Latin America Reacts to the NSA Revelations: How Will the Obama Administration Rebuild Relationships?

2013-11-08 by Brittney Warrick

According to documents leaked by now former American defense contractor Edward Snowden, the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) has for some time, engaged in large-scale efforts to target the communications of countries, embassies, political leaders, and diplomats worldwide.

Over the course of a few months, reports that the United States has employed surveillance programs to spy not only on its enemies, but on its friends and allies as well, has drawn the indignation of many countries across the globe. Perhaps none more so than within the American sphere of influence, in Latin America.

The news that the monitoring of phone and Internet information of neighboring countries in the Western Hemisphere accounted for a majority of the NSA’s surveillance efforts resulted in widespread anger across the region. Controversial spying revelations early this past summer, again in September, and more recently last month have called into question the true sovereignty of South American nations, and the rights of its citizens.

While it appears clear the NSA has employed surveillance programs across every region of the globe, the most searing criticism has come from Latin American governments. What will be the Obama Administration's response to these criticisms? How will they work to repair relationships?

While it appears clear the NSA has employed surveillance programs across every region of the globe, the most searing criticism has come from Latin American governments.
What will be the Obama Administration’s response to these criticisms?
How will they work to repair relationships?

Characterizing the revelations as an insult felt across the region, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica said in a speech in July, “We are not colonies any more. We deserve respect, and when one of our governments is insulted, we feel the insult throughout Latin America.”[1]

Indeed, with recent document analysis done by journalists both here in the U.S. and abroad, it appears that NSA efforts reached almost every country in the region, in Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Paraguay, Chile, Peru, and El Salvador. Details on how the NSA snooped on militaries and governments nevertheless have focused on a few major countries in particular. Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia were prime targets of the spying. According to a September report by Brazilian newspaper O Globo, the intelligence gathering efforts have focused on the country’s leaders and nuclear program.[2]

In October, German reports from Der Spiegel, alleged that the surveillance efforts in Mexico focused on Mexico’s economic stability, military capabilities, human rights situation, international trade relations, drug trade, and national leadership.[3]

These recent revelations seem to contradict the NSA’s earlier stance that surveillance efforts were carried out due to concern for U.S. national security, but the recent stream of leaked documents allow for skepticism on this point, and lend to the idea that the NSA actively sought out strategic commercial information on oil, energy, as well as trade.[4]

Scope of NSA Efforts

The first major allegations of NSA spying in Latin America came this past summer with the leaking of several documents by Edward Snowden. The documents revealed NSA efforts to spy specifically on Brazil, and the particular targeting of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Days later, news broke detailing the alleged presence of NSA and CIA stations in Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, and Panama revealing that the NSA may have been spying on countries other than Brazil across the region.

The O Globo report by American journalist Glenn Greenwald, living in Brazil, highlighted information provided by Snowden to expose secret US monitoring of phone and Internet information in a number of countries.[5]

The surveillance by the NSA was an active effort to snoop on foreign militaries, governments, and industry secrets.

The month of September brought further scandal when in another O Globo report, Greenwald alleged particular spying on the Mexican government. The newspaper reported that in 2012, the NSA actively monitored the emails, phone calls, and text messages of then-presidential candidate, and current president Enrique Peña Nieto.[6] NSA agents conducted espionage using at least 2 programs: “Prism” during the month of February, and “Boundless Informant” from January through March.[7]

The programs enables access to emails, chatting, and voice calls from customers of companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and YouTube.[8] Similar programs were used to spy on Brazilian leaders as well, with different computer programs filtered through communications in order to gain access to specific emails, telephone calls, and text messages of Brazilian President Rousseff’s top aides in particular.[9]

Leaks on NSA programs in Mexico were expounded upon more recently in an October 20th report in the German magazine, Der Spiegel.

According to internal documents analyzed by Der Spiegel, politicians in Mexico and Brazil represented important monitoring targets for the NSA, with both Mexico and Brazil ranking among the nations high on an April 2013 list that enumerates the US’ surveillance priorities. Even more interesting is the fact that the list strategically ranks objectives for all US intelligence operations through a scale from 1 (high priority) to 5 (low priority).[10] With respect to Mexico, the US has placed a high focus on the drug trade (priority level 1), with other areas such as Mexico’s economic stability, military capabilities, human rights and international trade relations all ranked at priority level 3.[11]

The report detailed that similar areas pertaining to Brazil are among the NSA’s espionage targets, as well as Brazil’s nuclear program. Brazil’s oil company PETROBRAS was especially targeted for espionage, and lends credence to charges from President Rousseff tha the NSA used its apparatuses for industrial spying, seeking economic advantages.[12]

The latest analysis of the Snowden leaks in Der Spiegel further revealed that the NSA had been systematically eavesdropping on the Mexican government for years, gaining insight into policymaking and the political system.[13]

The magazine elaborated that the NSA has a division particularly for difficult missions known as “Tailored Access Operations” (TAO), which includes surveillance of Mexico.[14] In an operation dubbed “Flatliquid,” the NSA successfully exploited a key mail server of then Mexican President, Felipe Calderon. Gaining access to the Mexican Presidence domain, the NSA now had access to not only the Presdident’s public email account, but the emails of cabinet members, “allowing for diplomatic, economic, and leadership communications which continue to provide insight into Mexico’s political system and internal stability.”[15]

The fact that the NSA successfully infiltrated an entire computer network drew into question the status of the US-Mexican relationship, as the spying took place during the term of President Calderon, a leader who worked more closely with Washington than any other Mexican President before him.[16] Another 2009 operation known as “Whitemale” allowed the NSA to gain access to the emails of various high-ranking officials in Mexico’s Public Security Secretariat that combats the drug trade and human trafficking. The success of the operation permitted the NSA to not only obtain information of several drug cartels, but also to gain access “to diplomatic talking-points.” Der Spiegel goes on to expand on this point, stating the operation “produced 260 classified reports that allowed US politicians to conduct successful talks on political issues and to plan international investments.”[17]

More recently, the leaks demonstrate how aggressively the NSA has monitored its southern neighbor.

From the NSA branch in San Antonio, Texas, and secret listening stations in the US embassies both in Mexico City and Brasilia, the NSA and CIA utilize a wide array of methods and high-tech equipment that allow them to intercept all forms of electronic communications.[18]  Surveillance of telephone conversations and text messages transmitted through Mexico’s cell phone network operates under the internal code name “Eveningeasel,” and have been instrumental in the spying of current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The revelations that the NSA has engaged in espionage with respect to Mexico’s political leaders has commanded a significant amount of attention, and with good reason. In the summer of 2012, NSA intelligence agents in Texas monitored the cell phone communications of Peña Nieto and “nine of his close associates,” as well as developed software to filter out Peña Nieto’s most relevant contacts. These contacts were entered into a database called “DishFire”, and were subsequently singled out for surveillance. According to the leaked documents, these operations led to the NSA obtaining 85, 489 text messages sent by the Peña Nieto and his associates.[19]

While it appears clear the NSA has employed surveillance programs across every region of the globe, the most searing criticism has come from Latin American governments.

The emphasis on the part of the NSA to target countries in the Western Hemisphere, has allowed for a significant outcry against such action and a negative portrayal of the United States.

A call for respect of citizens rights, and right to privacy for national leaders in South America forms the basis of much of the response throughout Latin America, and has subsequently the region has also been the most vocal in announcing repercussions.

Response from Brazil

Perhaps of all the Latin American countries, nowhere was there a more clear and immediate effect of the NSA spying than in Brazil.

With the earliest reports from last summer, Brazil’s government affirmed that it was forming a task force to investigate violations of Brazilian citizens’ rights.[20] In September, President Rousseff made a rare diplomatic step in postponing her scheduled state visit to Washington, D.C. The action was a result of mounting domestic pressure to respond to what was perceived as an overreach of US power. Weeks later, Rousseff used her position as the opening speaker of the UN General Assembly to criticize the United States for its actions, condemning the spying as a breach of international law.[21] The actions on the part of Rousseff and her administration has been the most forceful, and reflect a resentment that the US has spied on an administration that generally has been friendly and cooperative with Washington.

Beyond condemning the NSA’s espionage practices however, Brazil is taking other steps to fortify its communication systems.

The Brazilian Army’s Science and Technology Department Director, General Sinclair Mayer, recently told policymakers of a plan to establish underwater Internet cables linking Brazil to Europe and Africa, reflecting an effort to reroute Internet traffic now going through the United States.[22] These proposals rest upon the premise that by routing web traffic away from American soil and keeping data within Brazil, the government may be better able to easily control and secure citizens’ online information. However experts speculate that the plans may do little to prevent NSA spying on Brazilian communications.

Concerning the plan for an undersea fiber-optic cable that would funnel internet traffic between South America and Europe, ACLU policy analyst Christopher Soghoian says “the majority of internet traffic to Central and South America flows through a building in Miami, known as the Network Access Point of the Americas. Bypassing that route with a new cable would require years of work and billons of dollars, and would have little effect on NSA surveillance.”[23] Regardless, the US already employs a nuclear submarine explicitly designed to tap undersea internet cables, and by and large has already proven to be quite capable of hacking into the computer networks of foreign governments.[24]

The Brazilian government is also looking to strengthen the federal government’s email system, employing the Brazilian Federal Data Processing Service to build a fortified system that is secure. In a series of tweets last month, President Rousseff elaborated saying that a secure email system is the first step to increase the privacy and inviolability of official messages stating that messages require increased security to prevent possible espionage.[25]  The effort to stop foreign spies from intercepting their communications may be beneficial through an encrypted email system. Brazil’s Communications Minister Paulo Bernardo Silva has said that by the second half of next year, federal officials will be required to use the a new government-created encrypted email system.[26]

Like the plan for an undersea fiber optic cable however, analysts question the viability of the federal government’s plan to protect its emails from the eyes of the NSA. Many recognize that the entire new system may be compromised if any user of an encrypted email sends a message to somebody on an outside program, such as Gmail.

While the fallout from the NSA revelations concerning Brazil has been substantial, the ability of the Rousseff administration to safeguard its country from foreign eyes may be limited in scope realistically.

Response from Mexico

With comparison to Brazil, Mexico’s response to the revelations have been relatively muted.

The government of Peña Nieto has known that it was massively spied on by the US, and since September has asked the United States for an “exhaustive investigation” into the matter, while also summoning the American ambassador to emphasize the government’s position.[27] These actions have been characterized as weak in nature, and futile as the documents leaked and analyzed by Der Spiegel explicitly draw attention to the fact that the NSA’s programs had presidential approval.

Regardless, the foreign ministry has responded to the allegations saying “Without assuming the information that came out in the media is accurate, Mexico’s government rejects and condemns any espionage activity on Mexican citizens that violate international law. This type of practice is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.”[28]

In a September 3rd article, The Economist speculated that Mexico’s response has been relatively muted possibly due to the fact that the two countries do not want to draw attention to the intelligence already shared in their joint efforts to combat drug trafficking.

While Peña Nieto administration has so far exhibited an extremely mild response to the reports of NSA spying within Mexico, it is entirely possible that the government’s response may continue to evolve. With further leaks, the Mexican government is likely to feel an increase in domestic pressure to take action and display a more formidable response.[29]

How to Rebuild Relationships

Since the beginning of President Obama’s second term, his administration has placed a significant emphasis on rebuilding fragile relationships with Latin American countries.

The anger that arose following the leaks of the past few months appears to have set back the partnership narrative set forth by the Obama narrative. The revelations that some of the region’s biggest powers have been targeted for surveillance however, demonstrates a strategic interest in the major political and economic powers in the hemisphere, and may end up being an action counterproductive to the goals of the United States and this administration as mistrust and suspicions reflect a historical uncertainty about American attitudes toward the region.

While it seems likely that more spying allegations will come out in the coming months, it is a more interesting question to ponder how the United States will react to inimical revelations concerning its surveillance policies, and how its closest neighbors will respond in turn.

Footnotes:

[1] Sarah Lazare, “Outrage Flares Across Latin America Following NSA Revelations,” Common Dreams, July 2013, https://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/07/10-6.

[2] Carl Meacham, “Hey NSA: Why Latin America,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2013, http://csis.org/publication/hey-nsa-why-latin-america.

[3] Carl Meacham, “Hey NSA: Why Latin America,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2013, http://csis.org/publication/hey-nsa-why-latin-america.

[4] Carl Meacham, “Hey NSA: Why Latin America,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2013, http://csis.org/publication/hey-nsa-why-latin-america.

[5] Sarah Lazare, “Outrage Flares Across Latin America Following NSA Revelations,” Common Dreams, July 2013, https://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/07/10-6.

[6] Carl Meacham, “Hey NSA: Why Latin America,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2013, http://csis.org/publication/hey-nsa-why-latin-america.

[7] Glenn Greenwald, “U.S. Spying Throughout Latin America,” O Globo, September 2013, http://oglobo.globo.com/mundo/espionagem-dos-eua-se-espalhou-pela-america-latina-8966619.

[8] Glenn Greenwald, “U.S. Spying Throughout Latin America,” O Globo, September 2013, http://oglobo.globo.com/mundo/espionagem-dos-eua-se-espalhou-pela-america-latina-8966619.

[9] Simon Romero, Randal C. Archibold, “Brazil Angered Over Report NSA Spied on President,” New York Times, September 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/03/world/americas/brazil-angered-over-report-nsa-spied-on-president.html?_r=0.

[10] Jens Glusing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach, Holger Stark, “NSA Hacked Email Account of Mexican President,” Der Spiegel, October 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nsa-hacked-email-account-of-mexican-president-a-928817.html.

[11] Jens Glusing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach, Holger Stark, “NSA Hacked Email Account of Mexican President,” Der Spiegel, October 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nsa-hacked-email-account-of-mexican-president-a-928817.html.

[12] Laura Carlsen, “NSA Spy Revelations Show Need to Recast US-Mexico Security Programs,” Americas Program, October 2013, http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/10955.

[13] Jens Glusing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach, Holger Stark, “NSA Hacked Email Account of Mexican President,” Der Spiegel, October 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nsa-hacked-email-account-of-mexican-president-a-928817.html.

[14] Jens Glusing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach, Holger Stark, “NSA Hacked Email Account of Mexican President,” Der Spiegel, October 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nsa-hacked-email-account-of-mexican-president-a-928817.html.

[15] Jens Glusing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach, Holger Stark, “NSA Hacked Email Account of Mexican President,” Der Spiegel, October 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nsa-hacked-email-account-of-mexican-president-a-928817.html.

[16] Jens Glusing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach, Holger Stark, “NSA Hacked Email Account of Mexican President,” Der Spiegel, October 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nsa-hacked-email-account-of-mexican-president-a-928817.html.

[17] Jens Glusing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach, Holger Stark, “NSA Hacked Email Account of Mexican President,” Der Spiegel, October 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nsa-hacked-email-account-of-mexican-president-a-928817.html.

[18] Jens Glusing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach, Holger Stark, “NSA Hacked Email Account of Mexican President,” Der Spiegel, October 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nsa-hacked-email-account-of-mexican-president-a-928817.html.

[19] Jens Glusing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach, Holger Stark, “NSA Hacked Email Account of Mexican President,” Der Spiegel, October 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nsa-hacked-email-account-of-mexican-president-a-928817.html.

[20] Sarah Lazare, “Outrage Flares Across Latin America Following NSA Revelations,” Common Dreams, July 2013, https://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/07/10-6.

[21] Carl Meacham, “Hey NSA: Why Latin America,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2013, http://csis.org/publication/hey-nsa-why-latin-america.

[22] Simon Romero, Randal C. Archibold, “Brazil Angered Over Report NSA Spied on President,” New York Times, September 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/03/world/americas/brazil-angered-over-report-nsa-spied-on-president.html?_r=0.

[23] Amar Toor, “Cutting the Chord: Brazil’s Bold Plan to Combat the USA,” The Verge, September 2013, http://www.theverge.com/2013/9/25/4769534/brazil-to-build-internet-cable-to-avoid-us-nsa-spying.

[24] Amar Toor, “Cutting the Chord: Brazil’s Bold Plan to Combat the USA,” The Verge, September 2013, http://www.theverge.com/2013/9/25/4769534/brazil-to-build-internet-cable-to-avoid-us-nsa-spying.

[25] Lucian Constantin, “Brazil to Fortify Email System Following NSA Snooping Revelations,” PCWorld, October 2013, http://www.pcworld.com/article/2054620/brazil-to-fortify-government-email-system-following-nsa-snooping-revelations.html.

[26] “Brazil Creates Encrypted Email for Government Employees in Wake of NSA Scandal,” Fox News Latino, October 2013, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2013/10/15/brazil-creates-encrypted-email-service-for-government-employees-in-wake-nsa/.

[27] Simon Romero, Randal C. Archibold, “Brazil Angered Over Report NSA Spied on President,” New York Times, September 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/03/world/americas/brazil-angered-over-report-nsa-spied-on-president.html?_r=0.

[28] “Snooping Among Friends,” The Economist, September 2013, http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2013/09/nsa-surveillance-latin-america.

[29] Carl Meacham, “Hey NSA: Why Latin America,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2013, http://csis.org/publication/hey-nsa-why-latin-america.

Editor’s Note: Ken Maxwell put the matter rather succinctly beyond the question of the nature of the spying, it is a question of the security of the information and access to that information:

Why did Edward Snowden, an intelligence contractor, working for a private company, need to know what Dilma Rousseff was saying to Professor Marco Aurelio Garcia, her foreign policy adviser, in the Planalto Palace, or who Pena Neto was planning to appoint to be a minister in his new government in Mexico?

http://www.sldinfo.com/is-brazil-the-enemy/

http://www.sldinfo.com/allies-and-espionage-brazil-and-the-obama-administration/

http://www.sldinfo.com/can-kerry-repair-the-damage-to-us-brazilian-relations/

http://www.sldinfo.com/continuing-spying-fall-out-in-brazil-this-time-with-regard-to-brazilian-activities/

Credit Image:

http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/latinout.htm

Brittney Warrick is a Washington DC based international security analyst. 

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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