Nosy neighbour

Angry reactions from Brazil and Mexico to revelations that personal communications of their Presidents were intercepted by U.S. intelligence put the Obama administration on the back foot.

Published : Sep 18, 2013 12:30 IST

U.S. President Barack Obama talks to Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff (centre) as Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto (left) looks on at the G20 summit on September 6 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Obama assured them that the allegations that the NSA had spied on their personal and official communications would be investigated.

U.S. President Barack Obama talks to Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff (centre) as Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto (left) looks on at the G20 summit on September 6 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Obama assured them that the allegations that the NSA had spied on their personal and official communications would be investigated.

THE newest revelations from the documents released by the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who worked as a contractor for the United States National Security Agency (NSA), conclusively show that the Barack Obama administration had put the personal communications of the Presidents of Brazil and Mexico under digital surveillance. And, less than a week after this was known, there was another bombshell. The New York Times , The Guardian and several other newspapers reported that the NSA had managed to undermine the encryption technology that protects Internet banking and the privacy of everyday communication.

The news about the personal communications of the two heads of state being compromised was first published in Brazil’s O Globo newspaper in early September. The article was co-authored by The Guardian ’s Glenn Greenwald, who has played a key role along with Snowden in exposing the dangerous shenanigans of the Obama administration.

The governments of both the countries lodged strong protests with Washington. Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto met with Obama on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia; the U.S. President also made it a point to meet his angry Brazilian counterpart, Dilma Rousseff, during the meet. Obama assured them that he would order an investigation into the allegations that the NSA had spied on their private and official communications.

Reaction of Mexico, Brazil “The Mexican government has made it clear that there must be an investigation and that there must be sanctions if there were acts outside international agreements and outside the law,” Nieto said in televised remarks on the sidelines of the summit. In July, when the first reports about the U.S.’ spying on its immediate neighbour and biggest trading partner had started appearing, Nieto had said that it “would be totally unacceptable” if this was indeed a fact. Mexico and the U.S. share a lot of intelligence. The U.S. government has played a big role in Mexico’s war against its home-grown drug cartels.

The outrage in Brazil was, however, more visible and widespread. Dilma Rousseff was visibly seething. Brazilian authorities demanded an apology from the White House for spying on their President. In the first week of September, there were strong signals from Brasilia that the scheduled meeting in October between Dilma Rousseff and Obama would not happen if an apology was not forthcoming. Washington is worried and is working furiously through diplomatic and security back channels to mollify the Brazilians. The stakes are high for the Americans. For starters, the Boeing Company may be on the verge of losing a lucrative military contract from the Brazilian Air Force.

Washington was hopeful that many agreements, including a $4-billion F-18 fighter jet deal, would be signed during the scheduled visit. Only the Brazilian President was invited on a state visit this year by President Obama. The invitation was meant to highlight the improvement in relations between the two countries in recent years. The U.S. and Brazil are the two biggest economies in the American continent. Brazil, since the last decade, has started charting out a truly independent foreign policy course, putting it at odds with the U.S. on various international issues. It is also flexing its economic muscle and is a key player in new emerging groupings such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa).

As soon as the latest story about the NSA snooping broke out, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota (who has since quit the Cabinet) called for a written explanation from Washington. But after investigations by Brazilian authorities concluded that the matter was more serious than previously thought, there was a demand for an apology. “This is a major, major crisis…. There needs to be an apology. It needs to be public. Without that, it is basically impossible for her [Dilma Rousseff] to go to Washington,” a Brazilian official told the media in Brasilia.

Obama continued to insist that the NSA surveillance programme was only aimed at intercepting terror groups. Speaking in Stockholm on his way to the G-20 summit, Obama said that U.S. intelligence agencies were not “snooping at people’s e-mails or listening to people’s phone calls”. He chose to ignore the glaring fact that in the case of the two heads of state of the U.S.’ two neighbours, this was precisely what was being done. The private communications of the Brazilian and Mexican Presidents were being snooped into. Both Brazil and Mexico are not known to harbour terrorists, nor are they accused of being proliferators of nuclear and chemical weapons technology.

Widespread spying On the basis of separate documents, O Globo had published reports in July that the NSA had collected data on billions of telephone and email messages in the past 10 years. The U.S. administration was also spying on several other Latin American governments, including pro-American governments such as Colombia. The NSA documents that have been revealed so far show that other governments considered strategically very close to Washington, such as Turkey and India, were also spied on. But Ankara and New Delhi have chosen to gloss over the issue, preferring to buy Washington’s arguments that it was only interested in combating terrorism and sharing relevant information with its allies and friends.

Brazil’s Communications Minister Paulo Bernardo, a political confidant of the President, said in early September that all the explanations given by Washington were unconvincing. “I think that it is indiscriminate spying that has nothing to do with national security…. It’s espionage with an industrial-commercial aim.”

The documents released by Snowden had made it obvious that the major thrust of the two U.S. spying programmes, PRISM and “Boundless Informant”, was to fish out information about defence deals and “commercial secrets” that would help American industry. The documents show that the NSA’s surveillance of Venezuela after the death of President Hugo Chavez not only involved intense political spying but also focussed on the military and the commercial sector. Venezuela is one of the biggest suppliers of oil to the U.S. Argentina’s President Christina de Kirchner declared that she felt “a shiver going down my spine when we learned that they (the U.S.) were spying on all of us”.

Brazil has already started implementing plans to secure its communications. It is building its own fibre optic communication links with Latin American and Caribbean countries besides purchasing a new satellite. The Brazilian media published an NSA document with a diagram showing communications between Dilma Rousseff and her top aides. The NSA claimed in the document that it was a “case study” on its wide-ranging powers to conduct worldwide espionage with ease. “That the U.S. government—in complete secrecy—is constructing a ubiquitous spying apparatus aimed at not only its own citizens but all of the world’s citizens has profound consequences. It erodes, if not eliminates, the ability to use the Internet with any remnant of privacy or personal security. It vests the U.S. government with boundless power over those to whom it has no accountability,” observed Greenwald in the article, which chronicled American spying on heads of state and government ministers. Brazilian Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo said that the U.S. spying had affected many other countries besides Brazil. “Any country that has its sovereignty violated has to react, take a position and use international law to put things in its place. That is what Brazil would do,” he said.

The spy budget In the last week of August, another set of documents released by Snowden and analysed in The Washington Post revealed that Washington had earmarked a staggering $52.6 billion budget for U.S. intelligence agencies. The documents relating to the budget showed that since the events of 9/11, American intelligence agencies had become even more gargantuan. They were used for myriad activities, including torturing terror suspects in “black site” prisons located in foreign countries and on the massive deployment of “killer drones” in various parts of the world. “The document describes a constellation of spy agencies that track millions of surveillance targets and carry out operations that include hundreds of lethal strikes,” the article said.

The U.S. is estimated to have spent more than $500 billion, or $100 million a day, on intelligence since the 2001 attacks on the “homeland”. The budget for intelligence gathering this year alone is $14.7 billion. Out of this, $4.9 billion will be spent on “overseas contingency operations”. These include carrying out covert military operations in third countries such as Pakistan and Yemen and providing funds and training to the militant groups engaged in the fight to overthrow the secular Syrian government.

The NSA will be allotted $10 billion this year so that it can continue to spy on the domestic as well as the international public. The latest revelation about the NSA’s ability to crack encryption codes may now even shock supporters of the Obama administration’s surveillance policies. Sensitive data such as trade secrets and medical records all over the world have been there for the picking for the NSA for some years now.

According to The New York Times , the NSA treated its recent successes in deciphering protected information as part of its most closely guarded secrets. “For the past decade, NSA had led an aggressive multi-pronged effort to break widely used encryption technologies,” according to an official 2010 memo describing a briefing of the NSA’s achievements. It concluded that the encryption documents show “in striking details, how the agency works to ensure that it is actually able to read the information it collects”.

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