Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Who Doesn’t Spy?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Nations be spyin’, yo!”

That’s how Jon Stewart of The Daily Show recently summed up the ongoing-and-ever-expanding allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on Brazil and other nations, a story to which Wikipedia now devotes more than 33,000 words and nearly 600 source references.

“All nations act in their own self-interest,” Stewart said on October 24, addressing those such as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff who have responded with outrage to the allegations. “Don’t act like your s*** don’t stink, it does, and we know, because we have a super-secret program that goes through your s***.”

Stewart was more right than he knew.

This week in Brazil, local media revealed that the Agência Brasileira de Inteligência (Brazilian Intelligence Agency—ABIN) has spied on diplomatic allies including the United States—an embarrassing revelation for Rousseff, who in recent months has positioned herself as a champion of privacy rights and even canceled an official state visit this fall to the White House because she said the U.S. refused to swiftly end its spying program.

Awkward. But now, the revelations about Brazil’s spy program have sparked a reaction similar to Stewart’s.

“Brazil has an intelligence agency, so it is not big news that Brazil spies,” Rafael Alcadipani da Silveira, of the  Rio de Janeiro think tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas, told me.

“Everybody spies,” agreed Christian Lohbauer, a political scientist at the Universidade de São Paulo (University of São Paulo—USP). If anything, he is now more annoyed at Brazil’s government for having used the issue to gain political points at home.“They need this kind of story to maintain [support for] their weak government and poor administration,” he says.

Rousseff’s duplicity on the issue was visible on Monday, when the leading national newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported that ABIN had followed diplomats from Russia and Iran on foot and by car, photographed their movements, and also monitored a commercial property in Brasília being leased by the U.S. Embassy. Rousseff’s office has since admitted the report’s veracity.

The report came days after Brazil released a draft resolution with Germany calling on world governments to respect and defend privacy as a basic human right. The resolution, which Rousseff first proposed last month at the UN General Assembly, says that illegal surveillance and interception of communications “constitute a highly intrusive act that violates the right to privacy and freedom of expression and may threaten the foundations of a democratic society.”

Professor Lohbauer argues that Rousseff’s UN resolution is largely meaningless in light of the revelation about her country’s spy program, and also as the UN would in any case be unable to stop Washington from engaging in its widespread electronic surveillance activities.

Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank, the Inter-American Dialogue, disagrees, highlighting two points. For one, the revelations about Brazil’s spy program actually happened nearly a decade ago under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Moreover, Brazil’s spy program appears to pale in comparison to the NSA’s widespread surveillance of millions of people and numerous heads of state worldwide.

“The core of President Rousseff’s objections to NSA spying remain valid,” says Mr. Shifter. “She has not called for an end to spying by any government. That would be naïve and unrealistic. She is strongly urging that some limits be set and enforced, to prevent trust among governments from eroding.”

Brazilian Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo said that Brazil’s surveillance programs did not extend to the NSA’s broad invasion of national sovereignty. Indeed, the Associated Press called Brazil’s operations “relatively low-key surveillance,” while The New York Times labeled them “modest.”

Even Professor Lohbauer agrees. Sounding somewhat disappointed in his government, he describes Brazil’s spy program as being “on a very small scale and with a very low level of efficiency.”

Likely for that reason, this week’s revelations have garnered little reaction from the U.S. (the embassy here has declined to comment). And if the U.S. did object, perhaps the White House might take the advice that The Daily Show’s Stewart offered to Brazil last month.

“Turn that frown upside down,” Stewart said. “Don’t think of us as an overly aggressive, paranoid superpower. Think of us as what anyone is looking for in a partner: A good listener.”

Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter