Brazil Demands NSA Reforms—but Is It Overreaching?
November 7, 2013
Earlier this week, Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported that the Agência Brasileira de Inteligência (Abin), Brazil’s top intelligence agency, has conducted spying operations on diplomatic targets within Brazilian borders. Following the report, the Brazilian government acknowledged that Abin had tracked diplomats from Russia and Iran and had monitored the commercial property leased by the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia.
Abin’s operations are dwarfed by the allegations of the large-scale surveillance operations conducted by the United States’ National Security Administration (NSA)—but they nonetheless serve as a reminder that most countries are involved in diplomatic espionage.
Since the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first began to surface in June of this year, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, among others, have been accused alongside the United States of spying on their friends and foes alike.
The news of Abin’s monitoring comes at a particularly uncomfortable time for Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, however, as she has taken the leading role as the harshest critic of the NSA’s programs.
Just last week, Rousseff and her German counterpart Angela Merkel introduced a joint United Nations (UN) resolution calling for the “right to privacy in the digital age,” to include an end to electronic surveillance, data collection, and other gross invasions of privacy.
As international pressure mounts for the multilateralization of the regulation of information collection operations, how can the United States be expected to respond, and how does this bode for relations with Brazil?
Q1: What has happened so far?
A1: The leaked documents regarding the NSA’s intelligence-gathering operations suggest that the agency has targeted the communications of governments, embassies international institutions, political leaders, diplomats, and the commercial sector worldwide. Since the first leaks surfaced five months ago, further documents have revealed the scope of NSA’s agenda in the gathering and use of vast tracts of data.
The fallout between Brazil and the United States began when leaked documents suggested that NSA programs targeted the telecommunications of Brazilian citizens, intercepted Rousseff’s private communications, and hacked the computer network of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run oil firm.
Facing mounting domestic pressure, Rousseff responded by cancelling her official state visit to the United States—originally planned for October of this year—and taking her gripes with U.S. intelligence operations to the UN.
Although Rousseff has been the clear leader in the charge against the NSA’s programs, Merkel has played a key role as well—ever since German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the NSA was monitoring the chancellor’s mobile communications.
These allegations prompted the Brazilian and German governments to work together to draft the UN resolution released last week. Although the resolution does not explicitly target any particular countries, it is clear that the initiative is aimed at the United States.
The UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, which focuses on human rights, will debate and vote on the resolution this month—and it will likely reach the General Assembly in December. Even a resolution that passes through the General Assembly, though, is non-binding in nature—but the normative and political weight of the resolution cannot be ignored.
Q2: What is likely to happen moving forward?
A2: It is likely the United States will pursue domestic reform of the NSA. Momentum is already building in Congress, with two proposals currently on the table. And in August, President Obama ordered an internal review of NSA’s domestic and international intelligence gathering.
The first bill for NSA reform was passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee on October 31, codifying the NSA’s already-existing policies for the collection and use of bulk data. The bill also allows government officials to review communications data and implements criminal penalties for the misuse of intelligence capabilities.
In contrast, the USA Freedom Act—introduced simultaneously by Senator Leahy and Representative Sensenbrenner—aims to ban the NSA from collecting bulk telephone records within the US. This proposal, supported by major technology firms, sets up regular debates on the government’s intelligence collection.
It is important to note that the bills currently on the table provide modest reforms—and do not include changes in the NSA’s activities overseas.
The UN draft resolution asks member states “to create the conditions to prevent such [privacy] violations, including by ensuring that relevant national legislation complies with their obligations under international human rights law.” This is not, in theory, so different from the legislation on the table in Congress.
That said, it remains very unlikely that the United States will sign onto an international agreement that would dictate the extent and direction of reforms here at home—even in the face of mounting international pressure to reform. To do so would be to go against the long-held U.S. preference for support of—but not subordination to—international regulatory efforts.
Conclusion: The NSA is facing close domestic and international scrutiny of its mission, its operations, and its very legitimacy; that much cannot be denied.
Here at home, the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union—organizations seen as occupying opposite ends of the political spectrum—are challenging the agency’s data collection efforts in federal courts. And some of the country’s largest internet companies—among them Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and LinkedIn—are pressuring the NSA to increase its transparency moving forward.
The reforms currently on the table will fall far short of satisfying the NSA’s loudest critics—though it is hard to imagine a reform so extensive as to stymie the international outrage over the alleged spying efforts, at least in the short term.
It remains to be seen by what means Congress will reform or regulate the NSA. But it is very unlikely that the United States will enter into an international agreement to reform and regulate its own intelligence gathering operations – the United States is not about to multilateralize its national security decisions.
One thing is certain: with Glenn Greenwald, the journalist in possession of the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, camped out in Brazil, the leaks will only keep coming for the foreseeable future.
But will domestic reforms, even if extensive, be enough to repair the diplomatic harm done to the U.S.-Brazil relationship?
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michelle Sinclair, staff assistant with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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