By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter
SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – Just three months ahead of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s state visit to the United States, relations between the two countries are being tested by allegations that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been data-mining surveillance on millions of emails and telephone calls made in Brazil over the past decade.
O Globo reported this week that the CIA and the NSA jointly ran monitoring stations to gather information from foreign satellites in 65 countries, including five in Latin America.
The source originally was revealed by the Guardian in the UK, which reported that Iran is most subject among countries to intense surveillance with 14 billion reports (in March), with Pakistan second most with 13.5 billion.
The same reports indicate a Latin American focus on Colombia, monitoring drug trafficking and the FARC guerrilla group. Reuters published that in Venezuela the “NSA spied on military procurement and the oil industry”, while in Mexico the focus was the drug trade, “the energy sector and political affairs.”
What has been revealed that is perhaps more alarming for Brazil is that according to O Globo, access to Brazilian communications was obtained through American companies that were partners with Brazilian telecommunications companies.
President Rousseff condemned “foreign interference” and said the allegations, if true, constitute a violation of sovereignty and human rights: “Brazil’s position on this is very clear and very firm. We do not condone in any way interference of this sort here in Brazil or elsewhere. We shall present a proposal to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, given its fundamental principle of guaranteeing freedom of expression [...] also guaranteed under our Constitution.”
The Brazilian government has demanded clarifications over the espionage claims from the United States through Brazil’s Ambassador in Washington D.C. On Monday, July 8th, the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, Thomas Shannon, was summoned to a meeting with Brazil’s Minister for Communications, Paulo Bernardo.
At the meeting Shannon reportedly denied the allegations, and later told reporters that the program had been “presented incorrectly” and that Washington was “working with the Brazilians to answer their questions.”
However, Bernardo said he was “in no doubt” the U.S. had been involved in surveillance operations involving Brazilian citizens and institutions, adding that Brazil would “be firm and demand transparency” from its American “friends.”
Brazil’s Minister for External Affairs Antonio Patriota praised his American counterparts’ willingness to cooperate, but publicly the United States government has kept tight-lipped on the topic.
U.S.-Brazil relations had been described as going through a “honeymoon” period following Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Brazil, and expected to peak with President Rousseff’s state visit to the U.S. in October, the first in nearly two decades.
“It is an extremely grave matter and one that the government is treating with utmost seriousness [but] I don’t believe it will compromise diplomatic relations. Everything will depend on conversations held over the next few days,” Geraldo Zahran, professor of international relations at PUC in São Paulo, told BBC Brasil.
However, American journalist Steve Yolen, resident in Brazil for over forty years, says the surveillance program may have been “one tap too far” for Latin America’s biggest country: “This massive abuse of privacy is considered serious misconduct under Brazilian law. ‘Deep concern’ is being expressed, virtually unanimously, by Brazilian authorities,” he tells The Rio Times.
The information on the NSA’s activities was allegedly gathered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, currently on the run from the U.S. government for leaking information about the programs.