Snowden Fallout: Contours of Washington's Divide and Rule Strategy in Brazil

Does Obama consider Brazil to be friend or foe? Judging from recent revelations stemming from the Edward Snowden scandal, the White House has no clear view on the matter and has relied on the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) to spy on the up and coming South American nation. According to journalist Glenn Greenwald, the N.S.A. has conducted espionage on Dilma Rousseff no less by intercepting the Brazilian president's personal e-mails. Reportedly, the agency uncovered Rousseff's correspondence with aides and got its hands on the advisers' communications with one another as well as to and from third parties.

Greenwald's story adds to previous explosive reporting which demonstrated that the N.S.A. had collected data on millions of telephone and e-mail conversations in Brazil. What is more, the agency worked in tandem with the C.I.A. to set up a spying operation in Brasilia designed to scoop up valuable satellite data. Needless to say, all of these cumulative revelations stand to tarnish U.S.-Brazilian relations -- which had been slightly frosty even before Snowden opted to leak sensitive information -- and Greenwald's reporting will no doubt continue to stir up suspicions across the political spectrum in Brasilia.

Just why is Washington so interested in gauging internal cabinet level politics within the Rousseff administration? Perhaps further reporting will illuminate such matters in greater detail, though in light of the previous "Cable Gate" scandal it is easy to hazard some guesses. Simply put, both Bush and Obama have been wary of Lula and Rousseff's left-leaning Workers' Party (known by its Portuguese acronym PT, which has established links with the wider South American left). If secret U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks are to be believed, Washington has sought to outflank rank and file leftists in the PT and take advantage of rivalries and political fissures within the upper echelons of the Brazilian government.

Spying on Brazilian Cabinet

In light of the history, the N.S.A. probably wants to pick up electronic correspondence emanating from the Brazilian Ministry of External Affairs, also known as Itamaraty. In private, U.S. diplomats declare that Brazilian diplomats are old school "academic leftists" and "anti-American." Speaking to his superiors, the U.S. ambassador in Brasilia complained that one official at Itamaraty had issued a required reading list of books which had been critical of Washington. Fortunately, the ambassador noted, such old guard leftist stalwarts were scheduled for retirement and the Americans looked forward to working with a "cohort of younger, more pragmatic, and more globally oriented diplomats who will be moving into senior ranks."

Hoping to circumvent the ideologues at Itamaraty, American officials cultivated high level ties to the Brazilian Ministry of Defense. Key in solidifying the diplomatic relationship with the U.S. was Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim, a political figure wielding considerable influence within the Lula administration. During one breakfast meeting, the U.S. ambassador hailed Jobim for his courage in challenging "the historic supremacy of Itamaraty in all areas of foreign policy." Jobim turned out to be very pro-U.S., though unfortunately career diplomats at the Ministry of External Affairs caught on to such parlor games and sought to limit the power of the military man.

Not leaving anything to chance, the Americans also sought to get round Itamaraty by cultivating direct links with the presidential office. If WikiLeaks cables can be believed, Lula's inner circle at the presidency was much more cynical politically than seasoned career diplomats at Itamaraty, and sought to sideline ideological leftists. During one party thrown to celebrate Lula's election to a second term, Lula's Chief of Staff assured the U.S. ambassador that there would be"no further discussion" of anti-U.S. talk and "asked for the Ambassador's understanding if rhetoric during the election campaign had occasionally seemed critical of the U.S."

The Role of Private Brazilian Companies

Just how has the N.S.A. managed to carry out its high level spying on the Brazilian presidency and cabinet? According to Greenwald, the agency collects its data through undefined "associations" between U.S. and Brazilian companies. In this sense, the N.S.A. is simply continuing its age-old policy of relying on private corporations in Latin America for its spy operations. As I discussed in another recent article, I.T.T. (or International Telephone and Telegraph) a company which installed much of Latin America's hard line communications, proved very valuable to the N.S.A. Indeed, the firm reportedly even had a say in who actually ran the agency.

Greenwald says he cannot verify which Brazilian companies were enmeshed in the N.S.A spying scheme or even if the firms were aware that their links had been used to scoop up data. Nevertheless, it would not be surprising if certain companies in the Brazilian private sector were involved in Washington's espionage. If the WikiLeaks cables are to be believed, there's significant political friction between rank and file leftists in the PT and the private sector, which is unhappy about Brazil's increasingly more independent foreign policy. Indeed, according to the U.S. ambassador in Brasilia, there was "substantial opposition from the private sector, regarding the wisdom of what is widely acknowledged as a [Brazilian] heavy south-south [foreign policy] focus."

Specifically, the Brazilian private sector has been skittish about Venezuela, a country which now forms part of South American trade bloc Mercosur. According to WikiLeaks documents, Brazilian business was divided about Venezuela's admission to the trade bloc, with one group favoring greater export opportunities and another worried that Venezuela's membership would "further complicate Brazil/Mercosur's trade negotiations with other partners." Certain Brazilian businesspeople were concerned about "Venezuela's more avowed anti-imperialist stances, particularly Chávez's opposition to the F.T.A.A. [U.S.- sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas]."

A Divided Government

Perhaps, the N.S.A. is aware of such discontent within the corporate ranks and has moved to exploit internal political divisions by actively recruiting the telecommunication companies. According to WikiLeaks cables, the Brazilian government is riven by factions and torn between leftist constituencies and more corporate and pro-U.S. elements. In Brasilia, big business dominates certain ministries and sees itself at odds with the PT's more leftist wing at Itamaraty.

Take for example the issue of the F.T.A.A., which pitted different ministries against each other. According to U.S. diplomats, Itamaraty displayed a "rigid" opposition to American free trade. In the long-term, however, such leftist sentiment within Brazilian foreign policy circles may be shunted aside by powerful interests. Writing to the State Department, U.S. diplomats noted that "not everyone within the diplomatic corps nor within the government agrees with Itamaraty's current F.T.A.A. policy." Specifically, Itamaraty faced opposition from the ministries of Agriculture, Development and Finance.

Further cables show just how cozy the Brazilian corporate sector has gotten with the U.S. embassy. Indeed, officials at the Ministry of Agriculture speak candidly to American diplomats about sensitive trade negotiations while criticizing their peers at Itamaraty. The story is much the same over at the Finance Ministry, whose officials actively advise the Americans on how to outflank rival Brazilian agencies when it comes to sensitive trade discussions.

Political Fallout

With so much internal division and ideological muddle within the Brazilian government, it is no wonder that the N.S.A. has been so successful in its espionage efforts. What is more, it would not be surprising if the N.S.A. passed on sensitive intelligence to the U.S. embassy in Brasilia, which would in turn allow the Americans to capitalize on political disunity within the PT [according to Greenwald, the N.S.A. already provided intelligence to Obama which enabled the U.S. president to outshine his Latin counterparts during the Summit of the Americas in April, 2009].

Both the WikiLeaks and N.S.A. scandals have proven deeply embarrassing to the Brazilian political establishment and have revealed profound fissures within the top levels of government. The wider question now is whether the left wing of the PT will drive president Rousseff to become more nationalist or even cancel an upcoming meeting with Obama scheduled for October. Though Rousseff does not wish to alienate Washington, the cumulative effect of all the whistle-blowing scandals may force the president to become a bit more defiant.

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