Just how does the U.S. conduct its high-tech espionage? As a result of the Edward Snowden whistle-blowing scandal, the public is developing a keener understanding of the super secret National Security Agency or N.S.A., an entity with truly global reach. Indeed, according to recent reporting, the N.S.A. has its hands in the far-flung South Atlantic no less and takes advantage of a covert island base to spy on Brazil, an up and coming player in the wider region.Details about the secret base, which is located on the remote island of Ascension, are contained in a recent report published by Brazilian magazine Istoé.
The magazine, which claims to have seen documents released by Snowden, reports that the Ascension base carries out a spying program called Echelon. Though the Americans employ Echelon, other Anglo powers such as Britain share such intelligence. According to Istoé, the Ascension base is highly sophisticated and can intercept up to 2 million communications per hour, including telephone conversations, e-mail and social media. After the N.S.A. gets its hands on sensitive information, the agency sends the intelligence from Ascension to another central facility located in Fort Meade, Maryland.
Unlikely Early History
A tiny but strategic British possession measuring some 34 square miles, Ascension lies midway between Africa and South America. The island was originally discovered in 1501 by Portuguese explorers, but sailors were put off by the barren outcropping and didn't even bother to land. Almost three hundred years later, Captain Cook passed by though officers dismissed Ascension which "surpassed all the horrors of Easter Island and Tierra del Fuego."
Nevertheless, in 1815 the British deployed marines to the tiny volcanic speck in an effort to deter the French. The military garrison on Ascension, the British reasoned, might prompt France to think twice before attempting to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been exiled and imprisoned on St. Helena, another remote British island to the south. After Napoleon died in 1821 and the French threat receded, the British used Ascension as a naval base to fight the Atlantic slave trade.
With the development of trans-oceanic cables, Ascension finally found itself placed "on the map" as it were. In 1899, the Eastern Telegraph Company arrived on Ascension and gradually the British started to build up a cable and wireless station on the island. Though the British Navy had initially administered Ascension, the Eastern Telegraph Company --- which was later renamed Cable and Wireless in 1934 --- assumed all such duties until 1964.
The Americans Arrive
During the Second World War, Ascension assumed even greater strategic importance. By arrangement with the British government, the U.S. hurriedly built an airstrip called "Wideawake Field" within a couple of months. From 1943-1945 tens of thousands of American planes landed on the island on a route from the United States to Brazil and then northwards through Africa. Throughout military hostilities, Ascension served as a key anti-submarine base in the War of the Atlantic.
Having established a presence on the island, the Americans proceeded to build up their operations after World War II. By the 1960s, at the height of the space race, Ascension was used to launch research rockets into the upper atmosphere while NASA tracked Apollo flights to the moon. All of a sudden, the old Cable and Wireless Company started to build satellite ground stations rather than cable relays.
Perhaps, with the winding down of the space race in the 1980s, Ascension might have fallen into obscurity. In 1982, however, the island played a pivotal role in the Falklands War when the British established a tent city of British marines and soldiers on Ascension. The Royal Air Force meanwhile used Ascension, which lies halfway between the UK and the Falklands, as a crucial refueling station.
During the Falklands conflict with Argentina, the U.S. backed Britain and the American Wideawake airfield on Ascension proved indispensable for Margaret Thatcher. Though Britain ultimately prevailed, the Falklands War proved costly. During the 10-week conflict, a small British naval force expelled the Argentines from the Falklands, at a cost of 650 Argentine and 250 British lives.
To this day, Buenos Aires still smarts from its earlier defeat and recently the Kirchner government has been ratcheting up the pressure on Britain to turn the Falklands over to Argentine control. If anything, the discovery of offshore oil has served to exacerbate political tensions. Indeed, some reporting suggests that the vast South Atlantic could turn into a goldmine for the oil industry in the not too distant future.
In 2011, petroleum company Rockhopper discovered a whopping 1.4 billion barrels of oil in British-controlled waters of the Falkland Basin. Though subsequent oil exploration has only managed to turn up gas and condensate, experts believe that Falkland waters may hold huge potential. All in all, observers estimate that more than eight billion barrels of oil may exist around the Falklands, which is almost three times the amount contained in the British sector of the North Sea.
Ascension's Spying Role
Long-simmering tensions over the Falklands --- as well as South Atlantic oil intrigue --- lead to questions about Ascension's precise role in ongoing U.S.-U.K. spying operations. In recent years, both the N.S.A. and British intelligence agency GCHQ have collaborated on espionage while building up a large-scale spook apparatus on Ascension. Indeed, the island has become a big tech and military hub in its own right, and hosts five ground antennae which are employed in the Global Positioning System or GPS. U.S. defense contractor Raytheon manages all U.S. air force facilities on the island.
Just what kind of intelligence are the British and Americans trying to intercept through their base on Ascension? In light of recent revelations, it seems highly likely that both are interested in oil espionage in the South Atlantic. Indeed, according to Edward Snowden's own disclosures, the N.S.A. spied on Brazilian oil firm Petrobras, a company which is partially owned by the state. Reportedly, the N.S.A. hacked into the corporation's computer network and listened to CEO phone calls. What is more, the N.S.A. has also reportedly hacked the Brazilian Ministry of Energy and Mines.
Brazil's "Blue Amazon"
By penetrating Petrobras' computer networks, the N.S.A. may have gained valuable information about offshore oil technology and the big South Atlantic oil rush. Within the Falklands Basin, rival nations are already vying for vital petroleum spoils. In addition to British companies, the Americans also may have a vested interest. Last year, Noble Energy entered the South Atlantic oil fray after accepting a stake in two licenses owned by Falklands Oil and Gas. It was the first American oil company to start up operations within politically volatile Falkland waters. Noble is bullish about oil exploration in the area, and believes that future finds could be "potentially game-changing."
Needless to say, the Argentines are none too pleased by the growing British and American presence in the area. Indeed, Argentina is irate with British energy companies working in the Falklands, which are guilty of "stealing the natural resources of Argentina." In a rebuke to Britain, Argentine oil company YPF has formed a joint venture with Petrobras to explore for oil in Argentine-controlled waters off the Falklands. To make things even more volatile, Brazil backs up Argentine claims in the Falklands and sometimes refers to the South Atlantic as its own "blue Amazon."
Future of the South Atlantic
In light of heightened tensions and oil espionage in the South Atlantic, the strategic role of Ascension becomes even more significant. Though it's unlikely that war will break out again in the wider region, British magazine Prospect notes that the U.K. might find it difficult to defend the Falklands. Though the U.K. had a technological edge in 1982, the British have recently been obliged to cut their defense budget and have no aircraft carrier. Prospect notes that discovery of offshore petroleum in the Falklands, combined with renewed Brazilian assertiveness, could create quite a new and confounding political milieu for Britain and its U.S. patron, both of which are used to ruling the high seas.
Just what might be the fate of tiny Ascension in light of such wider geopolitical fault lines? If recent reporting is any indication, the British may be gearing up for increased tensions in the area. According to the Guardian newspaper, the UK government is exerting pressure on local Ascension residents to abandon the island. The British have ruled that anyone who retires or reaches the age of 18 without employment, or whose contract ends, must leave Ascension. Already, the local population has fallen by a quarter in one decade to less than 800.
Is the British government trying to restrict Ascension for solely military purposes? Whitehall denies any such claims, though local residents feel "frozen out" as they are losing jobs to Britons on short term contracts. Moreover, islanders suspect that the British secretly intend to eventually abandon Ascension, evacuate the local population and "leave it to the Americans."
Whatever the case, in light of heightened political tensions over the N.S.A. affair and oil rivalry in the South Atlantic, Ascension may continue to hold key strategic importance in the years to come.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.