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The NSA Follies: Brazil, Berlin, SWIFT, and Darrell Issa

It’s been a tough week for General Least Untruthful. He had already been pretty much reduced to material for the late-night comics, but they will probably drop him as old hat now that he merely sounds like a broken record.

For in issuing a statement designed to head off an immanent new Snowden-Greenwald revelation as not being noteworthy, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper merely offered an excuse for international spying so lame that the revelation in question could quote it without skipping a beat.


The revelation in question was offered on the Brazilian TV program Fantastico last Sunday and, as is now well known, included among other things the information that the NSA has been spying on Brazil’s largest commercial entity Petrobras as well as other groupings such as an entity called SWIFT (which I’ll get to below). Specifically, a May 2012 PowerPoint presentation, used to train new agents on how to penetrate private computer networks, cites Petrobras and the others as examples.

Towards its end the TV program stated:

Lastly, another document obtained by Fantastico shows who are the spies’ clients – who gets the information obtained: American diplomats, the intelligence agencies, and the White House. It proves that spying doesn’t have as its sole purpose the fight against terrorism. On this list of objectives are also diplomatic, political and economic information.

The NSA has sent a statement attributed to James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, declaring that the agency collects information in order to give the United States and their allies early warning of international financial crises which could negatively impact the global economy and also to provide insight into other countries’ economic policy or behavior which could affect global markets.

The cited NSA statement goes on to deny that “trade secrets” are being stolen for the benefit of US companies, but is not “other countries’ economic policy” proprietary information that could be helpful to the US financial industry? To be sure, Greenwald and co-author Sonia Bridi do not make this connection explicitly, but it seems clear.

To say that Brazil has been pushed out of shape by this news would be the understatement of the year. It came on the heels of a Snowden-Greenwald revelation in July that the NSA has surveilled the Brazilian people generally by means of the linkage of its telecom industry and our heavily compromised one, and of another just a week before this one noting that the spooks have cracked the private network of President Dilma Rousseff (and of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who, however, seems to have since smoothed things over with Los Gringos), congratulating themselves on this achievement.

Rousseff has demanded an explanation before confirming her state visit to the US scheduled for October 23, and her Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo was supposed to receive one yesterday from National Security Advisor Susan Rice. According to Rio de Janeiro’s paper of record O Globo, the US released a statement on this meeting which said (I re-translate)

Rice expressed to Minister Figueiredo that the U.S. understands that recent revelations in the press, some of which distort our activities and some of which have raised legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these potentialities are employed – created tension in the strong bilateral relationship that we have with Brazil. The U.S. is committed to working with Brazil to address these concerns, while we continue to work together on a common bilateral, regional and global agenda.

If that sounds to you like Rice engaged in her favorite activity of offering talking points supplied to her, without saying anything of substance, it does to me too. In any case, the article says Figueiredo canceled his plans to go to New York, in order to stay in Washington for unspecified further talks with US officials today.

And to be sure, for its part the Folha de São Paulo puts a positive spin on the development, saying that the talk with Rice was considered sufficient, and implying that that is why Figueiredo stayed over for further talks. In a later paragraph, however, the story says he only decided to do so after arriving at the train station and discovering that trains to New York were delayed by electrical problems. (Welcome to Amtrak in the NorthEast corridor, Senhor Figueiredo.) So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.


Meanwhile, over on the other side of the pond, a day before that TV program aired there was a rally in Berlin against NSA surveillance that drew 15,000 to 20,000 protestors according to its organizers, the well known Green and Left Parties, and the seven-year old German Pirate Party. (The latter more or less follows the Swedish Pirate-Party model stressing revolution through the internet, and now has parliamentary representation at the state level in four of Germany’s 16 states.)

By all accounts this event was a properly lively affair (RT report with video), but what is really interesting about it is that the next federal election in Germany will be on September 22, and the NSA surveillance is very much an issue. Angela Merkel is perceived by the opposition, led by the Social Democrats with standard-bearer Peer Steinbrück, as having been too insensitive to the need for privacy vis a vis the country’s relations with the US.

And a complication for Merkel’s Christian Democrats is that their coalition partner the Free Democrats, who control the Foreign and Justice Ministries, disagree with them on the issue. In particular, the FDP Justice Minister has said that the US must supply more information on the surveillance of German citizens, revealed not long ago by the publication der Spiegel from Snowden documents, than has been the case. Moreover, younger members of the FDP had a presence at the rally last Saturday.

The German media have been predicting that Merkel’s coalition is in no real electoral danger in spite of the surveillance issue, but there is over a week left to campaign. One has the feeling that another Snowden-Greenwald revelation could make a big difference.


Staying in Europe, Sunday’s revelation that SWIFT is a NSA target, mentioned above, has ruffled some feathers. “SWIFT” is an acronym for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. According to the wiki it “provides a network that enables financial institutions worldwide to send and receive information about financial transactions in a secure, standardized and reliable environment,” among other things. However, “secure” was a bit of a misnomer even before the 2012 NSA training presentation.

For as the wiki later explains, early in the previous decade some US agencies other than the ?SA gained the ability to access the SWIFT data base through a program called the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP), a fact that has caused debate in Europe since it was exposed in 2006, To make a long story short, an interim agreement was reached between the US and the European Union for the latter to cooperate with the TFTP, subject to the former’s observance of European privacy laws, but was rejected by the European Parliament in February 2010.

However, the wiki omits the point that the EP approved the agreement later in 2010, although that is now being questioned in the wake of last Sunday’s revelation that the NSA is accessing SWIFT. Several EP members are now calling for suspension of agreement with the TFTP as a result. For example, Dutch member Sophie in’t Veld says

It is increasingly evident that the NSA data tracking programmes go far beyond the fight against terrorism.

She goes on to say that if the specific accusation that the NSA has direct access to EU citizens’ personal financial data is proven true, then she doesn’t see how cooperation with the TFTP can be continued.


It would appear that the NSA culture, where it is a badge of honor to gain access to the most secret communication yet regardless of the implications for civil liberties, international relations, or plain common sense, is beginning to infringe on US corporate interests themselves. While it would not be the end of the world for them if, for example, a less friendly Social Democrat-Green coalition returned to power in place of the current CDU-CSU-FDP grouping, neither would it be helpful. Loss of financial cooperation with the European Union would be a significant blow. As for Brazil, a $4 billion Brazilian purchase of fighter planes from Boeing could be lost to a competing bid from France or Sweden and, while the last time I looked an October auction of a field in the “pre-salt” oil exploration area was still on schedule, that could change.

In short, at the international level the NSA’s propensity to exceed its anti-terrorism mandate, to engage in what appears to be all-out espionage on all countries, is becoming a serious problem for the US 1%.

Darrell Issa

That may be why Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has suddenly gotten religion. As Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee he is mostly known for pursuing anti-Democrat activities, such as earlier this year chastising the IRS for allegedly targeting specifically conservative groups for review of their tax-exempt status. In july he voted against the Amash Amendment to an appropriations bill that would have defunded the NSA’s telephony metadata collection. However, on Tuesday he sent a letter to the House leadership calling for introduction of legislation “as quickly as possible” to ensure that “the NSA and the rest of the intelligence community cease” activities that “violate [Americans’] Fourth Amendment rights,” with specifically the Amash language included,.

Rep. Issa says that his concern is motivated by revelations since the defeat of the Amash Amendment, but it is not clear specifically what information he means. It seems strange that someone with no particular history of championing civil liberties has suddenly latched onto the issue, but then one perhaps should not look a gift horse in the mouth. If anyone has the clout to get the Leadership to bring up a bill it is Issa.


Now that President Obama’s proposed attack on Syria and his request for Congressional approval thereof have been “postponed” (that is, postponed if one believes there was a serious intent to attack in the first place), one can ask if there is indeed room in the legislative calendar for action “quickly” on such legislation. Evidently it would have to be squeezed in, given the prospect of a government shutdown at the end of the month if Congress does not pass at least a so-called continuing resolution.

But assuming that NSA rollback legislation is indeed introduced, what are the prospects for its passage given the forces against it that were on display in July when the Amash Amendment was defeated? Or to put the question more bluntly, what are the prospects for progressive activists getting behind such legislation with call-your-congressperson campaigns and the like?

Not great, it would appear. In particular, the FDL and RootsAction leaderships seem to have taken the suspension of the proposed attack as occasion to redouble their focus on pressuring Congress with respect to a vote that may not happen, because, as I understand it, the issue “affects the lives” of the Syrian people. One prominent blogger offered his opinion yesterday that our absolute top priority now must be to “stop the war in Syria,” and that issues like TPP, abortion or guns are “not important.” (NSA surveillance does not even make his list of also-rans.)

That is to say, the prospect of improving the situation on an issue that arguably “affects the lives” of progressive activists (as illustrated by the surveillance of Occupy in Boston a couple of years ago, for example) may go by the boards due to lack of interest.

I don’t like that possibility, but (and given that my personal situation does not allow taking a leadership role against it) I don’t see what to do about it beyond pointing it out.

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