People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 41

October 13, 2013





The NSA’s Global Snooping


Yohannan Chemarapally


AMONG the newest revelations from the documents released by the American whistle blower, Edward Snowden, who worked as a contractor for the US National Security Agency (NSA), are ones conclusively showing that the Obama administration had put the personal communications of the Brazilian and Mexican presidents under digital surveillance. Then, less than a week later, there was another bombshell. The New York Times, Guardian and other papers filed reports that showed that the NSA had successfully managed to undermine the encryption technology which protects internet banking along with the privacy of everyday communication.




The news about the personal communications of Brazilian and Mexican presidents being compromised by the NSA was first published in Brazil’s O Globo newspaper in early September. The article was co-authored by Glen Greenwald of the Guardian who has played a key role along with Snowden in exposing the dangerous shenanigans of the Obama administration. The governments of both the countries have lodged strong protests with Washington. The Mexican president, Enrique Pena Nieto, later met President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St Petersburg; The American president also made it a point to meet his angry Brazilian counterpart during the G-20 meet. President Obama assured the two presidents that he would order an investigation into the allegations that the NSA had spied on their private and official communications.


“The Mexican government has made it clear that there must be an investigation and that there must be sanctions if there were acts outside international agreements and outside the law,” the Mexican president had said in televised remarks on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St Petersburg. In July, when the first reports about the US spying on its immediate neighbour and biggest trading partner had started appearing, the Mexican president had said that it “would be totally unacceptable” if this was indeed a fact. Mexico and the US share a lot of intelligence. The US government has played a big role in Mexico’s war against their home grown drug cartels.


The outrage in Brazil was, however, more palpable and widespread. The Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, is still visibly seething. Brazilian authorities have been unrelenting in their demand for an apology from the White House for spying on their president. In September, in her speech to the UN General Assembly, the Brazilian president strongly criticised the policies of the Obama administration. And she took the unprecedented step of cancelling the state visit to the US which she was to undertake in October. There were strong signals from Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, that the scheduled meeting between President Rousseff and the American president in October would not happen if an official apology would not be forthcoming from Washington. A worried Obama administration then furiously worked through diplomatic and security back channels to mollify the Brazilians. President Obama had a meeting with his Brazilian counterpart on the sidelines of G-20 summit in St Petersburg to explain the administration’s position but there was no formal apology.




The stakes for the American military industrial lobby in Brazil are very high. For starters, the Boeing Company may also be on the verge of losing a lucrative military contract from the Brazilian air force. Washington was hopeful that many agreements, including a four billion dollars F-18 jet fighter deal would be signed during the scheduled visit. Only the Brazilian president was invited on a state visit this year by President Barack Obama. The invitation was meant to highlight the improvement in relations between the two countries in recent years. The US and Brazil are the two biggest economies in the American continent. Brazil has, since the last decade, started charting out a truly independent foreign policy course, putting it at odds with the US on various international issues. Brazil is also flexing its economic muscle and is a key player in the new emerging groupings like BRICS and IBSA.


As soon as the latest story about the NSA snooping broke out, the Brazilian foreign minister, Antonio Patriota had called for a written explanation from Washington. But after investigations by Brazilian authorities concluded that the matter was more serious than it was earlier thought, there was a demand for an apology. “There is a major, major crisis --- there needs to be an apology. It needs to be public. Without that, it is basically impossible for her to go to Washington,” a Brazilian official told the media in the capital, Brasilia. President Obama has been continuing to insist that the NSA surveillance programme was only aimed at intercepting terror groups. Speaking in Stockholm on way to the G-20 summit, the American president said that US Intelligence agencies are not “snooping at people’s emails or listening to people’s phone calls.” He chose to ignore the glaring fact that in the case of the two heads of state of America’s two neighbours, this was precisely what was being done. The private communications of the Brazilian and Mexican presidents were being snooped on. Both Brazil and Mexico are not known to harbour terrorists, nor are they being accused of being proliferators of nuclear and chemical weapons technology.


Brazil’s O Globo newspaper had published reports in July, based on separate documents, that the NSA had collected data on billions of telephone and e-mail messages in the last ten years. The US administration was also spying on several other Latin American governments, including pro-American governments like Colombia. The NSA documents that have been revealed so far show that other governments, considered strategically very close to Washington like Turkey and India, were also spied upon. In fact, recent documents provided by Glen Greenwald and published in The Hindu have revealed that the scale of surveillance on India was almost similar in scale to what the US was doing to Brazil. But Ankara and Delhi have chosen to gloss over the issue, preferring to buy Washington’s arguments that it was only interested in combating terrorism and sharing relevant information with its allies and friends. After the latest meeting between Obama and the Indian prime minister, the two countries have further tightened their strategic embrace.




Brazil’s communications minister, Paulo Bernardo, a close political confidante of the president, said in early September that all the explanations given by Washington so far have been unconvincing. “I think that it is indiscriminate spying that has nothing to do with national security….. It’s espionage with an industrial commercial aim.” The documents released by Snowden had made it obvious that the major thrust of the two US spying programmes --- PRISM and “Boundless Informant” --- was to fish out information about defence deals and “commercial secrets” that would help American industry. The documents show that the NSA’s surveillance of Venezuela after the death of President Hugo Chavez not only involved intense political spying but also focussed on the military and the commercial sector. Venezuela is one of the biggest suppliers of oil to the US. Argentina’s president, Christina de Kirchner, declared that she felt “a shiver going down my spine when we learned that they (the US) were spying on all of us.”  


Brazil has already started implementing plans to secure its communications. It is building its own fibre optic communication links with Latin American and Caribbean countries, besides purchasing a new satellite. The Brazilian media had published an NSA document with a diagram showing communications between President Rousseff and her top aides. The NSA had claimed in the document that it was a “case study” on its wide ranging powers to conduct worldwide espionage with ease.


“That the US government --- in complete secrecy --- is constructing a ubiquitous spying apparatus aimed at not only its own citizens but all of the world’s citizens has profound consequences. It erodes, if not eliminates, the ability to use the internet with any remnant of privacy or personal security. It vests the US government with boundless power over those to whom it has no accountability,” observed Greenwald in the article which chronicled American spying on heads of state and government ministers. The Brazilian justice minister, Jose Eduardo Cardozo, said that the US spying has affected many other countries besides Brazil. “Any country that has its sovereignty violated has to react, take a position and use international law to put things in its place. That is what Brazil would do,” the minister emphasised.     




In the last week of August, another set of documents, released by Snowden and analysed in the Washington Post newspaper, revealed that Washington had earmarked a staggering 52.6 billion dollars budget for US intelligence agencies. The document related to the budget shows that since the events of 9/11, American intelligence agencies have become even more gargantuan. They were used for myriad activities, including torturing terror suspects in “black site” prisons located in foreign countries and on the massive deployment of “killer drones” in various parts of the world. “The document describes a constellation of spy agencies that track millions of surveillance targets and carry out operations that include hundreds of lethal strikes,” the Washington Post article reported.


The US is estimated to have spent more than 500 billion dollars --- or 100 million dollars a day --- on intelligence since the 2001 attacks on the “homeland.” The budget for intelligence gathering this year alone is 14.7 billion dollars. Out of this, 4.9 billion dollars will be spent on “overseas contingency operations.” These include covert military operations in third countries like Pakistan and Yemen and providing funds and training to the militant groups engaged in the fight to overthrow the secular Syrian government.


The NSA is being allotted 10 billion dollars this year so that it can continue to spy on the domestic as well as the international public. The latest revelation about the NSA’s ability to crack the encryption codes may now even shock supporters of the Obama administration’s surveillance policies. Sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records all over the world were there for the picking for the NSA for some years now. According to the New York Times, the NSA treated its recent successes in deciphering the protected information as among its most closely guarded secrets. “For the past decade, NSA had led an aggressive multi-pronged effort to break widely used encryption technologies,” according to an official 2010 memo describing a briefing of the NSA’s achievements. The NYT has concluded that the encryption documents show “in striking details, how the agency works to ensure that it is actually able to read the information it collects.”