By DEB RIECHMANN
BOGOTA, Colombia — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry defended the National Security Agency surveillance programs on Monday and downplayed their impact on U.S. efforts to deepen relations with two key allies in Latin America.
Brazil and Colombia, two of the United States’ closest friends in the region, have been rankled by reports that citizens of Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and other countries were among the targets of a massive NSA operation to secretly gather information about phone calls and Internet communications worldwide. The disclosures were made by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Kerry sought to play down the rift during a press conference in Bogota before heading to Brazil on his first trip to South America as secretary of state.
“Frankly, we work on a huge number of issues and this was in fact a very small part of the overall conversation and one in which I’m confident I was able to explain precisely that this has received the support of all three branches of our government,” Kerry said. “It has been completely conducted under our Constitution and the law. … The president has taken great steps in the last few days … to reassure people of the U.S. intentions here.”
He referenced the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “It’s obvious to everybody that this is a dangerous world we’re living in … we are necessarily engaged in a very complex effort to prevent terrorists from taking innocent lives.”
Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said Colombia officials had traveled to Washington to learn more about the surveillance program. “We have received the necessary assurances to continue to work on this,” she said through a translator.
In her opening remarks, Holguin said she appreciated Kerry’s efforts to restart the Mideast peace talks.
Kerry said he doesn’t think the recent flap over Israeli settlement announcements will derail the second round of Mideast peace talks this week in the region.
Israel approved building nearly 1,200 more settlement homes Sunday — the third settlement announcement in a week. It fueled Palestinian fears of a new Israeli construction spurt under the cover of U.S.-sponsored negotiations.
“The announcements with respect to settlements were to some degree expected because we have known that there was going to be a continuation of some building in certain places,” Kerry said. “And I think the Palestinians understand that. I think one of the announcements was outside of that expectation and that’s being discussed right now.”
He restated the U.S. position that it views the settlements as illegitimate. He said the recent controversy underscored the importance of getting to the negotiating table quickly and resolving the questions with respect to settlements.
“Once you have security and borders solved, you have resolved the question of settlements,” he said. “With the negotiation of major issues, these kind of hotpoint issues … are eliminated as the kind of flashpoints that they may be viewed today.”
He said he expected to talk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the issue later today or tomorrow. “I’m sure we will work out a path forward.”
Kerry arrived late Sunday in Bogota, the Colombian capital, at a time when the country is holding peace talks to end a half century-old conflict with the Western Hemisphere’s most potent rebel army. The rebel force has diminished in strength thanks in considerable measure to U.S. military and intelligence support. Kerry’s discussions in Colombia also focused on trade, energy and counternarcotics and he met with Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos.
“Colombia is a success story,” Kerry said. “The Santos administration has taken a very courageous and very necessary and very imaginative effort to seek a political solution to one of the world’s longest conflicts.”
Kerry began the day by having breakfast with two negotiators from the Colombian government, which has been conducting peace talks in Havana, Cuba, with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia since last year. Formed in the 1960s, the FARC is the oldest active guerrilla band in the Western Hemisphere.
Observers say the FARC currently has about 8,000 armed fighters.
After breakfast at his hotel, Kerry visited a gymnasium where members of the Colombia police and army, many who have lost limbs in the conflict, were playing rugby in wheelchairs reinforced with hard plastic instead of spokes. The chairs were designed to take a beating and during the game, and some players collided so violently that their chairs overturned on the court.
Kerry rolled up one of his pants legs, a national show of support for those who have lost their limbs in the fighting.
Then he walked to the other side of the gym to watch amputees playing volleyball. They used their hands to move themselves around the floor and spike the ball from sitting positions. Kerry got into the game and scooted along the floor in his suit, reaching from side to side to tap the ball over the net.
Before leaving for Brazil, Kerry visited the headquarters of the Colombian National Police Counter-Narcotics Directorate for a briefing on the U.S.-Colombia partnership on fighting drugs, progress that has been made during the past decade, and an update on Colombia’s efforts to share its expertise in security work with other countries in the region. Colombia has helped to train more than 13,000 international police personnel from 25 Latin American countries and more than 20 other countries since 2009.
According to the State Department, Colombia has seen a 53 percent reduction in the cultivation of coca since 2007. Last year, Colombian authorities reported a record seizure of 279 metric tons of cocaine and cocaine products in the country and abroad.
The Colombian government has increasingly assumed operational and financial responsibility for many U.S.-backed drug-fighting programs, has worked to dramatically reduce kidnappings and political assassinations and disrupt illegal narcotics trafficking with the help of more than $8.5 billion from the U.S. since 2000.
But U.S. assistance to Colombia has been gradually decreasing, falling from $287 million in fiscal 2008 to $161 million in fiscal 2012.