BRASILIA (Reuters) - The U.S. National Security Agency spied on emails, phone calls and text messages of the presidents of Brazil and Mexico, a Brazilian news program reported, a revelation that could strain Washington’s relations with Latin America’s two biggest nations.
The report late Sunday by Globo’s news program “Fantastico” was based on documents that journalist Glenn Greenwald obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Greenwald, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, was listed as a co-contributor to the report.
“Fantastico” showed what it said was an NSA slide dated June 2012 displaying passages of written messages sent by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who was still a candidate at that time. In the messages, Pena Nieto discussed who he was considering naming as his ministers once elected.
A separate slide displayed communication patterns between Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her top advisers, “Fantastico” said, although no specific written passages were included in the report.
Both slides were part of an NSA case study showing how data could be “intelligently” filtered by the agency’s secret internet surveillance programs that were disclosed in a trove of documents leaked by Snowden in June, “Fantastico” said.
Brazil’s government, already smarting from earlier reports that the NSA spied on the emails and phone calls of Brazilians, called in U.S. Ambassador Thomas Shannon to explain the new allegations that the agency had spied on Rousseff herself.
Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo said the contents of the documents, if confirmed, “should be considered very serious and constitute a clear violation of Brazilian sovereignty.”
“This (spying) hits not only Brazil, but the sovereignty of several countries that could have been violated in a way totally contrary to what international law establishes,” he told O Globo newspaper.
Cardozo traveled last week to Washington and met with U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and other officials, seeking more details on a previous, seemingly less serious set of disclosures by Snowden regarding U.S. spying in Brazil.
Rousseff is scheduled to make a formal state visit in October to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, a trip intended to illustrate the warming in Brazilian-U.S. relations since she took office in 2011.
Rousseff held a Cabinet meeting on Monday that included the country’s defense, justice, communications and foreign affairs ministers to discuss a response to the espionage report. A presidential spokesman would not comment on the new allegations.
“We value our relationship with Brazil, understand that they have valid concerns about these disclosures and we will continue to engage with the Brazilian government in an effort to address those concerns,” a U.S. embassy spokesman said. “Brazil and the United States are global partners and we agree that our broader relationship will remain vital and moving forward.”
Mexico’s presidential palace said it had no immediate comment. In July, after initial reports of NSA surveillance of internet communications in Latin American nations, Mexico’s Pena Nieto said it would be “totally unacceptable” if it were revealed that the United States had spied on its neighbor and largest business partner in the region.
The United States is hoping to sell Brazil 36 F-18 fighter jets, but a Brazilian government official said manufacturer Boeing’s chances of landing the more than $4 billion deal have been set back by the espionage scandal.
During a visit last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Brazil not to let spying revelations derail growing trade, diplomatic and cultural relations between the two largest economies in the Americas. But he gave no indication the United States would end the secret surveillance.
Kerry said the NSA surveillance was aimed at protecting Americans and Brazilians from terrorist attacks.
But Justice Minister Cardozo said on Monday that the latest revelations based on Snowden’s documents show that U.S. electronic surveillance goes beyond combating terrorism and has political targets and may even involve commercial espionage.
Until the report of spying on their president, Brazilian officials, while outwardly furious, appeared to be intent on putting the espionage scandal behind them so that it would not hurt relations with Washington and Rousseff’s state visit next month.
Carl Meacham, head of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, believes Brazil has more to lose than the United States if the visit is scrubbed.
Rousseff, whose popularity has been hurt by massive protests in June against corruption and poor public services, might even make political hay out of the NSA spying affair, he said.
“Keeping this going is probably helpful to Rousseff,” Meacham said. “This helps distract from what is going on in Brazil, things like the economy and spending for the Olympics and the World Cup.” (Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Additional reporting by Brian Winter in Sao Paulo and Jeb Blount in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Jackie Frank and Eric Beech)