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The US allegedly eavesdropped on millions of Brazil's phone calls and web communications. But critics ask, what's the Brazilian president going to do about it?
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — New revelations about America's global eavesdropping schemes have rattled this South American giant.
But so far, some government critics say, Brazil's president has not shown the gall to stand up firmly to the US superpower.
President Dilma Rousseff felt “indignant” over a report Sunday that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had collected data on millions of Brazilian phone calls and internet communications, a cabinet member told reporters.
On Monday, she called the alleged programs a "violation of sovereignty" and ordered an investigation into whether local operators were complicit in American spying in her country.
Brazil's Senate Foreign Relations Committee demanded a meeting with US Ambassador Thomas Shannon.
The reports were splashed across the front page of the Globo newspaper on Sunday and Monday and featured heavily on the popular Sunday night TV program Fantastico. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist with the Guardian, co-wrote the Globo story, reporting information he said was gleaned from documents supplied by former NSA contractor Snowden.
Snowden is believed to be holed up in Moscow’s airport, passportless, and mulling over various offers of asylum in Latin America, in the hopes of avoiding charges for alleged Espionage Act crimes in the United States.
The latest batch of revelations about Brazil broadens the fallout area of leaks that began last month, vexing Washington’s allies and foes alike from Asia to Europe to the Americas.
The US State Department told the BBC Brasil officials will not "comment publicly" about the allegations and will limit their conversations to Brazilian authorities.
Yet critics said the government of Rousseff — herself a former political prisoner and torture victim during the US-supported 1964-85 military dictatorship — responded timidly and showed the country’s reluctance to challenge the United States.
“Without haste or prejudgment, we have to investigate. The position of Brazil is very clear and very firm. We do not agree in any way with interference like this, not just in Brazil but in any other country," Rousseff said Monday.
She added that she would raise the issue with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
One motive for her careful words could be that Rousseff is scheduled in October to make an official state visit with US President Barack Obama in Washington, DC, something a Brazilian president hasn’t done in nearly two decades. Such an engagement, expected to include a military reception and black-tie dinner, is reserved for the US’s closest partners.
Until now, Brazil had seemed to keep a measure of distance from the Snowden affair — even as some of its neighbors appear eager for his arrival.
Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have offered him asylum.
More GlobalPost analysis: The Axis of Evo
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said his offer was “in the name of the dignity of Latin America.”
"He can come and live here, away from the persecution of American imperialism," Maduro added.
Latin America’s largest economy, Brazil was also among the more than 20 countries last week that received asylum applications from Snowden, according to WikiLeaks, the activist group that says it’s assisting the whistleblower. But Brazil’s government swiftly said it refused to reply, effectively denying him refuge.
Later, the region’s leaders became incensed during a diplomatic row with European countries over the forced rerouting and grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane last week, as rumors swirled that he had spirited Snowden away with him from Moscow.
The incident prompted an emergency meeting Friday of South American presidents in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Brazil’s Rousseff didn’t attend.
Brazil’s official responses to events related to NSA revelations have been “timid and late,” said Ivan Valente, a left-leaning congressman from Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city.
“I think it is part of a culture of submission of Brazilian elected officials to the American government. ... Actions which violate sovereignty cannot be accepted under any excuse, be it for commercial reasons or an upcoming visit,” he said.
Valente's with the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), made up of many former members of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party who became disenchanted with the group that’s held the presidency since 2003.
He’s advocated for Snowden to receive asylum in Brazil and complained that Rousseff did not attend last week’s meeting in Bolivia.
“I think Brazil, being a stronger country economically and on the global scene, could offer a stronger response and not give in to Big Brother,” he added.
Globo reported that an NSA program called Fairview collected data on calls made in Brazil through an American company that deals with Brazilian telecommunications services.
The report said Brazil was second only to the United States in the Americas among the countries from where the NSA gathered data, according to a map of data provided by Snowden.
The documents also show Brazil was involved in a program called X-Keyscore, which detects the presence of foreigners in a country based on the language in which they communicate.
Snowden's documents also suggest that the Brazilian Embassy in Washington and its mission in the United Nations in New York could have been targets of US government spying.
The stories in Globo and Fantastico did little to spur the Rousseff government into raising its tone. Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said Monday it was “encouraging” that the US government showed a “willingness to dialogue” over the programs, and said the country would not revise its negative response to Snowden’s asylum application.
Patriota also said Brazil will push for new measures in the United Nations to "prohibit abuses and prevent the invasion of privacy of internet users."
Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and human rights adviser with Amnesty International in Brazil, described Rousseff as a president less concerned with foreign policy than her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and in a phase of trying to mend relations with the United States that were strained during the Lula era.
The two countries’ bilateral ties reached a low point when Brazil and Turkey attempted to negotiate a nuclear fuel-swap deal with Iran that would have staved off UN sanctions.
“She has to take a position. Everyone is speaking about it in the press,” Santoro said, adding the segment on the popular Fantastico show made the issue of spying relevant to those who don’t usually follow foreign affairs.
Brazil’s rights groups and social activists have grown wary of the government invading the public’s privacy especially after demonstrations brought tens of thousands of Brazilians to the streets in recent weeks. Protest organizers often voiced fears of being under surveillance or infiltrated.
The issue of privacy is “not as strong as it is in the United States, but it became a very important issue in the dictatorship and the transition to democracy, this commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” Santoro said.
The Rousseff administration’s public approval has taken a huge blow since the protests began.
Santoro said that Rousseff is deeply preoccupied with her bid for re-election next year and the demands of the demonstrators, who he expects will raise privacy as one of their banners in upcoming protests.
“I am sure that Brazilian society is going to discuss both things at once,” Santoro said. “The Brazilian society does not want to be spied upon by the Brazilian government nor by the American government.”
Taylor Barnes is a foreign correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro, and is assisting journalist Glenn Greenwald with research on surveillance.