As whistle-blower Edward Snowden releases more and more sensitive National Security Agency (NSA) files, the public is gaining unique insights into Washington's underhanded foreign policy in South America. It's no secret that both the Bush and Obama administrations have viewed Venezuela as a threat, but Snowden's disclosures suggest that Washington has a bead on Brazil, too. For some time I've been writing about such rivalry, and recent explosive reports merely confirm what many U.S. diplomats already concede privately: that is to say, Brazil is a force to be reckoned with and the country may even undermine or upset traditional regional U.S. dominance in the not too distant future.
Snowden's revelations, which have given rise to a firestorm of international controversy, underscore the growing importance of the NSA, which worked in tandem with the CIA to set up a spying operation in Brasilia. The joint espionage program, code-named "F6" but more commonly known as the "Special Collection Service," sought to scoop up and obtain valuable satellite data. According to a recent article in The Week, "the men and women of the Special Collection Service are responsible for placing super-high-tech bugs in unbelievably hard-to-reach places." According to the publication, Special Collection Service teams comprised of two to five people rotate into American embassies around the world, working undercover as diplomats. When the State Department is unable to offer official cover, agents may pose as businesspeople.
Glenn Greenwald, who broke the NSA story for O Globo newspaper, says the U.S. used Brazil as a "bridge" to collect data on more protected countries whose traffic nonetheless passed through the large South American nation. At present, Brazil has no satellites of its own though the country leases eight satellites operated by foreign companies. There's some indication that Washington views Brazil as more than just a bridge to spy on other countries, however. According to Snowden's leaked documents, the NSA has targeted Brazil with as much vigor as other large nations like China, Pakistan and Russia. Speaking candidly, the Brazilian Minister of Communications has stated that he "has no doubt" that his country's citizens and institutions were spied upon, and politicians from across the political spectrum have voiced outrage over U.S. spying.
A History of Surveillance
Today, Brazil is a somewhat reliable U.S. partner though political frictions are beginning to emerge between the two powers. Go back some twenty years, however, and relations were somewhat more harmonious. In 1994, Washington welcomed the victory of Fernando Henrique Cardoso who beat challenger Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva in the Brazilian presidential election. During the go-go 1990s, Cardoso was well regarded in Washington circles for espousing conservative economic policies. Lula, by contrast, was a member of the Workers' Party and therefore more suspect in the eyes of the Clinton administration.
Whatever the case, it seems the U.S. wasn't taking any chances with Cardoso. According to Folha de São Paulo, Brazil's ambassador to the U.S. suspected that his embassy had been spied upon prior to a Cardoso trip to Washington in 2001. At the time, the ambassador noted that embassy phone lines had behaved rather erratically. Cardoso himself must have been aware of such reports, though the former president recently claimed that he did not know about the Special Collections Service during his tenure. Cardoso may not have had direct knowledge of the joint NSA-CIA base in Brasilia, but he was most certainly aware of U.S. capabilities more broadly. Indeed, according to a separate Folha de São Paulo article, Cardoso's Minister of G.S.I. (Institutional Security Office) testified to Congress as early as 2001 that the NSA had developed a program called Echelon which was designed to intercept e-mail and other communications.
Perhaps, the government was being surveilled from within as well. According to Correio do Brasil, the Cardoso administration contracted security firm Booz Allen no less to help carry out privatization plans and restructuring of the Brazilian financial system. Whistle-blower Snowden worked at the company, which has links to the N.S.A. and helps to prosecute the drug war in Latin America. Booz Allen in turn is owned by the infamous Carlyle Group, a corporation known for ties to insider politicians. Carlyle once employed none other than George Herbert Walker Bush as an adviser. His son George W., meanwhile, served on the board of directors of Carterair, an airline food company which was later acquired by Carlyle.
From Cardoso to Lula
In 1998, Lula ran for president against Cardoso for the second time but was once again roundly defeated. Four years later, however, the political situation had begun to change. For one thing, Cardoso could no longer run for reelection, and meanwhile South America's "Pink Tide" to the left had taken Venezuela out of Washington's traditional political orbit. Out on the campaign trail, Lula accused Cardoso of being too friendly and "submissive" to the U.S. What is more, Lula accused Washington of wanting to "annex" Brazil through the Free Trade Area of the Americas or F.T.A.A. This time, Lula finally got his wish and was elected president.
Once in office, however, Lula started to push familiar economic policies from the Cardoso era. Moreover, according to WikiLeaks cables the wily Lula sought to placate the Bush administration while occasionally appearing to side against fellow leftists across the wider region. There's even some suggestion in the cables that members of Lula's cabinet received U.S. intelligence dealing with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. At the U.S. embassy in Brasilia, meanwhile, American diplomats exploited internal divisions within the Lula government to gain political advantage.
Despite such crass and cynical opportunism, the Lula administration pursued a much more independent foreign policy than Cardoso. How did the new political shakeup affect U.S. espionage? Greenwald's reporting leads to some intriguing yet still unanswered questions. According to O Globo, the joint NSA-CIA spying hub functioned "at least until 2002," the same year Lula took over from Cardoso. Somewhat vaguely, O Globo adds that "there's no proof" that the espionage station still exists in Brasilia.
Brazil is Powerless
In light of Snowden's recent bombshell disclosures, many Brazilians may wonder whether the U.S. is concerned about the South American nation's rise on the world stage. On the surface at least, Washington has somewhat strained if cordial diplomatic relations with Brasilia, and the two nations even conduct military exchanges. On the other hand, the Pentagon has embarked on an effort to establish military bases throughout the Southern Cone and in countries bordering Brazil. In Chile, for example, the U.S. Southern Command operates a military facility in the port city of Concón in the central province of Valparaíso. In Argentina meanwhile, the Pentagon tried to establish another military base in the Chaco region but was rebuffed by the Kirchner administration.
It's anyone's guess what the Brazilian military makes of such aggressive Pentagon maneuvering, but at long last the government seems to have woken up to the threat of electronic eavesdropping. According to a recent Inter Press Service report, Brazil is now "attempting to untangle a web of hi-tech espionage with low-tech equipment reminiscent of a novel by British author John le Carré." One Brazilian foreign affairs expert told the news outlet that "in the past, spying had a specific target. It was very low-tech, and action was taken on the basis of suspicions. But now, le Carré's novels look like they were written in the Middle Ages. We are looking at a qualitative and quantitative change in espionage."
According to Folha, an intelligence officer told the Brazilian Congress in 2008 that G.S.I. knew about Echelon and had studied the NSA's program. Nevertheless, Brazil earmarked less than $44 million for cyber-security in 2013, a pittance which leaves the country vulnerable to attack. Though Brazil will shortly launch its own satellite, undersea fiber optic cables and internet data collection center, the Defense Minister has openly admitted that his country "is still in diapers" in terms of cyber-security.
Surveying frenetic N.S.A. spying and U.S. Pentagon activity on its borders, the Brazilian government must surely wonder about wider American objectives. The larger question, however, is whether Brasilia can do anything to counteract or mitigate Washington's intelligence gathering. During the Cardoso years, and possibly leading into the Lula administration, the NSA seems to have been able to carry out its objectives in Latin America with relative ease.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.