BOGOTA — Secretary of State John F. Kerry faced questions about National Security Agency spying here Monday as the government of Colombia asked for an explanation of reports that the United States has collected telephone and e-mail data in this hemisphere.
Similar questions are likely to arise in Brazil, which Kerry will visit Tuesday as part of his first trip to South America as secretary.
Last month, Brazil’s O Globo newspaper said that most Latin American countries, with a special focus on Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia, had been targets of surveillance that included military affairs and what the article called “commercial secrets.”
The newspaper said the revelations, which the United States has not publicly addressed, were based on documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. O Globo cited leaked documents that it said indicated surveillance of the oil industry in Mexico and Brazil, as well as counter-narcotics and counterterrorism operations in Colombia.
Brazil has called private U.S. explanations “insufficient.” Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota has said his government will ask the United Nations to consider measures to protect privacy rights.
In Colombia, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos had responded to the spying reports with a statement rejecting “all acts of espionage that violate the privacy rights of individuals and international telecommunications conventions.”
But in a news conference Monday after a working lunch with Kerry and Santos, Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin played down her government’s ire and said the United States had provided “relevant” information. Without offering specifics, Holguin said that “we have received the necessary assurances in order to be able to continue to work” on the issue on a bilateral basis.
Kerry said the spying discussion was “a very small part of the overall conversation and one in which I am confident I was able to explain thoroughly” the oversight and legality of the surveillance program “and how we have respected the concerns of other countries.”
Brazil appears to be far more exercised about the subject, and it sent Patriota, along with foreign ministers from Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay, to meet last week with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to protest the reported surveillance. The five called for unspecified international sanctions against countries that undertake what Patriota called “a violation of our citizens’ human rights” as well as acts “in defiance of the sovereignty” of nations.
For Latin Americans, “there’s nothing more significant than sovereignty,” a senior State Department official acknowledged, speaking on the condition of anonymity about sensitive diplomatic discussions. But Colombia and Brazil “also know . . . that we have a broad-based relationship,” the official said. “It’s important that even as we discuss these difficult matters and matters where they may have strong views, that we save and safeguard and take care of and ensure the continuing momentum of those engagements. . . . That’s the message that we’re putting out.”
Following President Obama’s announcement last week that he would examine possible changes in U.S. surveillance policy and oversight, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said Monday that he is establishing a review group to determine whether “the United States employs its technical collection capabilities in a manner that optimally protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while appropriately accounting for other policy considerations, such as the risk of unauthorized disclosure and our need to maintain the public trust.”
Clapper said the group will report interim findings to the president within 60 days, as Obama directed.
The United States considers Colombia its closest ally in South America, and Kerry’s trip, despite the spying complaints, is a welcome reprieve from months of shuttle diplomacy and hard-core negotiations over Syria and the Middle East peace process. In June, he attended an Organization of American States meeting in Guatemala.
Kerry would like to focus discussions here on mutual concerns about trade, narcotics and Colombia’s efforts to forge a peace agreement with guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Kerry, who met with Colombia’s negotiating team, praised the effort and said the United States supports it.
Movement on all of those fronts has been impressive, and Colombia is seen as a success story for bipartisan U.S. foreign policy at a time when progress has been elusive in much of the rest of the world. Under Plan Colombia, a program initiated by the Clinton administration in 2000, the United States has spent $8.5 billion on security, counter-narcotics and development aid here.
Using military training from the United States and Israel, Colombian security forces have been deployed to Mexico, Central America and West Africa to train military and police institutions.
Negotiations with the FARC, which began last year in Cuba, were slow but steady as the two sides reached agreement on land issues, but more recently they have bogged down on the issue of guerrilla participation in Colombia’s democratic politics. According to polls, most Colombians would prefer that guerrilla leaders be imprisoned rather than seated in the legislature.
In an interview last week with Radio Caracol here, Santos backed away from a November deadline he initially had set for the talks to conclude. “If we have to prolong the talks a couple of months, we’ll extend them,” he said.
On Monday, Kerry also visited a government rehabilitation and sports center for military amputees — most of whom lost limbs to FARC-placed land mines — and victims of violent crime. Donning a jersey and sitting on a gymnasium floor, he participated in a game of volleyball and told the players: “I myself am a veteran. I fought in Vietnam.” He noted that wheelchairs used by the amputees in a game of rugby he watched had been supplied by U.S. aid.
Plan Colombia aid has been significantly reduced over the past decade. The administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget request totals about $330 million, with the balance designated for drug and development programs rather than military assistance.
Although Colombia still supplies 95 percent of all cocaine consumed in the United States, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported last week that coca crop cultivation fell by 25 percent last year, mainly because of the aerial eradication started by the United States more than a decade ago and now run largely by the Colombian government.