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Reports of Brazilian Spying Do Not Make NSA Surveillance on Brazil Unobjectionable

Brazil president Dilma Rousseff at the UN General Assembly in September condemning US surveillance (Creative Commons-licensed photo by Blog do Planalto)

A confidential source provided Brazilian intelligence service documents to a newspaper in Brazil that showed prior examples of Brazilian spying operations on Russian and Iranian diplomats and an office space in the country that had been rented by the United States embassy. This resulted in the Brazilian government confirming the spying and making statements to justify the operations.

Since Brazil was outraged over NSA surveillance earlier this year, the country is being cast as hypocritical for condemning the US for spying when it, too, engages in spying. However, what was revealed on Brazil spying operations is not even remotely similar or equivalent to NSA operations.

NSA’s operations, which were exposed, were offensive spying operations. Brazil’s spying operations, as revealed by Folha de São Paulo, are defensive spying operations.

What The New York Times reported in their story that some agents from the Brazilian intelligence agency known as Abin “followed some diplomats from Russia and Iran on foot and by car, photographing their movements.” Intelligence agents from Albin also “monitored” a “commercial property leased by the United States Embassy in Brasília, the capital.”

The Associated Press additionally reported:

According to daily, Brazil’s intelligence service monitored office space rented by the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, suspecting it of harboring spy equipment. The report said Abin had concluded that the offices held “communications equipment.”

“Functioning daily with the doors closed and the lights turned off, and with nobody in the locale,” is how the Abin report described the rented U.S. property, according to Folha. “The office is sporadically visited by someone from the embassy.”

AP also noted that diplomats from Russian, Iranian and Iraqi embassies had been targeted. They were “followed and photographed as they came and went from embassies and official residences.”

As included in the report, a statement from Brazil’s Institutional Security Cabinet, “which oversees the Abin intelligence service,” claimed the surveillance had followed Brazilian law and was “for the protection of national interests.” The statement further claimed that these “intelligence activities” were “for the defense” of Brazil and protecting its “national sovereignty,” in “strict observance of constitutional principles and the laws that guarantee individual rights.”

Whether it is appropriate for governments to photograph and monitor diplomats from other countries when they are operating in their country is worthy of debate, however, what is clear is that these revealed spying operations by Brazil are all happening on Brazilian soil. These are not operations in embassies they have in other countries, where they setup listening posts to spy on government officials of those countries. These are not operations designed to tap the cell phones of world leaders so they can specifically know “leadership intentions” and have an edge in diplomatic meetings. These are no operations where information is being accessed through hacking into communications networks.

Back in September, Brazil president Dilma Rousseff criticized the National Security Agency when documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed in September that the NSA had likely targeted and intercepted her communications and the NSA had operated a program that collected data on “billions of emails and calls flowing through Brazil.”

She was further outraged when it was made public that the NSA had hacked into the country’s state-run oil company, Petrobras. She said if hacking had taken place this would be industrial espionage. A visit to Washington, DC, to meet with President Barack Obama was postponed and she delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly, where she scathingly condemned US surveillance as a “breach of international law.”

This outrage remains legitimate and is not hypocritical. It is not equivalent either.

That is not because the surveillance of which Brazil engaged is “relatively low-key” or “pales in comparison to the massive spy programs” of the NSA. Rather, it is not equivalent because, as presented in the Brazilian news report, these operations do not constitute offensive spying operations.

It has been revealed through documents from Snowden that the US has at least 80 listening posts in countries around the world. “Communications equipment” was found in the leased commercial property. A spokesperson for the US embassy in Brazil said the property was used as a “relay station for walkie-talkie radios carried by embassy personnel, who carry the radios as back up communications for emergencies or in case cellphone service goes down.” Could it be possible the “communications equipment” was being used to spy on communications in Brazil?

Brazil knows it has taken actions counter to the US through its foreign relations with Venezuela, Cuba, Iran and Bolivia. As the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady put it, Brazil has been on the “wrong side of geopolitics” (or American hegemony). So the country’s leaders know they must be wary of whatever US officials might be doing on Brazilian soil.

Those who have been reluctant to criticize or have even defended the NSA for spying on other countries because all countries spy on each other will suggest this report of past Brazil spying shows Brazil should shut up. They’ll suggest the US should not have to listen to what Brazilian leaders have to say. But this shallow reaction should not be allowed to distract from a debate that is worth having; that is, a debate over whether there are limits that should be imposed on US surveillance against countries.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."