Venezuela Dismisses Interpol Presentation, Computer Experts Question Report’s Reliability

“A media show” is how President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela referred to the report presentation, in which Interpol said that it found no evidence of tampering with computers that supposedly belonged to one of Colombia’s rebel groups.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called the Interpol analysis of the supposed FARC data a "media show." (Marcelo García/Prensa Presidencial)

May 16, 2008 (— “A media show” is how President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela referred to the report presentation, in which Interpol said that it found no evidence of tampering with computers that supposedly belonged to one of Colombia’s rebel groups. Meanwhile, computer experts raised questions about the disparity between the presentation and the report itself.

During a press conference with international media, Chavez said the Colombian government’s staging of this “show” represented “a new act of aggression” on the part of the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, which obliges Venezuela to “place once again the relations with Colombia under deep review.”

On Thursday Ronald Noble, the General Secretary of the International Police Organization, known as Interpol, presented its forensic analysis of three computers, three flash memory drives, and two external hard drives, containing 600 gigabytes of data, which the Colombian government says it obtained in the raid on an encampment of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Ecuador last March 1st.  According to Noble, Interpol found “no evidence” that the equipment had been tampered with.

Chavez explained that what Interpol did was to validate a scam by the Colombian government. To illustrate his point, Chavez said that this was as if someone were to assassinate his minister of food and shortly before an investigation is launched the assassin puts a paper into the minister’s pocket, implicating the minister of the interior, Rodriguez Chacín, for the murder (whom Colombia is implicating with the FARC computer files).

“On the corpse of [Minister] Osorio I put a paper, and as a policeman, I know how to do it without leaving fingerprints. I then take his coat and I convoke you [the press corps]. Surprise! Look what the terrorist Osorio had in his pocket … it is dated May 10. I did it now and I blame another: Osorio, I will kill you. [Signed,] Rodriguez Chacín. Catch the murderer!” exclaimed Chavez during the press conference.

The Colombian government has argued that the files found in computers and flash memory drives that are said to have belonged to a high level commander of the FARC show that the Venezuelan provided the group with material aid, in the form of money, weapons, and munitions.

The government of Venezuela denies these accusations vehemently, saying that its only contacts with the FARC involved its efforts to mediate in the release of FARC hostages.

Various computer experts around the world have examined the Interpol report more closely and many are saying that the press conference by Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble that appeared to support the Colombian government’s claims of authenticity contradicted some of the findings within the report itself.

The main problem with the computer files, according to these experts, is, as the Interpol report itself concedes, that between March 1 and 3 the Colombian anti-terrorism unit that had the files under its control did not follow standard forensic procedures for safeguarding electronic evidence and accessed the files without first making a copy of them. As such, the results of the analysis are not particularly reliable.

For example, Computer science professor Emilio Hernandez of the Simon Bolivar University in Venezuela said to Venezuelan state radio station RNV that Interpol failed to “explain that it is perfectly feasible to change files and change their dates.” That is, in the two days between the apprehension of the computer equipment and when it was turned over to forensics experts, when standard practices for preserving evidence were not observed, it could have been altered without such alterations being detectable.

Similarly, computer expert Sascha Meinrath, who is President of the Acorn Active Media Foundation, points out that the reason Interpol says it “found no evidence of tampering,” rather than that “there was no tampering” is because Interpol “cannot determine whether or not this happened, they can only look for evidence of the tampering.  A smart computer administrator can reset a computer's internal clocks and make changes that would be indiscernible from actual use.  As paragraphs 92-96 [of the Interpol report] make clear, this isn't particularly hard to do.”

The Interpol report notes that “one laptop computer (exhibit 28) and the two seized external hard disks (exhibits 30 and 31) contained files with erroneous date stamps, set in the future.” According to Meinrath, this fact alone puts into question whether the date stamps set in the past are accurate (before March 1, when the FARC camp was raided).

The report states that over 4,000 out of nearly 300,000 files had date stamps set after March 3, 2008, when the files were turned over to Colombian police forensics.

One of Germany’s main computer webzines,, also questioned the Interpol analysis, quoting a German forensics specialist, who said, “I, as a forensic scientist, would not be able to preclude that in a clearly re-started computer no complete image file was transferred that has consistent time-stamps, but which also has manipulated files.” “I am very doubtful whether this [Interpol] analysis can be held up in a court of law,” he added.

Other reactions to the Interpol report came from Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, who said that with the report Colombia’s President Uribe is trying to slander Ecuador’s government. “A campaign of dismissal is continuing in order to justify the March 1st bombing, to create an external enemy that unites the country and has it forget the serious problems and questioning that President Uribe and the Colombian political class currently face,” said Correa upon arriving in Lima, Peru for a regional summit.

Astrid Betancourt, the sister of Ingrid Betancourt, one of the highest profile hostages being held by the FARC, also weighed in on the computer files, saying that the information that has so far been presented from the computers was “very improbable.”

There were two problems with the information, said Betancourt. First, she believes President Correa when he told her that it is “very strange that one would have found all of this information because the camp where Raul Reyes [the FARC commander to whom the computers are said to belong] died was very destroyed by the bombing and it is very unlikely that this information would have been found intact.”

Second, “assuming that these computers were found, it seems to me that these computers were in the hands of the Colombian government for a very long time,” said Betancourt.

Colombia specialist Forrest Hylton, who is the author of the recently published history of Colombia, Evil Hour in Colombia, also expressed doubt about the authenticity of the released documents because of the language these used, which does not correspond with typical FARC communications.

For example, in one of the released documents the identity of a pseudonym is revealed. “No one would begin an important letter by identifying someone in relation to his/her pseudonym. That is not how clandestine organization works,” said Hylton.

“I can imagine this as part of a captured document that was later doctored significantly. As far as we know, these are printed documents scanned into a laptop. Why would the FARC’s second-in-command scan internal correspondence onto a laptop? To compile an archive for future historians? To write his memoirs in the future? For the benefit of the Colombian government?” added Hylton.