Revelations of a U.S. spy program that allegedly allows digital surveillance of the presidents of Brazil and Mexico have drawn cries of indignation and anger in both nations, but the fallout may be strongest for U.S.-Brazil relations.
At stake is whether Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will cancel a planned state visit to Washington in October, the first offered by President Barack Obama this year, or will take action on digital security that may affect U.S. companies such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo.
Brazil’s O Globo television network reported Sunday night that the National Security Agency had spied on the emails, telephone calls and text messages of Rousseff and President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico. The report was based on documents obtained by journalist Glenn Greenwald, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, from Edward Snowden, a fugitive former NSA contractor who’s living in Moscow.
O Globo’s “Fantastico” program displayed an NSA document dated June 2012 that contained email sent by Pena Nieto, who was a presidential candidate at the time, discussing whom he might name to his Cabinet once elected. The network displayed a separate document that revealed communication patterns between Rousseff and her top advisers.
The revelations drew expressions of indignation in Brazil and Mexico.
Rousseff held an emergency Cabinet meeting Monday and her foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, summoned U.S. Ambassador Thomas Shannon for the second time since early July.
At a joint news conference Monday in Brasilia with Minister of Justice Jose Eduardo Cardozo, Figueiredo called the actions “an inadmissible and unacceptable violation of Brazilian sovereignty” and said Brazil expected a written explanation from the White House by the end of the week.
For its part, Mexico’s Foreign Secretariat said it “rejects and categorically condemns any act of espionage against Mexican citizens in violation of international law.” Mexico also summoned the U.S. ambassador, Anthony Wayne, but no meeting has yet taken place, as Wayne was out of the country.
Outrage seemed deeper and more widespread in Brazil than in Mexico.
One former Mexican ambassador, Andres Rozental, said he expected little fallout: “I don’t think this is a major event for Mexico and Mexico-U.S. relations.”
“Mexico has very little to gain out of going into a big hissy over this,” added Vanda Felbab-Brown, a security and intelligence expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research center.
The U.S. government shares electronic signals swept from the skies over Mexico to help the nation catch drug kingpins and disrupt criminal organizations.
“The reality is that even under Pena Nieto, the high-value targeting is still there through signals intelligence,” Felbab-Brown said.
The Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo reported Tuesday that Rousseff was considering canceling the state visit and might recall Brazil’s ambassador to the United States.
Brazil also said it would raise the issue at the Group of 20 meeting this week in Russia, where Rousseff will see Obama for the first time since the original NSA leaks surfaced in June.
Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian ambassador to Washington under Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an elder statesman and the de facto leader of Brazil’s opposition party, called the Rousseff administration’s reaction “adequate,” adding “you have to show that you are not comfortable with what the U.S. is doing.”
Brazil might respond in ways that have teeth.
Rousseff is reported to be considering a proposal that would suspend the operations of companies that cooperate with the NSA or U.S. intelligence agencies.
This might be a new bill or may be inserted into a proposal under debate in Congress called the Marco Civil, a framework for Internet governance in Brazil that’s being pushed by companies that include Google, Facebook, and Yahoo. If Rousseff were to propose modifying the Marco Civil to include her government’s concerns, these companies probably would stop supporting it.
The Washington Post cited NSA documents in reports in June and last month that said Facebook, Google and Yahoo routinely provide information to U.S. agencies.
Rousseff also has talked about requiring foreign websites or Internet companies to store data in Brazil rather than in the United States.
Brazil’s minister of communications, Paulo Bernardo, told O Estado de Sao Paulo that if companies cooperate with spying, their licenses to operate in Brazil will be canceled.
Peter Hakim, the president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy group, noted that Secretary of State John Kerry had visited Brasilia last month to patch things up after the initial NSA leaks but “really did not do a very good job. He just brushed it off.”
Hakim said he believed the O Globo report, and he added that “snooping at presidents is disrespectful and offensive.”
Rousseff and Pena Nieto had to issue strong statements, Hakim said. “Both have to show they are not pushovers, that they can stand up to the U.S.,” he said.
Questions remain over whether Washington is pressuring Brasilia to make life difficult for Greenwald, a U.S. citizen who resides in Brazil.
No evidence of that has yet surfaced, but a Brazilian official said that according to a cable, a U.S. official had brought up Greenwald at a meeting with a Brazilian official in Washington in August, saying that, “Greenwald’s objective was to disrupt bilateral relations.”
The Brazilian official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to journalists, added: “After Sunday, for certain Greenwald is being seen as an ally” by the Brazilian government.
The O Globo report has been widely covered in the rest of Latin America, and some experts say it’s served as a new wake-up call on needs for cyber-security.
“Governments still don’t have a grasp of the real dimensions of the problem,” said Rafael Bonifaz, an Ecuadorean cryptographer and activist for free encryption software.
Not only sitting leaders should be concerned about surveillance, Bonifaz said, but also anyone with an eye on future elections.
“It’s possible that future leaders are being spied on right now, and when they come to power the NSA will have a complete dossier on them,” Bonifaz said.