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U.S. secretly helps Colombia kill rebel leaders

– The 50-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, once considered the best-funded insurgency in the world, is at its smallest and most vulnerable in decades – due in part to a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders, according to interviews with more than 30 former and current U.S. and Colombian officials.

The secret assistance, which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It is not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid that began in 2000.

The previously undisclosed CIA program was authorized by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s and has continued under President Barack Obama, according to U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials.

The covert program in Colombia provides two essential services to that nation’s battle against the insurgency, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, and a smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army: Real-time intelligence that allows Colombian forces to hunt down individual FARC leaders and, beginning in 2006, one particularly effective tool with which to kill them.

That weapon is a $30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb. Smart bombs, also called precision-guided munitions, are capable of killing an individual in triple-canopy jungle if his exact location can be determined and the geo-coordinates are programmed into the bomb’s small computer brain.

In March 2008, the Colombian Air Force – with tacit U.S. approval – launched U.S.-made smart bombs across the border into Ecuador to kill Raul Reyes, a senior FARC leader, according to nine U.S. and Colombian officials. The indirect U.S. role in that attack has not been previously disclosed.

The covert action program in Colombia is one of a handful of enhanced intelligence initiatives that has escaped public notice since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Most of these other programs, small but growing, are located in countries where violent drug cartels have caused instability.

The roster is headed by Mexico, where U.S. intelligence assistance is larger than anywhere outside Afghanistan. It also includes Central America and West Africa, where trafficking routes have moved in response to U.S. pressure against cartels elsewhere.

Asked about U.S. intelligence assistance, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he did not wish to speak about it in detail, given the sensitivities involved.

“It’s been of help,” he said. “Part of the expertise and the efficiency of our operations and our special operations have been the product of better training and knowledge we have acquired from many countries, among them the United States.”