RIO DE JANEIRO — A Brazilian television show, citing classified documents provided by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, reported Sunday night that the Obama administration has spied on the state-run Petrobras oil producer, Brazil’s most important company.
President Obama and administration officials have publicly asserted that intelligence-gathering is focused on stopping terrorist threats and fighting transnational crime. But the documents revealed on “Fantastico,” a program on the Globo TV network, appear to show that the United States may target multinational companies, although it was not clear for what purpose.
The documents, provided to “Fantastico” by Rio-based journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has collaborated with Snowden, included a slide labeled “top secret” in which Petrobras was named as a target among a group of companies. The program said the NSA focused on the oil giant’s computer network, as well as on those of Google and the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a European firm that enables money transfers.
The show did not disclose why Petrobras or the other companies would be targeted, although the “Fantastico” report said the documents were part of a presentation used to train new agents about how to breach private computer networks.
James R. Clapper Jr., the director of U.S. national intelligence, said in a statement that “it is not a secret” that the intelligence community collects information “about economic and financial matters, and terrorist financing.”
Read the documents
“What we do not do, as we have said many times, is use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies,” Clapper said.
The exposé was the second in a week made possible by Greenwald, who writes for Britain’s Guardian newspaper. The previous Sunday, “Fantastico” used a variety of NSA slides to reveal American government monitoring of phone communications and the e-mails of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Those disclosures caused an uproar in Brazil. Rousseff sought out Obama on the sidelines of last week’s Group of 20 summit in Russia. She later expressed dissatisfaction with the American response to her concerns and said she expected the Obama administration to provide a more detailed explanation by Wednesday.
But news that an American intelligence agency has shown interest in Petrobras is sure to rankle officials here, both because of the Obama administration’s claims that its spying was aimed at thwarting terrorist threats and the sensitivity Brazilians have about foreign meddling when it comes to the country’s natural resources.
“The revelations suggest that the U.S. went way too far, beyond any reasonable justification of containing security threats,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, speaking in general about revelations of U.S. spying in Brazil. “Such an overreach is disrespectful and has touched a real nerve in Brazil, a country that prizes its sovereignty and is understandably sensitive about such abuses.”
Petrobras, the nation’s largest company, is a state-controlled oil behemoth that is considered a leader in drilling for deep-water oil and is the pride of the Brazilian government. It is developing huge offshore oil fields that government planners hope will make the country an important exporter of crude.
The first revelations of NSA spying in the region came in July, when Greenwald teamed with Rio-based newspaper O Globo to publish a report asserting that the United States had been collecting data on telephone calls and e-mails in Brazil and in other Latin American countries.
The report said the NSA had amassed military and security data on Venezuela, an American adversary that supports Syria. But O Globo said the agency also had spied on Colombia, the United States’ closest ally on the continent, and carried out surveillance operations to unearth commercial information about the energy sector in Mexico, which is under state control and essentially closed to foreign investment.
The next report, on the monitoring of Rousseff’s and Peña Nieto’s communications, put Obama on the defensive as he arrived in Russia for the G-20 summit, where his focus had been to drum up support for a U.S. military strike against Syria.
An angry Rousseff, after meeting with Obama, told reporters that she didn’t understand how the United States could defend spying on a democratic country, violating the privacy of its people.
“I made him see that the relationship that we had, based on the fact that we are big democracies in this part of the world, is incompatible with the act of spying,” she said in recounting the meeting.
Obama told reporters that American intelligence agencies are not “snooping at people’s e-mails or listening to their phone calls.” He also said that the United States would “step back and review what it is that we’re doing.”
“What we try to do is to target, very specifically, areas of concern,” the president said, speaking about counterterrorism and other security concerns, according to Reuters.
Brazilian officials have been skeptical about the American explanations. The communications minister, Paulo Bernardo, speaking to reporters last week, said that “all of the explanations that have been given to us from the beginning of these episodes have proven to be false.”
“I think it is indiscriminate spying that has nothing to do with national security,” Bernardo said. “It’s espionage with a commercial, industrial aim.”
With the latest disclosures, analysts say pressure may be mounting on Rousseff, a center-left technocrat who is expected to run for reelection next year, to cancel her state dinner in Washington next month, the only such visit organized by the White House this year.
“That would be unfortunate, but may be tough to prevent if reports of U.S. surveillance in Brazil continue to emerge,” Shifter said. “Obama’s promises of reviewing such spying allegations fall short of what Dilma needs politically to proceed with the visit.”