There are about 250,000 documents supposedly leaked by WikiLeaks, so the government can’t be here making clarifications with each publication,” he said. “When it comes to security, prudence and discretion are needed.”
Lugo’s Cabinet chief Miguel Lopez was similarly cautious in a separate news conference. “There’s a judicial protocol which must be followed to intercept phone calls, but nobody can guarantee, not even me, that someone isn’t spying on our phone.”