Spy thrillers are full of plot twists as their authors struggle to make fiction read just like fact. So let’s start with the fictional proposition that a new Jason Bourne — scourge of the US intelligence community in the series of movies based on Robert Ludlum’s books from the 1980s — is alive and well and now living in Rio de Janeiro.
It’s implausible enough to be plausible. Ever since Graham Greene pioneered the genre with Our Man in Havana, spooks and sleuths both good and bad have enjoyed taking discreet downtime in some of the world’s funkier tropical beach cities. But Rio has never been on the list – not least until today.
Rio was the backdrop for cheesy romantic comedies like the 1933 Flying Down to Rio and latterly for gritty police-in-favela shootout dramas like City of God.
But now it’s not Baghdad or Kabul that’s at the top of the bad list for managers of America’s National Security Agency and the other guardians of the nation’s intelligence-gathering secrets who wake up with sweaty palms thinking about what fresh disclosures are coming in. It’s Rio, and this Jason Bourne is a carioca (an inhabitant of the city).
There’s a man there, working on an outdoor terrace under the tropical foliage, who has masterminded public disclosures of facts about the NSA that should best be kept hidden. Secret courts unknown to the US Congress, covert data-mining and warehousing on an industrial scale; interventions at US telecoms companies. Stuff that would have made Robert Ludlum’s imagination buzz.
Enough of the fictional Jason Bourne. Let’s cut to the facts.
Glenn Greenwald — who with his reporting partner Laura Poitras served as the conduit for all the disclosures from NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, now holed up in Moscow — now lives and works from a ramshackle house in a remote corner of Rio de Janeiro. Greenwald, a lawyer, blogger and former reporter from Salon.com with four books behind him, has been the public face of the Snowden disclosures. Greenwald has been lionised in the newsrooms of Rio newspapers and TV networks.
And yes, British Intelligence regards this story as more fact than fiction, as they saw fit to detain Greenwald’s partner David Miranda for nine hours at Heathrow airport under a putative terrorism investigation, according to BBC reports. What’s clear is that provoking Glenn Greenwald by detaining his partner was not a sensible move for the UK Intelligence services. In a 19 August article for the Guardian, a furious Greenwald promised to stir up a hornet’s nest through disclosures that, albeit smaller than those about the NSA, could be uncomfortable for the agency’s British counterpart GCHQ, and for the 007’s and “M”‘s of this secret world.
So where does my focus on Brazil come from, in a story that everyone knows has been played out in Washington, Hong Kong and Moscow?
Brazil serves as little more than the accidental backdrop for the breaking of 2013’s biggest investigative news story, as profiled at length in the New York Times magazine.
The article gives the whole “back story” to the Snowden saga — and explains some public facts by putting the reporting drama into context. Why US commercial services offering email encryption have all be shut down. Why US Secretary of State John Kerry flew into a firestorm of protest on his Latin American tour in August. Why countries are buying communications satellites from European manufacturers rather than their US rivals. Why Brazilian diplomats were busy pestering UK security authorities to find out why a citizen had been detained in transit at London airport.
The NYT article is primarily a profile of film-maker Poitras, but it gives a fascinating insight into how Greenwald, an investigative reporter working far from newsrooms, could break a monster story from his Rio base. You can read how news executives from the UK’s Guardian newspaper which published the disclosures, discreetly flew in for meetings in Rio hotels. The article also reveals how, from June 2013 onward, Greenwald and Poitras used encrypted emails -within-encrypted emails to communicate with Snowden in Hong Hong.
But what has happened since then shows how the activities of this most influential investigative reporting partnership are affecting world diplomacy not just in Russia and America, but in Latin America too.
What happened is that the presence of Greenwald and, occasionally Poitras in Rio de Janeiro, unleashed a typhoon of electronic surveillance activity in Brazil — so much so that it became a full-blown diplomatic scandal.
The atmosphere of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Brasilia in August was entirely poisoned by rancor and recriminations — both official and on the streets — that America was snooping shamelessly in its Brazilian backyard. Press coverage was overwhelmingly hostile. An embarrassed Kerry admitted at a press conference August 13th “Brazil is owed answers and will get them.” An angry Brazilian foreign minister, Antonio Patriota reported: “Today we face a new type of challenge in our relations, a challenge related to the news of interception of the electronic and telephone communications of Brazilians.”
In Brazil, the US maintained its actions were justified on non-specified security grounds — even though Brazil has no Al Qaeda terrorist presence, has no nuclear ambitions, and until recently at least, has been a lukewarm member of the Washington Consensus.
Until after Kerry departed, few had made the direct link between the NSA’s alleged surveillance overkill in Brazil, and the presence of Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro, the city from which the Snowden disclosures were master-minded on a global basis.
The NSA, it seems, wasn’t really after Brazilians. It was after a US citizen who continued to play a key role in the Snowden saga. At least that’s what I’m positing as the plot engine in my own part-fact part-fiction spy thriller.
Barely had the plane carrying Kerry got its wheels up from the runway leaving Brazil after his controversial visit, than an official with links to the Brazilian military announced that steps were being taken to put in place safeguards to Brazil’s online communications networks. Communications Minister Paulo Bernardo told a congressional panel the country would take steps to avoid a “strong concentration” of the country’s internet activity in the hands of US firms.
It’s not the first time Brazil has had a spat with intelligence operatives. In 2005 the operations of Kroll Associates, a commercial surveillance company reported to contract former Mossad and NSA professionals, were suspended and the company expelled after it was caught snooping in ministries at the behest of a Brazilian billionaire. Today Kroll, under new management, is back in Brazil. But anecdotal evidence suggests Brazil’s own IT professionals learned enough from the encounter to hugely upgrade their firewall-building skills.
What’s moot is whether Brazil will ever be able put up effective barriers to foreign intelligence snooping. While Brazilian citizens are prolific consumers of internet services such as Facebook, Twitter, and internet usage has grown rapidly, the country’s own installed IT industry is modest. Developing the online security and encryption procedures to deny foreign intelligence operators access to its government communications, will be the work of many years.
In a related move, Brazil also announced that the US$400 million contract for its next military and communications satellite will not go to US firms, but will be built by Franco-Italian group Thales Alenia Space (TAS). Part of the issue at stake, said Brazilian officials, was sovereignty of communications. The timing of the announcement made during the Kerry visit, and just the first part of a multi-billion dollar package, was designed to sting.
So it’s looking increasingly as though heavy-handed activity by US intelligence agencies in Brazil has not stopped Greenwald and Poitras operating, has alienated an important ally – and is losing valuable business for US technology companies.
By explaining the technologies that Greenwald and Poitras used to used to break the Snowden story, New York Times magazine story also answers an intriguing question. Nobody had explained exactly why, in early August, the CEOs of two commercial email encryption services – Lavabit and Silent Circle — announced they were going out of business. Although the CEOs we barred from explaining why they had been forcibly shut down, it was clear the issue was linked to the Snowden saga. And The New York Times reported that the NSA has already cracked the vast majority of encrypted material –often by inserting its own programs into programs before they are sold.
Now the New York Times makes clear how the reporters made extensive use of these services to escape scrutiny by the NSA as they communicating from Brazil to Snowden in his Hong Kong hideout. No wonder they’ve been banned.
So the final chapter of my spy story makes Brazil look a rather different place on the global defence and security map. Firstly, it’s a nation willing to offer itself as ‘safe haven’ for those reporting on abuses of US law by intelligence services. Next, it’s a country with no natural enemies daring to stand up to the United States. And finally, it’s a country that might be treating as fact the worst conspiracy theories you can find in airport bookstore page-turners, and out of these suspicions forging its future strategy of protecting communications.
So maybe you might catch a glimpse of Jason Bourne sauntering along Avenida Atlantica on the way to Copacaba beach.