U.S.-Brazil Relations and NSA Electronic Surveillance

Taken at face value, the postponement of the state visit by President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil to the United States is a dramatic signal of her administration’s displeasure over recent revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) routinely intercepts electronic communications in Brazil. All countries gather intelligence, and while it is traditional for targets of espionage to protest, it is usually not a matter that is allowed to impede presidential visits and high level diplomacy. However, the recent emergence of additional reports that seem to confirm the broad scope of NSA collection efforts, which include the personal communications of Brazil’s president and the national oil company PETROBRAS, have soured the politics surrounding the Rousseff and Obama administrations’ efforts to improve U.S.-Brazil relations.

Intelligence activities have a special and negative resonance in Brazilian politics. In part, this is due to the legacy of its authoritarian past. The military governments that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 routinely engaged in surveillance of their citizens while conducting a campaign against leftist organizations. Some members of the Rousseff administration, including the president herself, participated in the insurgency against military rule, and they directly experienced repression at the hand of Brazilian intelligence services. One legacy of this period is that Brazil’s constitution and legislation strictly regulates government eavesdropping on the communications of private citizens, and this practice is officially only allowed as a last resort in criminal investigations with prior judicial approval.

This story also strikes a deep chord among some Brazilians because of long standing national aspirations to be recognized as a major global power with full autonomy in the international system. The belief in Brazil’s ‘grandeza’ (greatness) is a widely shared national value. NSA electronic surveillance highlights the degree to which Brazil’s sovereignty can be compromised by outside forces. The state’s apparent inability to detect or defend against the NSA’s surveillance is a direct reminder of the limits of Brazil’s grandeza, despite its scientific, economic and technological sophistication. The fact that many other countries across the world share a similar vulnerability to NSA electronic intelligence collection is not likely to be much of a consolation.

Adding to Brazilian outrage is the revelation that it was identified alongside with China, Russia and Pakistan as a major target. Brazilians generally view their country as peaceful, posing a threat to no other state. They have long settled borders with their neighbors, have renounced the acquisition of nuclear weapons and contribute to regional peacekeeping through their leadership of UN forces deployed in Haiti. Brazil’s foreign ministry prides itself on the quality of its diplomats and its success at securing Brazil’s national interests through negotiation rather than conflict. Although the United States has raised concerns about illicit actors and terrorist organizations operating in Brazil’s border areas, particularly the boundaries with Paraguay and Argentina, Brazil downplays this as a serious concern or a serious justification for extensive surveillance efforts. Brazil’s prominence among the targets of the NSA collection efforts is more likely related to its role as a major transcontinental telecommunications hub, but the revelation that they were paired with China, Russia and Pakistan must strike many Brazilians as nonsensical.

The postponement of President Rousseff’s state visit to Washington is based on political calculations in Brasilia. President Rousseff’s popularity has waned, with public opinion of her administration dropping as low as 31 percent earlier this year, and 2014 is a critical election year for her. Her administration’s image suffered as a result of mass social unrest across Brazil in June and during national day celebrations on September 7th, and the Brazilian government has been moving quickly to address the concerns raised by protesters. Cancelling the state visit to Washington is likely to prove popular with her supporters in the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party). Her administration may also calculate that this decision will resonate positively with patriotic Brazilians outside her usual political base that are indignant at the thought of routine U.S. surveillance.

The Rousseff administration’s immediate proposals to address the espionage revelations indicate that it is concerned to be seen as defending Brazilian sovereignty and its citizens. These include a government investigation of allegations that private telecommunications firms working in Brazil were conduits for NSA espionage. The administration has requested accelerated congressional consideration of legislation requiring that data collected by internet and social media companies be stored inside Brazil’s borders. The Brazilian government has also proposed that the postal service create an encrypted national email system. They have even announced talks between the Argentine and Brazilian ministers of defense on combined cyber defense. Admittedly, some of these proposals have been made in haste, and there are few governments anywhere with a record of creating successful social media and internet alternatives. Taken together, they indicate that the Rousseff administration wants to quickly get on the right side of public opinion on this issue, particularly since its popularity has only just begun to rebound after recent social unrest.

The revelations of NSA intelligence collection are particularly bitter pill for President Rousseff and her advisors to swallow because they thought they had built a better relationship with the United States than their predecessors in the da Silva administration. The Obama and Rousseff administrations have pursued a highly ambitious bilateral agenda since 2010 characterized by four presidential-level dialogues and a large number of high-level working groups on economics and finance, education, science and technology, defense and security and global partnership. It is unlikely that this intense effort to improve relations would be cast aside permanently over revelations of espionage. In fact, the postponement may have the positive consequence of allowing bilateral working groups and meetings to complete their work under less fraught circumstances. It is in the U.S. interest for President Rousseff’s state visit to take place at a time when Brazilian public opinion is more favorable to negotiations with the U.S., which would give President Rousseff more flexibility to cut deals and clear sticking points. On the other hand, it seems likely that cooperation on defense and security issues, closely linked in the public mind to intelligence, will suffer. For example, Brazilian politicians have already observed that Boeing’s proposal to equip the Brazilian air force with F/A-18 E/Fs will be negatively affected, although this sale was likely to be postponed in any event due to budget cuts. It will also become even more difficult to secure Brazilian congressional approval of pending defense and security agreements with the United States, including the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) and the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). These agreements, both of which have been awaiting legislative action since they were signed in 2010, are essential precursors to deeper collaboration on security and sharing of sensitive technologies between the two states.

In the long run, revelations of NSA intelligence collection in Brazil are likely to have an impact on the ongoing debate over the international structure and governance of the internet. There are already a number of countries in Europe that require that data generated by their citizens be stored within their national boundaries, and Brazil has announced that it is moving in this direction. It already has strict privacy and data protection laws on the books and these are likely to be tightened and enforced more aggressively, at least for the moment. It is advocating the creation of networks in Brazil and South America that route around the U.S.-based systems that currently handle most of Brazil’s internet traffic. A number of observers have already warned that this would decrease the functionality and effectiveness of the global internet. Beyond this, we should keep in mind that the current international structure and governing institutions for the global internet are highly favorable to the United States, which has played a central role since its inception. Large amounts of global internet traffic flow through U.S. territory, and U.S. public and private entities maintain a dominant voice in global internet governance. Brazil has now added itself to the list of countries that are exploring new ways to route their telecommunications data around the United States. It may also redouble the efforts of its highly professional diplomatic corps to work with the entities and countries that have advocated a reformed global internet governance structure for the past decade. The consequences of such a reform, if successful, would doubtfully favor U.S. interests.