First some background. On March 1, the Colombian military (with US Special Forces help) illegally attacked a FARC-EP rebel camp inside Ecuador. US satellite telephone tracking located the site. Washington signed off on the mission. Over 20 people were killed, including 16 or more FARC-EP members while they slept. Key among them was Paul Reyes, the FARC-EP's second-in-command, key peace negotiator and public voice, and lead figure in the Chavez-led hostage negotiations with Colombia.
The action was a clear act of aggression and premeditated murder. It's not how the dominant media played it. Hostile verbal exchanges took place between Hugo Chavez and Ecuador's Raphael Correa on the one hand and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe and George Bush on the other. US presidential candidates, as expected, supported the White House and Bogota.
Tensions heightened further when Colombia's vice-president, Francisco Santos Calderon, revealed his nation's army recovered three laptops and other material at the FARC-EP camp with provocative evidence on their hard drives. He claimed it showed Chavez and Correa have links to the FARC-EP, and Venezuela provided weapons, munitions, and $300 million or so to the rebel group. In addition, the FARC-EP was accused of acquiring 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of uranium, that it wishes to sell it for a radioactive dirty bomb, it also sold 700 kilograms of cocaine for about $1.5 million, and more.
The story is preposterous, but the media grabbed hold of it. No evidence exists, so they invent it. In March, Colombian authorities asked Interpol to examine the computer files for authenticity. The organization released its report on May 15. On its web site, it states that Secretary General Ronald Noble "advised senior Colombian law enforcement officials that INTERPOL's team of forensic experts discovered 'no evidence of modification, alteration, addition or deletion' in the user files of any of the three laptop computers, three USB thumb drives and two external hard disks seized during a Colombian anti-narcotics and anti-terrorist operation on a FARC camp on 1 March 2008."
But Interpol admitted that lacking evidence doesn't prove "there was no tampering." In fact, some files had future date stamps and other indications of data alteration. It questions their authenticity, and Interpol (deep in its report) acknowledged that Columbia likely manipulated the contents - with an explanation needing close reading to understand. It delegitimizes Colombian claims and would get an international court to dismiss them out of hand. Reporters doing their job should as well. Data accuracy can't be verified or worse - they may be entirely fraudulent, and made-in-Washington mischief may be behind it.
Interpol's report continued saying "between 1 and 3 March, direct access to the seized computer exhibits....did not follow internationally recognized principles in the handling of electronic evidence under ordinary circumstance." Its experts "verified that this....had no effect" on file contents, but other report evidence contradicts that statement. Interpol, in fact, stated that "Direct access may complicate validating this evidence for purposes of its introduction in a judicial proceeding because law enforcement is then required to demonstrate or prove that the direct access did not have a material impact on the purpose for which the evidence is intended."
In short, hard drive data prove nothing and may, in fact, be fake. With US involvement clear, it wouldn't be the first time, and Washington is rich in talent to do it.
Independent computer experts are also troubled. They believe that failure to follow standard evidence handling procedures seriously jeopardizes its reliability. With care, forensic specialists or computer professionals can add, delete or alter hard drive material without leaving a footprint.
Dominant media reports ignored this and more. They passed over or played down key findings, including Interpol's statement: that its experts didn't "evaluate the accuracy or the source of the exhibits' content." How could they? The volume was enormous amounting to the equivalent of "39.5 million pages in Microsoft Word...." At the rate of 100 pages a day, "it would take more than 1000 years to read" it.
That alone begs the question. In a few days or even weeks, how were Colombian authorities able to analyze the data to discover provocative information therein. That notion also got no attention in the dominant media. Neither did most other parts of the truth.
Spinning the News - How Big Media Does It
Here's how Murdoch's Wall Street Journal's played it on May 16. Its editorial page said Interpol's May 15 report "won't make Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez's day." It reported Interpol's claim about no evidence of file tampering, but ignored the issues of authenticity, accuracy, manipulation, or impossible "speed-reading" skills of Colombian verifiers. It concluded that "Interpol's certification proves that Mr. Chavez is trying to destabilize a US ally (and that he's a) proven supporter of terrorism in our own hemisphere."
The New York Times' Simon Romero was little better. His May 16 article was headlined: "Files Tying Venezuela to Rebels Not Altered, Report Says." He called Interpol's report "a setback for Venezuela, which had claimed that the computer files....were fabrications...." It "may advance efforts under way in the Congress to add Venezuela to the United States' list of state sponsors of terrorism...."
Well down in his report, Romero admitted that "Interpol could not vouch for the accuracy of the files" and that "a Colombian antiterrorism unit (seized them improperly and) in violation of internationally recognized rules on handling electronic evidence...." No further comment was added.
In contrast, Romero played up State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, saying these "are serious allegations about Venezuela supplying arms and support to a terrorist organization....that has deep implications for the people of the region." He had to acknowledge, however, what credible experts agree on. Given the importance of US and Venezuelan relations, chances of declaring the country a state sponsor of terrorism is highly remote - "particularly without more evidence (read any evidence) of the country's support of the FARC..."