- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Bush administration is examining the contents of a laptop computer captured in Ecuador, which reportedly documents pledges by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to guerrillas fighting the Colombian government.

The administration has also asked its lawyers to investigate whether Venezuela could be placed on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, according to a report yesterday in the Miami Herald, quoting senior U.S. officials.

“We are currently evaluating the contents of the confiscated laptop and hard drive and will continue to monitor the situation carefully,” a State Department spokeswoman said yesterday. “We are not in a position to comment fully at this time.”

In an interview with The Washington Times, also yesterday, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said there was “no reason to doubt” the Colombian government’s claims regarding the data.

“The Colombians want to share” the information, Mr. Hayden said. But he added that the CIA did not yet have its own copy of the laptop’s contents.

“We will be happy to let the facts take us where they will” on the issue, he said.

The laptop was captured by Colombian commandos in Ecuador during a March 1 raid, in which it killed a senior commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and more than a dozen FARC guerrillas.

The State Department spokeswoman declined to confirm the Miami Herald report but said that since 2006 Venezuela had been placed in the category of “not cooperating fully” with American anti-terrorism efforts.

The spokeswoman said that designation was renewed in May 2007 and would remain in effect until the end of fiscal 2008, when it could be renewed by determination of the secretary of state. She asked that her name not be used because she was not authorized to speak for attribution.

The certification of noncooperation prohibits the sale or licensing for export to Venezuela of defense-related articles or services, but stops short of declaring the country as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The Colombian commandos, many of whom are U.S. trained, killed Raul Reyes, who was considered the No. 2 leader in the revolutionary group that has battled the Colombian government for more than four decades.

Colombian authorities claim that the laptop and documents found during the raid suggest that FARC had connections with Mr. Chavez and that FARC had been trying to buy surface-to-air missiles from Libya.

Colombian officials also say the documents detail pledges by Mr. Chavez of up to $300 million to FARC.

Mr. Chavez says the charges are fabricated.

The secretary of state can designate a country as a state sponsor of terrorism if the government of that country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.

Rebel activity and camps have spilled over the Colombian border into neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador.

Mr. Chavez has called on Colombia to negotiate with FARC rather than try to defeat them militarily, and most recently helped intercede with the rebel group to secure the release of several longtime hostages.

The White House appears especially interested in reports that Mr. Chavez had pledged up to $300 million to FARC.

“This is pretty dangerous stuff,” said Ray Walser, a former State Department official and senior policy analyst for Latin America at the Heritage Foundation.

He said if the documents were authenticated, they would indicate a “clear violation of international law.”

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373 of 2001 says that “states shall refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts.”

A team from the international police agency Interpol, led by its director Ronald K. Noble, reportedly were invited by Bogota to help authenticate the documents and laptop data, the Associated Press reported.

National Security Council Spokesman Gordon Johndroe said U.S. intelligence agencies also were “going to take a look at the information picked up by Colombia in the FARC raid.”

Mr. Chavez has denied accusations he provided any material or monetary support for FARC, but lauded Mr. Reyes as a “good revolutionary” and condemned his killing as a “cowardly assassination” on the part of Bogota.

If the documents were real, they would “confirm suspicions by hard-liners that there was an alliance between Chavez and the FARC,” said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

Mr. Shifter, however, urged the Bush administration to defer to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on how to deal with Venezuela diplomatically.

Colombia, a strong U.S. ally in the region, has received billions of dollars in military equipment and training to aid them in their fight against the leftist guerrillas and narco-trafficking.

“I think that the United States is going to be sensitive and deferential to Uribe,” said Mr. Shifter. “This administration is winding down and [is] distracted with other issues.”

Carmen Gentile reported from Miami.

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