Paper reveals NSA ops in Latin America
By Juan Forero,
BOGOTA, Colombia — A Brazilian newspaper on Tuesday published an article it said is based on documents provided by the former American contractor Edward Snowden asserting that the United States has been collecting data on telephone calls and e-mails from several countries in Latin America, including important allies such as Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.
The paper, O Globo, based in Rio de Janeiro, says the documents show the National Security Agency amassed military and security data on countries such as Venezuela, an American adversary that has been accused of aiding Colombia’s Marxist rebels and maintaining close ties with Iran. But the documents also show that the agency carried out surveillance operations to unearth inside commercial information on the oil industry in Venezuela and the energy sector in Mexico, which is under state control and essentially closed to foreign investment.
U.S. officials have declined to address issues about intelligence gathering or the O Globo report, except to issue a statement saying that “we have been clear that the United States does gather foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.”
The report on Tuesday came after O Globo on Sunday published a story contending that Brazil is a major target of the NSA’s international effort to monitor telecommunications. The newspaper said that in gathering data in Brazil, the NSA counted on the collaboration of American and Brazilian telecommunications companies, though O Globo did not name them.
The revelations of the American agency’s operations across a swath of Latin America coincided with news from Russia about where Snowden, who is believed to be at the Moscow airport, may be headed. A leading Russian lawmaker, Alexei Pushkov, said on Tuesday via his Twitter account that Snowden, who had been a contractor for the NSA, had accepted the offer of asylum that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had made on Friday.
Neither Venezuela nor Russia’s government confirmed Pushkov’s announcement, and minutes after Pushkov issued his initial message it had been erased from his Twitter feed. Though Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of the Russian parliament, has provided insights into the Kremlin’s thinking on Snowden, his messages on Tuesday left little clarity about exactly what Snowden had decided.
Snowden’s revelations show that the NSA has been gathering countless data from the phone records of Americans and Internet usage abroad. The information does not include the content of phone calls or e-mail messages but what is called “metadata” — records of addresses, the time when e-mails are sent and other information that can reveal important patterns to intelligence officials.
In the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, Communications Minister Paulo Bernardo told reporters that Thomas Shannon, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, denied in a meeting that the United States carries out surveillance operations on Brazilian communications. Shannon also told Bernardo that the United States is not working with Brazilian telecom operators.
In brief comments to reporters, Shannon on Monday touted what he called “an excellent” level of cooperation between the United States and Brazil on intelligence and law enforcement matters. He said that the O Globo article “showed an image of our program that is not correct” and that U.S. officials are working to assuage the Brazilian government’s concerns.
The revelations, though, have touched a nerve in Brazil and several other Latin American countries because of past American support for dictatorships notorious for their surveillance of opposition figures and the tapping of their telephones.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was jailed and tortured by the 1970s-era dictatorship that ruled the country, said her government would raise concerns with the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
“Brazil’s position on this issue is very clear and very firm,” Rousseff said on Monday. “We do not agree at all with inference of this kind, not just in Brazil but in any other country.”
She added that the assertions in the O Globo report on Brazil would need to be investigated “without prejudging.”
The newspaper reported that after Brazil, the South American country where the NSA sweep of telephone and e-mail data was most prevalent was Colombia, which is led by President Juan Manuel Santos, an ally of the Obama administration.
Government officials here in Bogota have frequently spoken out over the past few years about the close intelligence ties with the United States, which they say are vital in the fight against rebels and drug traffickers. But this is the first time details of NSA operations have been made public.
Colombia’s government said in a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday night that it views “with concern” media reports about telecommunications surveillance here. “Colombia asks the government of the United States, through its ambassador in Colombia, for the corresponding explanations,” the statement said.
U.S. Ambassador P. Michael McKinley, speaking to Colombia’s Blu Radio on Wednesday, said the Obama administration would respond to the country’s concerns through diplomatic channels. He said the United States collects information “to protect its citizens and to provide intelligence information for its allies.”
“We collect information of common interest with partner countries and allies,” McKinley said. “The information has led to important results in the fight against narco-trafficking and terrorism and should not be underestimated.”
In Peru, another ally, the president, Ollanta Humala, said in an interview on television that his government is “against these kinds of espionage activities.” He called on the Peruvian congress to examine the issue.
And in Mexico, the Foreign Ministry said that it had asked the U.S. government for “broad information on this matter,” according to the AFP news agency.
Other countries where O Globo said the NSA was active — among them Argentina and Ecuador, both of which have an adversarial relationship with Washington — wanted an end to the alleged surveillance and demanded answers.
“A shiver went down my back when we learned that they are spying on us from the north,” Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, said in a speech on Tuesday. She said her government and others should call for an explanation.
“Let’s hope the presidents issue a strong declaration and a request for an explanation about these revelations,” she said, referring to the leaders of the Mercosur bloc of nations in South America, which is convening a meeting Friday.
“More than revelations, these are confirmations of what we thought was happening,” Fernández said.