How an Idealistic President Embraced Cyber Espionage

Could President Obama's second term be marred by further revelations stemming from the National Security Agency (NSA) scandal? Such a prospect cannot be dismissed, since Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who published articles based on sensitive information leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, promises to write further pieces. Greenwald, who resides in Brazil, is particularly interested in NSA surveillance of Latin America, and his reporting has confirmed that Washington's spying throughout the hemisphere has been much more widespread than some would have believed.

Not surprisingly, NSA electronic eavesdropping, which included the cataloging of telephone calls and access to the internet, focused heavily on Venezuela, a country long at odds with the United States. According to Greenwald, the NSA collected information on everything from Venezuelan military purchases to the South American nation's oil industry. Not surprisingly, the Venezuelan government under Chávez successor Nicolás Maduro has been very critical of U.S. espionage efforts, remarking that Washington had "created an evil system, half Orwellian, that intends to control the communications of the world."

Surveillance of Venezuelan Oil Industry

It's no secret that the Bush administration considered Hugo Chávez a threat, though the bits and pieces of cyber spying are only now falling into place. In recent years, the NSA has been linked to a number of private contractors, including the shady Science Applications International Corp or SAIC. As I noted in my first book, SAIC.'s board of directors has included a number of notable Washington insiders over the years, including Robert Gates and former NSA director Bobby Ray Inman. In 1996, prior to Chávez's assumption of power, SAIC signed a joint venture with PdVSA (the Venezuelan state oil company) to handle the firm's IT operations. According to Chávez, however, the joint venture, called Informática, Negocios y Tecnología (known by its Spanish acronym INTESA), had ties to the CIA. SAIC, Chávez later charged, was merely using INTESA as a front for conducting espionage.

Rafael Ramírez, Chávez's minister of energy, remarked that INTESA was a horrible decision for Venezuela. "There is nothing more valuable for an oil-producing country...than the information about its deposits, its production, its capacity," he declared. "That is, this information is worth very much and also has a strategic geopolitical value," Ramírez added.

Bush Administration's Cyber Espionage

During a confrontational oil lock-out in 2002-3, when the rightist Venezuelan opposition sought to bring the economy to a halt and force Chávez from power, PdVSA sustained serious damage to its IT system. The Chávez government claimed that INTESA was involved in the sabotage. When the lock-out fizzled, officials promptly discontinued the INTESA joint venture, fired its workers, and ordered the company to hand over its advanced accounting technology. Hardly amused, the Washington-based Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) ruled that PdVSA had "expropriated" SAIC's assets, an accusation which alarmed Chávez officials.

As Venezuelan-U.S. relations continued to deteriorate, the Bush administration reportedly ramped up its cyber intelligence efforts on Chávez. According to a recent report issued by the Globalist, the White House ordered the NSA to spy on the Venezuelan leader during the latter's visit to Rome and the Vatican in 2006. Reportedly, Bush "wanted to know every detail of Hugo Chávez's visit," and the operation employed the most cutting-edge technology. Indeed, even as Chávez met with the new Pope Benedict XVI, NSA planes circled over Rome 24 hours a day.

Perhaps, the Venezuelans grew aware of such cyber espionage and decided to retaliate: at the Caracas airport, Chávez officials began to clamp down on U.S. military equipment which the Americans had shipped in to the embassy via crate.

An Idealistic Young Candidate

Some might have expected that the 2008 presidential election and the changing of the guard in Washington would have helped to ameliorate such a sorry state of affairs. To be sure, Obama promised much greater political transparency out on the campaign trail. Indeed, as Greenwald has noted, Obama's "pledges of openness and transparency were not ancillary to his campaign but central to it." In a jab, Obama denounced the Bush White House as "one of the most secretive administrations in our nation's history."

As president, Obama claimed that he would protect whistle-blowers, strengthen privacy protections for the digital era, and change super-secret practices. The candidate even declared that such objectives shaped his entire life, remarking "the American people want to trust in our government again -- we just need a government that will trust in us. And making government accountable to the people isn't just a cause of this campaign -- it's been a cause of my life for two decades."

Obama's Cynical New Team

Despite his campaign promises, however, Obama went back on his word once he was swept into office. Indeed, according to Greenwald, Obama continued NSA surveillance of Venezuela and even came to rely on such intelligence during high stakes diplomatic negotiations. Writing in the Brazilian magazine Época, Greenwald remarks that Obama took advantage of NSA reports in advance of an April, 2009 Summit of the Americas held in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

During other diplomatic confabs, Chávez had upstaged the United States, and apparently Obama was determined not to let such an eventuality happen again. In 2005, the Venezuelan roiled the waters in Mar del Plata, Argentina during a previous Summit of the Americas. Speaking before a crowd of 25,000 at a local stadium, Chávez famously baptized the site as the "graveyard of the F.T.A.A. [Washington-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas]." The summit ended in fiasco: Bush returned to Washington empty handed without any trade deal.

Perhaps, Obama might have "reset" relations with Venezuela and moved to put a more transparent international order in place. However, the new president quickly installed a conservative foreign policy team including Hillary Clinton at the State Department. Thomas Shannon, a holdover from the Bush years, was kept on as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Clinton's Secret Surveillance

According to secret U.S. cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, Clinton quickly became fixated on cynical espionage of Latin leaders. Speaking with her diplomatic counterparts in South America, she requested psychological information about leftist leaders. "We especially value information on leaders' operating styles, demeanors, motivations, strengths and weaknesses, relationships with superiors, sensitivities," Clinton remarked.

Some diplomats have expressed surprise at the WikiLeaks cables dealing with Latin America. Carne Ross, a former British diplomat who now heads up Independent Diplomat, a non-partisan outfit in New York, remarks "in U.S. embassies, it's no secret that there are other intelligence agencies operating there and not just the State Department. In my experience as a British diplomat, [however], it was absolutely not the business of diplomats to collect that kind of intelligence -- it was the purview of the spooks and spies who worked alongside us."

Summit of the Americas: Managing Chávez

In line with his boss' predilection for surveillance, Assistant Secretary Shannon did his utmost to rely on secret NSA intercepts emanating from Latin America. According to Greenwald's Época report, the NSA provided exceptional intelligence to both Obama and Secretary of State Clinton which gave the U.S. team a deep understanding of Latin leaders' political agenda and upcoming strategy at the Trinidad summit. Specifically, the NSA advised Obama on how to handle "controversial issues" like Cuba and also how to interact with "difficult counterparts" like Chávez.

During the summit, Obama tried to deflect pressure from leftist Latin leaders by proclaiming a new era in relations based on an equal partnership. At one point, he even remarked that the U.S. needed to acknowledge that it had interfered in other countries' affairs. But even as the president pressed for more goodwill, assuring the region that there would no longer be any "senior" or "junior" partners, Obama was taking advantage of NSA electronic intelligence to get a leg up in Trinidad. Rather cynically in light of his own reliance on super-secret NSA files, Obama argued that Latin America should stop demonizing the U.S. for its own problems.

In his reporting, Greenwald has not spelled out what the NSA intelligence consisted of, though perhaps the intercepts enabled Obama to somehow foil Chávez, who failed to upstage the newly elected U.S. president. In the end, there were no political fireworks during the summit, with Chávez merely offering Obama a complimentary copy of Eduardo Galeano's The Open Veins of Latin America, a book about European and American exploitation of the continent. Though countries failed to reach unanimity by the end of the summit, the proceedings ended on a note of consensus with Obama remarking that the event had "replaced the ideological divisions of the past with a spirit of cooperation."

The NSA Takes Charge

Perhaps, the Summit of the Americas set the stage for a greater NSA role in the new Obama administration. According to Greenwald's report, Assistant Secretary Shannon was overjoyed at the secret intelligence, remarking that the intercepts had proven "successful" for the U.S. team. "Our government," Shannon remarked, "was committed to constructing a productive and positive relationship with our neighbors, while our rivals in the region were equally committed to discredit and humiliate us. We were successful and our rivals failed." In correspondence, Shannon thanked General Keith Alexander, the Director of the NSA, for providing the valuable intelligence.

Shannon's note suggests that even after the summit, close collaboration continued between the State Department and the NSA. "Our work is far from over," Shannon wrote Alexander. "The General Assembly of the Organization of American States, next month, will likely bring renewed discussions on Cuba, and countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia remain intent on challenging our interests in the short term -- but I am confident that the information the NSA will continue to give us the advantage that our diplomacy needs."

Rather than embrace transparency, Obama rewarded those who had helped him most at the Summit of the Americas. The president appointed Shannon as U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, another secret target of NSA intelligence. What is more, one month after the Port of Spain meeting, Obama moved ahead with plans to create a "cyber command" under General Alexander.

Legacy of the NSA Scandal

Perhaps, Obama now regrets how he relied so intently on NSA intelligence. Not only has the NSA scandal undermined U.S.-Latin American ties, but also Obama's own standing back home. Indeed, if the polls are to be believed, the president has suffered a major blow to his credibility, particularly amongst youth who regard the internet as an area of free speech and free communication. Some surveys show a whopping double-digit decrease in Obama's approval rating since Edward Snowden released NSA secrets. In the wake of the scandal, Obama has proposed a number of piecemeal NSA reforms, but polls show that the public is skeptical and does not think the president is going far enough.

Just how can Obama regain public trust? Former Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich has argued that the federal government should simply abolish the NSA altogether. Perhaps, Obama could follow through on pledges he made as a candidate to create "cutting edge technologies" which would allow for "a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America's citizens." What is more, Obama could also follow through on promises to actually broadcast cabinet meetings online and get foreign policy out of the shadows.

Radical Overhaul of International Relations

Former British diplomat Carne Ross, meanwhile, thinks that a radical overhaul of U.S. foreign policy is long overdue. "When you are trained in diplomacy," he says, "you are encouraged to see things through a very subjective lens which is reflective of a small group of people, even though it's claimed to be a broader, national view of the world. It's extraordinary to me that the populace should have given such power to such a small group which is unaccountable. As a British diplomat, I was never held to account for what I did at all -- ever."

In order to change international relations, Ross adds, diplomats should be subjected to a greater degree of public scrutiny. "Ideally," he remarks, "my hope is that what people do in secret will be more aligned with what they do in public, and you won't get this gross divergence as has been the case with U.S. policy." Unfortunately, the diplomat says, far too often "people accept that 'this is what diplomats do,' and states are allowed to behave in this frankly rather odious fashion, so we can't expect any moral standards."

Buffeted by the NSA scandal, Obama now faces a choice. He can continue to rely on secret intelligence in an effort to gain advantage over rivals, which could further erode his credibility on both the domestic and international stage, or he might undertake systemic and radical reform of the national security state. If he fails to follow through on the optimistic promises of his earlier campaign, history may look upon Obama not as an agent of change but as a politician who tried to restrain democracy at all costs.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.