The government of Brazil, which recently canceled a state visit to Washington over Edward Snowden’s revelations that the US government spied on Brazil’s president and oil company Petrobras, admitted today that Brazil spies on the US too.
Et tu, Brazil?
Adding to the fun, the Brazilian authorities are now complaining about the leak of their clandestine activities, and are threatening to prosecute any and all responsible for it.
The news came today in Brazil’s Folha de São newspaper. The paper revealed that Brazil spied on US diplomats in several rooms that the Americans had rented in the Brazilian capital, ostensibly, the Brazilians claim, to house communications equipment, radios and computers for counterintelligence actions.
At the time of the Snowden revelations, the Brazilian president’s office had this to say about American spying on Brazilian government officials:
“The illegal interception of communications data belonging to citizens, companies and members of the Brazilian government are a grave matter, an assault on national sovereignty and individual rights, and are incompatible with relations between friendly nations,” the statement said.
But once it was revealed that Brazil also spies on “members of government,” and on the “national sovereignty” of “friendly nations,” Brazil’s presidency suddenly defended such practices as necessary for “protecting the national interest.”
Oh is that what the kids are calling it now?
Look, none of this is surprising. Countries spy, and it’s a generally accepted fact that even friendly countries keep an eye on each other. And I’ve been saying for a while now that some of the countries putting up the biggest stink about US spying probably do a lot of spying on their own, though perhaps not as technically sophisticated as ours (though not for lack of trying).
None of this is to suggest that the revelations about the NSA tapping into Google’s and Yahoo’s overseas servers, for example, don’t deserve a few raised eyebrows. But what’s bothered me from day one of the Snowden leaks has been an almost “there’s gambling in this establishment!” reaction by many, here and abroad, to the fact that the US spies at all.
Snowden’s release of documents showing that the US spied on then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev comes to mind. Such a revelation wasn’t shocking, but its release was nonetheless intended to shock. And that suggests an overall abhorrence to spying, period. Not just spying against civilians, not just spying against your own people, but even spying against known “bad guys” like the Russians, or good guys like the Brazilians or the Germans, is now verboten. And I don’t buy it.
I got into a little Twitter tussle the other day with someone who responded to this reasoning by saying something to the effect of, just because someone else does it doesn’t make it right. And that’s true. But the fact that someone else does it does mean that we no longer have to listen to those governments when they criticize us for doing what they’re doing, simply because we’re doing it better.
It also means that the entire notion of spying being per se evil deserves a tad more nuance than it’s gotten of late. I very much doubt that any country has clean hands when it comes to espionage. And the relative extent to which we all spy on each other is probably less a factor of our consciences, than our respective technical prowess.