Over the weekend Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald leaked more top secret National Security Agency documents to “Fantastico,” a TV newsprogram that airs in Brazil. The documents, which detail successful espionage against the presidents of Brazil and Mexico, is causing an uproar in Brazil — and now Brazilian Pres. Dilma Rousseff is publicly considering whether to cancel her planned trip the U.S. next month. The White House had planned to honor Rousseff with a full state dinner — the only head of state to get one this year.
Rousseff claims the U.S. spying operation is so severe, it constitutes a violation of Brazil’s sovereignty. But really, why the uproar? At a certain level, the revelations are like realizing there is gambling at Rick’s — if it weren’t, one would really wonder why the U.S. intelligence community wasn’t actively spying on other governments, especially those with enormous organized crime and drug issues that happen to sit along primary transatlantic fiber optic cables.
Moreover, as Moscow Times opinion editor Michael Bohm recently wrote, spying is a sovereign right. Calling the outcry in Russia a “clear double standard” because of Russia’s own massive spying operations, he writes:
Spying on each other is so systemized and accepted as a “sovereign right” that the U.S. formally presents the head of its CIA station chief when he takes up his position at the U.S. embassy in Moscow to Russian officials. It is clear that the CIA chief has a full staff of officers in the U.S. embassy and consulates whose objectives are obvious. The same goes for Russia’s foreign-intelligence operations in Washington and other U.S. cities.
Indeed, the same is true of most embassies from most countries. Not declaring one’s senior intelligence officers is actually considered a serious breach of protocol — because spying is so fundamental to international relations and everybody knows it.
“What struck me about these documents was how personal they were. They had pictures of them,” Greenwald told MercoPress in a phone interview, referring to Rousseff and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. “I’d think there has to be some sense of violation and invasion that will produce some outrage.”
He certainly got his wish. But the Brazilian outrage, much like the Russian outrage, is clearly two-faced.
Brazil, for example, operates its own massive domestic spying operation — a detail Greenwald, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, leaves out of all of his outraged writing about the NSA. In 2008, ABIN, Brazil’s intelligence agency, secretly recorded a conversation between Supreme Court president Gilmar Mendes and Sen. Demóstenes Torres. The president at the time, Lula da Silva, suspended the agency’s chief spy, but no one knows how long or how often senior officials were wiretapped.
In contrast to Brazil, the NSA has not committed any abuse on par with spying on the U.S. Supreme Court. But while Greenwald is furious at the NSA’s email-snooping programs, he does not condemn Brazil’s own PRISM-like system to steal email data for government analysis.
Things in Brazil haven’t improved since da Silva fired his top spy. Earlier this year, ABIN was accused of spying on a movement to oppose the construction of the Belo Monto Dam in Northern Brazil. That wasn’t a unique incident, either: in June Brazil’s intel service launched a massive effort to surveil and eavesdrop on social media — a reaction to this year’s mass protests that Brazilian police violently beat down.
Pres. Rousseff did not like being surprised by social unrest, so she ordered the monitoring — yet she seems offended the U.S. would monitor her to avoid surprises.
This is to say nothing of Brazil’s troubling history of violence against journalists who report on government corruption and abuses — including by police officers. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, six reporters have been murdered for their work in the last year alone.
It’s hard to take Brazil’s protests seriously when its conduct toward its own citizens is not only similar, but actually far more violent — especially if you’re unfortunate enough to live in Rio’s dilapidated favelas.
As for Mexico, it’s similarly bizarre that anyone would protest an American attempt to try to get an inside track on how the new president would behave. The U.S. and Mexican governments jointly operate a gigantic spying complex in Mexico City that tracks down drug cartel figures and organized criminal groups. But after last December’s election of Nieto, many in the U.S. worried that this center would be shut down over disagreements about how best to counter cartels, even while Nieto created a newly-centralized intelligence service under American consultation.
“Intelligence cooperation between the two countries is extensive,” Benoît Gomis, a specialist in organized crime and counternarcotics at Chatham House, told me. But the two countries are at a turning point. “There have been more than 70,000 drug-related killings in Mexico since 2007, so there is clear willingness from the Mexican government to do things differently.”
It remains unclear what that will look like. Drug-related violence under Nieto has remained as obscenely high as it was under Calderon — approximately 52 killings per day. And the U.S. wants to deepen its collaboration with Mexican intelligence despite more restrictions on how U.S. agencies can operate there.
Nevertheless, American espionage in Latin America is still, for some reason, deeply scandalous. To be sure, no one likes realizing they’ve been spied on. But underneath all of the outrage, it is always worth asking: is this really something scandalous? In the case of Mexico and Brazil, it almost certainly is not.
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