Brazil this week admitted to spying on diplomats from countries including the US, Russia, and Iran as part of a domestic program launched 10 years ago under former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The program was first revealed in a Monday report from the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, which obtained documents from the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, commonly known as ABIN. The revelations come at a sensitive time for current Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, who has been among the most outspoken critics of the widespread surveillance conducted by the US National Security Agency (NSA).
According to Folha, Brazilian intelligence spied on rooms rented out by the US embassy in Brasilia from 2003 to 2004. ABIN believed that the US was using the rooms to coordinate espionage activities, but the American embassy this week claimed they were only used for walkie-talkie communications in case of emergency. The report also claims that ABIN targeted Russian and Iranian officials, tracking their movements within the country by foot and by car. Among those targeted were Russian military personnel and Seyed Davood Mohseni Salehi Monfared, Iran's ambassador to Cuba at the time.
Program targeted rooms rented by the US embassy in Brazil
Rousseff's office acknowledged Monday that the spying took place, but stressed that the operations were carried out within the law. The administration added that publishing classified documents is a crime in Brazil, and that those responsible "will be prosecuted according to the law."
"The operations in question [took place] in accordance with Brazilian legislation pertaining to the protection of the national interest," Rousseff's office said in a statement released Monday. "As Folha preferred not to send copies of the documents obtained, the Institutional Security Cabinet (GSI) could not verify their authenticity." (Folha says it confirmed the authenticity of the documents after consulting with former intelligence, military, and government officials.)
The operations outlined in Monday's report are unquestionably modest compared to the NSA surveillance exposed by former contractor Edward Snowden earlier this year, though the revelations may put Rousseff in an awkward position. The Brazilian president cancelled a state dinner with Barack Obama earlier this year, after it was revealed that the NSA had spied on her office and the state-owned Petrobas, the country's largest oil company, and lashed out against US spying in an impassioned speech to the UN in September.
US intelligence defends mass surveillance in public hearing
Separately on Monday, national security lawyers representing the Obama administration defended US electronic surveillance to an independent oversight committee, countering arguments that the government should stop collecting its citizens' telephone records on a mass scale. Speaking to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, the lawyers said mass data collection remains critical to counterterrorism efforts, noting that such efforts would be severely hindered if the government were forced to obtain phone records from individual companies. Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the administration may consider implementing limits on how long it retains call records, though he did not elaborate upon any possible changes.
NSA general counsel Rajesh De declined to discuss last week's reports that the US has been tapping fiber optic cables to obtain information on Yahoo and Google users, but insisted that the program was not designed to avoid oversight from the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt sharply criticized the alleged practices on Monday, telling the Wall Street Journal that counterterrorism efforts should be weighed against respect for civilian privacy.
"It's really outrageous that the National Security Agency was looking between the Google data centers, if that's true," Schmidt said. "The steps that the organization was willing to do without good judgment to pursue its mission and potentially violate people's privacy, it's not okay. It's just not okay."