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Whistle-Blower Snowden's Explosive South of the Border Disclosures

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By disclosing cloak and dagger spying at the National Security Agency (NSA), fugitive Edward Snowden has already upended diplomatic relations between Washington and the European Union. Snowden's super-sensitive revelations, which have uncovered a vast NSA espionage network in Europe called PRISM, have led to indignant though somewhat hypocritical howls of protest from Paris and Berlin. Perhaps, the disclosures may even derail corporate-friendly trade talks between the EU and U.S. scheduled to commence shortly.

As if such disclosures were not sensational enough, Snowden is now moving on to NSA activities in Latin America. Apparently, the young whistle-blower has shared additional information from his laptops with Glenn Greenwald, a Guardian journalist who has just published an explosive exposé of NSA spying in Brazil. Greenwald's report, which was published through Brazilian newspaper O Globo, confirms that the NSA has collected data on millions of telephone and e-mail conversations in the South American nation. Needless to say, the article has led to a withering response from the Dilma Rousseff government, which has pressed the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia to account for its actions.

Brazilian Bombshell

To be sure, Greenwald can be something of a knee-jerk ideologue, and I've had my criticisms over the years. Nevertheless, by shedding light on the NSA, a rather obscure government entity which has received scant public scrutiny, Greenwald deserves a lot of credit. As I've written previously, the U.S. harbors diplomatic suspicions of Brazil, and if anything Greenwald's reporting further underscores Washington's wariness toward the rising South American juggernaut.

According to Greenwald, NSA intercepts of Brazilian transmissions have been massive. Indeed, within the wider Americas region, NSA snooping on the South American nation is second only to the U.S. Perhaps, Greenwald's article will prompt investigations into Brazilian and U.S. telecommunications companies, whose role in the NSA affair has yet to be fully clarified. Reportedly, the NSA collected its data through so-called communication "associations" which tie American and Brazilian firms together, though it is not known whether the companies themselves were aware of the spying.

From the ITT Corporation to Panama

Snowden's Brazilian bombshell may bring back bad memories for Latin Americans, who have long been concerned about U.S interference. Though much of the NSA's history is obscure or poorly documented, what is clear is that ITT (or International Telephone and Telegraph), which installed much of Latin America's hard line communications, proved very valuable to the agency. Indeed, the company reportedly even had a say in who actually ran the NSA.

During the 1960s, the NSA rose to prominence by collecting data on Latin America. According to Thomas Hughes, author of Perilous Encounters: Cold War Collisions of Domestic and World Politics,

"the bearers of intercepts got favored treatment. The texts were placed between special covers, handled under lock and key, and hand delivered by special carriers. The latter enjoyed almost immediate access to the highest levels of the government, and these policymakers, in turn, often found NSA tidbits dramatic, entertaining and juicy. Personal items about the quirks of their counterparts -- heads of state, foreign ministers, and ambassadors -- were irresistible. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were all avid NSA consumers."

According to Thomas Perkins, a former NSA spy and author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, the agency collaborated with anti-Communist leaders in Panama during the Cold War. Perkins claims that when he was a young man, he was dispatched to poor Latin American countries such as Panama where he was tasked with cheating governments out of money and funneling cash from the coffers of the World Bank into the hands of major corporations and wealthy elites. When Omar Torrijos ruled in Panama during the 1970s, the NSA reportedly bugged the nationalist leader's private residence. Then, during negotiations over the Panama Canal, the agency acquired sensitive information about Torrijos' personal life.

NSA and the Latin American Drug War

More recently, the NSA has played an important role in the U.S.-funded war on drugs in Latin America. During the George W. Bush presidency, NSA struck a deal with Mexico to provide a telephone and eavesdropping center in the country. Reportedly, the installation would eavesdrop on every town and village. Later, the agency sent private warnings to newly elected Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to the effect that one General Moises García Ochoa had suspected ties to drug cartels. According to the Houston Chronicle, such revelations "scuttled Ochoa's chances of becoming Mexico's new defense minister."

What is more, former NSA officials have readily acquired employment at Booz Allen Hamilton, a national security consulting firm. As we know from Snowden's revelations, the company has shared outside contracts with the NSA, and the two have jointly helped to prosecute the drug war in Latin America. As I discussed in a recent column, Booz Allen staff boasts of helping to develop the so-called "Mérida initiative." Under the plan, the U.S. has provided billions of dollars to the Mexican armed forces and police. However, critics say the initiative has failed to address drug treatment and prevention. They also charge that most Mérida resources stay in the U.S. and are spent on military contracts and intelligence equipment.

National Security Behemoth

Reportedly, the NSA's spying operation over Latin America has become something of a gigantic behemoth. In San Antonio, the agency has a cryptology center and a listening post located at the so-called Medina Annex. Furthermore, after 9/11 and the expansion of the national security state, the NSA leased an abandoned San Antonio computer microchip plant to build a data storage and processing complex.

Wired magazine reports that 2,000 staff works at the facility, which cost taxpayers a whopping $100 million. However, according to the Chronicle, the center "has generated more questions locally than answers" and the San Antonio operation has stirred "concern across Latin America, where countries remain alert to any slight to sovereignty." Though it's common knowledge that the NSA assists in the drug war, the agency also reportedly monitors political dissent and unrest.

Political Ramifications in Latin America

It's not as if Latin American governments are unaware that the NSA conducts espionage throughout the region, and indeed many countries also carry out spying on their own citizens. Reportedly, local authorities sometimes share such intelligence with the U.S. It's unclear, however, whether governments were aware of the exact scope or magnitude of NSA operations disclosed by Snowden. Countries throughout the hemisphere may desire access to NSA information, for example concerning organized crime, but at the same time leaders fear how such intelligence might be used against politicians or business leaders.

At this point, it's anybody's guess how the Snowden revelations will play out in separate Latin American countries. News of the disclosures has come at an awkward time for Brazilian-U.S. relations, since President Rousseff is scheduled to attend a state dinner with Obama in October. The Los Angeles Times writes that "the invitation was seen as a long-awaited affirmation of Brazil's rising status, and of improved relations with the United States." Recently, the Rousseff administration declined Snowden's request for diplomatic asylum, though it will be interesting to see whether figures both inside and out of government will now lobby for the whistle-blower's greater protection.

Meanwhile, Brazilian media group O Globo has posted a map of NSA Latin America operations and other nations such as Venezuela and Ecuador figure prominently. It seems likely that the recent disclosures will further inflame public opinion throughout the region, which is already smarting in the aftermath of a bizarre incident involving the detention of Bolivian President Evo Morales at the Vienna airport. Perhaps, news of the NSA spying operation will even increase public support for Snowden in Central and South America, thus raising the possibility that the rogue NSA whistle-blower might wind up receiving diplomatic refuge in the region after all.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.