More Doubts About Colombia's "Magic Laptop" and Its Allegations Against Hugo Chavez
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On May 15, the International Police Agency (Interpol) released their long-awaited report on the laptops and computer materials the Colombian Army said it captured after the March 1 bombing and raid on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador. As expected, the Interpol report concluded the hard drives delivered by the Colombian government had not been altered since the raid.
Interpol examined the user files of three laptop computers, three USB thumb drives, and two external hard disks that BogotÃ¡ said it seized from the jungle camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The March 1 attack in Ecuador sparked a regional crisis, with most Latin American government following Ecuador's lead in condemning the attack as a patent violation of national sovereignty. Washington was alone in giving unconditional support to Colombia.
Over the last two and a half months, the Colombian government has released--and leaked to the media--a series of documents and photos allegedly found on all the computer devices. The Colombian government has argued, with widespread media credulity, that the documents prove Venezuela and Ecuador's ties to the FARC, as well as other things. The document leaks have been part of a broader media-driven campaign by the Colombian government to justify the attack and distract public attention away from the violation of Ecuador's sovereignty.
Interpol's report contains four central findings:
- The chief of Interpol said forensic experts discovered "no evidence of modification, alteration, addition or deletion in the user files of any" of the computer devices.
- A press release on the investigation noted, "The Colombian Judicial Police computer forensic experts followed internationally recognized principles in the handling of electronic evidence from the time they received the exhibits on 3 March 2008."
- The same release states, however, that "between 1 and 3 of March, direct access to the seized computer exhibits by Colombia's first responder anti-terrorist unit in order to view and download their contents did not follow internationally recognized principals in the handling of electronic evidence under ordinary circumstances." But the release then adds, "This direct access and downloading had no effect on the content of any of the user files.
- Finally, Interpol found thousands of files with erroneous creation dates, some even dated 2009.
Contrary to most media reports, the scope of Interpol's investigation was explicitly limited to determining whether the hard discs had been altered. Interpol did not investigate whether the laptops were actually recovered from the FARC camp, nor was the organization charged with determining the significance or authenticity of the documents found within. In fact, Interpol made a point of choosing non-Spanish-speaking experts to ensure the documents' contents would not influence the investigation.
The same press release carefully notes, "The remit of [Interpol's] technical examination was not to evaluate the accuracy or the source of the exhibits' content." Still, the report and Interpol chief Ronald Noble insistently referred to the exhibits as "the FARC computers and hardware," in contradiction of the report's own stated scope of the investigation.
Such blind acceptance--towed subserviently by the media--was the same approach to intelligence that justified the U.S. case for war against Iraq in 2002 and 2003. What's more, the Interpol report did not (nor aimed to) verify whether the documents made public by the Colombian government--including those leaked by anonymous sources--matched the documents on the eight computer exhibits.
Unfortunately, much of the international media has represented Interpol's findings as confirmation of Colombia's allegations--an interpretation that the police agency specifically rejected. A Fox News blog was headlined "Interpol: Chavez Supports Terrorists." Madrid's El PaÃs led their article with, "According to the police agency, Chavez financed the FARC." Interpol said no such thing. Reuters, however, accurately qualified the report, noting Interpol "could not verify the computer contents."
Some analysts have raised doubts about Interpol's conclusions. Three professors of information technology at the Polytechnic University of Ecuador, led by Deacon Carlos Montenegro, held a press conference on May 17 criticizing the Interpol report.
The professors emphasized the report did not prove much at all, given the limited scope of the investigation and said Interpol's face-value acceptance of the devices as FARC property was a contradiction of the report's own findings. They not only criticized the scope of the report, but also the conclusions of its technical findings.
They seized on the agency's methodology, which only examined images of the hard drives' user files handed over by Colombia, and not the hard drives themselves. They demonstrated to a crowd of reporters how easy it is to change the creation and modification dates on documents. They asserted these changes would only leave digital traces on the actual hard drives, which have remained in Colombian custody. Investigators would need access to the actual hard drives and the system files to determine whether and when modifications occurred, according to the Ecuadorian analysts.
The Ecuadorian professors also pointed out that Interpol has now way of determining whether Colombian officials modified, deleted, or created documents between March 1 and 3, as the report contends. In fact, by the Colombian government's own admission, its handling of the computer devices during those days did not conform to internationally recognized standards on the chain of custody when dealing with forensic evidence. Interpol's contention that the devices were not modified is based on nothing more than faith in Colombia's sincerity, argued the professors.
They called on Interpol to release a copy of the hard disks so that independent analysts could investigate. Interpol's findings have been presented in two reports: one public and another classified report that was shared only with the Colombian government.
Interpol's report is the latest ingredient in Colombia's media war against Ecuador and Venezuela after the March attack. While it is far from clear what will happen next, it is plain to see that Colombia is confident that the international media will continue to print their preferred interpretation.
Daniel Denvir (daniel.denvir(AT)gmail.com) is an activist and freelance journalist living in Quito, Ecuador. His writing has appeared in Labor Notes, Portland Street Roots and Upsidedownworld.org. He works with the Latin American Information Agency ( www.alainet.org).