Latest Snowden revelation: US gathers intel on Venezuela, Brazil, and Mexico

posted at 10:01 am on July 11, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Or at least wake me when we get to Luxembourg.  The tawdry revelations from the bottom of the Edward Snowden cache continue to seep out, this time in Brazil, where the newspaper O Globo reports in shock that US intelligence services collect information on Latin America.  In other news, O Globo also reports that water is wet, or something:

A Brazilian newspaper on Tuesday published an article it said is based on documents provided by the former American contractor Edward Snowden asserting that the United States has been collecting data on telephone calls and e-mails from several countries in Latin America, including important allies such as Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

The paper, O Globo, based in Rio de Janeiro, says the documents show the National Security Agency amassed military and security data on countries such as Venezuela, an American adversary that has been accused of aiding Colombia’s Marxist rebels and maintaining close ties with Iran. But the documents also show that the agency carried out surveillance operations to unearth inside commercial information on the oil industry in Venezuela and the energy sector in Mexico, which is under state control and essentially closed to foreign investment.

U.S. officials have declined to address issues about intelligence gathering or the O Globo report, except to issue a statement saying that “we have been clear that the United States does gather foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.”

The report on Tuesday came after O Globo on Sunday published a story contending that Brazil is a major target of the NSA’s international effort to monitor telecommunications. The newspaper said that in gathering data in Brazil, the NSA counted on the collaboration of American and Brazilian telecommunications companies, though O Globo did not name them.

This is such an important development that the Washington Post didn’t bother to e-mail it to its readers until today, despite originally posting the article yesterday morning.  This may be the least surprising news of the entire story. What part of intelligence is unclear, anyway?

The reasons why we’d watch Venezuela are obvious, and not just for the Iranian and FARC connections.  Oil is a vital national interest for any industrial nation, which is why the US watches the oil industries in Venezuela, Mexico, and Brazil.  The oil markets are fungible, and the output of these nations matters in terms of preparation and security.  Especially given the inclination of all three to seize foreign investment and nationalize it in the energy sector (Mexico and Venezuela did that years ago), we’d be remiss in ignoring it.

The narrative seems to be petering out with Snowden, but the issue of domestic surveillance is still front and center in the US.  Lawmakers are getting fed up with the half-truths and worse from Obama administration officials when testifying to Congress and are blaming the White House for undermining oversight:

Lawmakers tasked with overseeing national security policy say a pattern of misleading testimony by senior Obama administration officials has weakened Congress’s ability to rein in government surveillance.

Members of Congress say officials have either denied the existence of a broad program that collects data on millions of Americans or, more commonly, made statements that left some lawmakers with the impression that the government was conducting only narrow, targeted surveillance operations. …

On three occasions since 2009, top Justice Department officials said the government’s ability to collect business records in terrorism cases is generally similar to that of law enforcement officials during a grand jury investigation. That comparison, some lawmakers now say, signaled to them that data was being gathered on a case-by-case basis, rather than the records of millions of Americans’ daily communications being vacuumed up in bulk.

In addition, two Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee say that even in top-secret briefings, officials “significantly exaggerated” the effectiveness of at least one program that collected data on Americans’ e-mail usage.

Republicans want James Clapper’s resignation as Director of National Intelligence for his misrepresentations, and even Democrats are becoming disenchanted with the Obama administration’s national-security approach:

Some Democrats and civil libertarians have expressed disappointment in what they say is a pattern of excessive secrecy from President Obama. He had pledged to run a more transparent administration than his predecessor, George W. Bush, who signed off on the NSA’s controversial warrantless wiretapping program and, with the authorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, launched the bulk data-collection program that has continued.

“The national security state has grown so that any administration is now not upfront with Congress,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s an imbalance that’s grown in our government, and one that we have to cleanse.”

That will take a few firings to get the process started, and so far, we haven’t seen any.  We’ve actually seen more personnel moves at the IRS than we have in the nat-sec sector since the NSA scandal burst out into the open despite the misleading testimony provided to Congress.  Until some of the President’s priorities get impacted by Congressional outrage, don’t expect that to change, and unless Congress so acts, it’s clear that the outrage is mainly for public consumption only.

Finally, back to Snowden, who’s going to find it very difficult to get out of that Russian airport to an asylum destination, according to McClatchy:

Beginning a third week holed up in a Moscow airport’s transit zone, Edward Snowden finds himself far enough away to evade U.S. authorities, but also too far from any of the sympathetic nations willing to shelter him.

Aviation experts say that even if Snowden accepts the tentative offers of Venezuela, Nicaragua or Bolivia to give him shelter, it’s virtually impossible to chart a flight plan to those nations that doesn’t include traveling over or refueling in a U.S.-friendly country that could demand inspection of the plane – and detain him.

Nations have full, exclusive jurisdiction over their airspace, so any plane carrying Snowden could be forced to land if it flies over the territory of a country that’s willing to help American authorities capture the fugitive intelligence contractor. Snowden faces felony charges in the United States for leaking classified documents that detailed the National Security Agency’s extensive surveillance apparatus.

“Nations control their airspace up to the heavens, the old saying goes,” said John Q. Mulligan, an aviation law expert at DePaul University’s College of Law. “Just look at the map. It’s probably possible to figure out a route that wouldn’t touch the airspace of the United States or any friendly nations, but it wouldn’t be easy.”

At this point, it’s probably Russia or nothing at all for Snowden.


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