What the N.S.A. Wants in Brazil
Posted by Ryan Lizza
One of the more curious revelations from Edward Snowden's trove of secret
N.S.A. documents was a recent report that United States spy agencies have
been vacuuming up communications in Brazil. Glenn Greenwald, who lives in
Brazil, broke this story in O Globo, one of that country's major newspapers,
on July 6th. Greenwald, in an follow-up piece in the Guardian, pointed to a
rough Google translation of his original July 6th report:
In the last decade, people residing or in transit in Brazil, as well as
companies operating in the country, have become targets of espionage
National Security Agency of the United States (National Security Agency -
NSA, its acronym in English). There are no precise figures, but last January
Brazil was just behind the United States, which had 2.3 billion phone calls
and messages spied..
Brazil, with extensive public and private networks scanned, operated by
large telecommunications companies and internet, is highlighted on maps of
the U.S. agency focus primarily on voice traffic and data (origin and
destination), along with nations such as China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan.
It is uncertain how many people and companies spied in Brazil. But there is
evidence that the volume of data captured by the filtering system in the
local telephone networks and the Internet is constant and large scale.
In a way, the N.S.A.'s focus on Brazil seems puzzling. Why would the United
States care so much about communications traffic in a friendly South
American country? But last week, at the Aspen Security Conference, General
Keith Alexander, the director of the N.S.A., made a little-noticed remark
that helps explain his agency's interest in Brazil. During a
question-and-answer session with an audience of journalists and current and
former government officials, a German reporter rose and asked Alexander
this: "Why are you focusing so much on gathering data also from Brazil,
since there's not too much terrorism going on in Brazil as far as I know?"
Alexander's answer was somewhat elliptical (emphasis mine):
You know, the reality is we're not collecting all the e-mails on the
people in Brazil nor listening to their phone numbers. Why would we do that?
What somebody took was a program that looks at metadata around the world
that you would use to find terrorist activities that might transit and
leaped to the conclusion that, aha, metadata-they must be listening to
everybody's phone; they must be reading everybody's e-mail. Our job is
I'll tell you, 99.9 and I don't know how many nines go out of all that,
whether it's in German or Brazil, is of no interest to a foreign
intelligence agency. What is of interest is a terrorist hopping through or
doing something like that.
(In the video of General Alexander's remarks, this exchange starts at about
Alexander's answer doesn't seem terribly revealing. But embedded in it was a
major admission, which is alluded to by the portions, "metadata around the
world that you would use to find terrorist activities that might transit"
and "a terrorist hopping through."
I asked General Michael Hayden, the former director of both the C.I.A. and
the N.S.A., what he found most interesting in Alexander's remarks. "He
committed two acts of declassification," Hayden told me, using a euphemism
for when a senior official reveals secret info by speaking in public. The
first revelation Hayden flagged was not terribly surprising: in an earlier
portion of his remarks, Alexander mentioned that the N.S.A. knows precisely
what documents Edward Snowden accessed.
But Alexander's second act of declassification was much more interesting.
Hayden pointed to Alexander's comments about Brazil, and his point about not
being interested in the communications of Brazilians. He asked me to think
about the geography of Brazil, which bulges out eastward into the Atlantic
Ocean. I still didn't understand. "That's where the transatlantic cables
come ashore," he finally explained.
Indeed, they do. According to a detailed map of the network of submarine
cables that transmits our voices and our Internet data around the world,
Brazil is one of the most important telecommunication hubs on earth.
There is an even more detailed, interactive version of this map, and Teleco,
which collects information about telecommunications in Brazil, has
additional details on the major submarine lines that run through the
country. It reports that one of the lines, Atlantis-2, which connects South
America to Europe and Africa and was created by twenty-five
telecommunications companies, is part of a network that, when complete,
"will form the infrastructure of the global information society."
While the idea that the N.S.A. is tapping transatlantic cables is hardly
shocking-there have been excellent recent stories on the subject in the
Washington Post and The Atlantic-as far as I'm aware, Alexander and Hayden's
remarks last week represent the highest level of confirmation of the
practice, and they help to explain Greenwald's report on the N.S.A.'s
interest in Brazil.
They also help shed light on an N.S.A. slide recently published by the
Guardian, which appears to show that the umbrella program for this type of
"upstream" collection is called Fairview and/or Blarney.
The map on this slide is a less detailed version of the one mentioned above,
but it indicates the many submarine cables going to and from Brazil, and
explains that the N.S.A. uses these programs for the "collection of
communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past."
Finally, Greenwald has reported that Snowden downloaded N.S.A. documents
described as the "crown jewels" of the agency. There has been much
speculation about what these sensitive documents might be. Three former
government officials told me that they likely contain details of our
relationships with foreign intelligence agencies, and, if so, that there
might be explosive revelations about surveillance practices undertaken by
Western allies that violate privacy laws and other statutes within those
Vanee' M. Vines, a spokesperson for the N.S.A., said, "We're not going to
elaborate on remarks that Gen. Alexander made in Aspen," and added that the
agency also had no comment on speculation about other documents possessed by
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