BOGOTA -- Allegations that the United States has been actively spying on friends and foes in Latin America threatened to open new diplomatic fronts for the Obama administration as it scrambles to detain the source of the sensitive information: NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
On Tuesday, Brazil’s O Globo newspaper, citing National Security Agency documents, said the United States had been monitoring Internet and telephone communications in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador, among other countries.
The newspaper said U.S. intelligence gathering went beyond national security issues to include economic espionage — collecting information on the petroleum industry in Venezuela and the energy sector in Mexico.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called an emergency meeting and has asked the United Nations to investigate the claims. One of her cabinet members suggested the revelations might jeopardize Rousseff’s state visit to the U.S. in October.
The allegations come amid growing speculation about the fate of Snowden, who has been stranded in a Moscow airport for more than two weeks as he eludes U.S. authorities on espionage charges. Early Tuesday, a Russian lawmaker Tweeted that Snowden had accepted an asylum offer from Venezuela, only to delete the message minutes later. The Associated Press said the message had been an error. Foreign Minister Elias Jaua Tuesday confirmed that the government had not received Snowden’s response.
Even so, President Nicolás Maduro said Snowden is welcome in the Andean nation.
“He has to decide when he flies here, if in fact he wants to come here,” Maduro said. Bolivia and Nicaragua have also offered the 30-year-old former CIA employee asylum.
According to the O Globo article, which was co-authored by Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who has had unprecedented access to Snowden, the NSA and CIA were using programs called “Prism” and “Boundless Informant” in Latin America.
Prism gave intelligence officials access to emails, chats and voice mails from companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft and YouTube, which the NSA used to collect data on oil and military purchases in Venezuela, energy and narcotics from Mexico, and track the movements of Colombian guerrillas. Boundless Informant was used to catalogue calls and Internet access, the report said.
While the report suggests that Brazil, Colombia and Mexico registered some of the highest intelligence-gathering activity in the region, it’s unclear if the programs were taking place with consent, said Alfredo Rangel, a national security analyst in Colombia.
“It’s not clear who was being intercepted and what the motives were,” he said. “The United States and Colombia have agreements on fighting narco-trafficking and terrorism. And if these recordings were aimed at those groups, and handed over to Colombian authorities, then all we’re looking at here is bi-national intelligence cooperation.”
The Colombian government’s silence in the face of the allegations only seemed to support that theory, he said.
On Monday, responding to more limited allegations about spying in Brazil, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said officials had been in contact with Brazilian authorities.
“As a matter of policy, we have been clear that the United States does gather foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations,” she said. “We plan to continue our dialogue with the Brazilians through normal diplomatic channels, but those are conversations that, of course, we would keep private.”
Tuesday’s allegations come amid the backdrop of Snowden’s ongoing asylum plight. Experts say there’s no easy way out of Russia for him. His U.S. passport has been revoked and commercial flights out of Moscow to potential Latin American asylum destinations stop in countries that are likely to extradite him. His best bet might be a flight from Moscow to Havana, but even that flight crosses international boundaries that could complicate his journey.
And it’s not clear if Cuba is interested in playing a role in the affair, said Frank Mora the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University.
“The Cubans don’t want any of it. They are in the midst of negotiations with the U.S. government,” he said. “They are not going to throw a grenade into the middle of this by ranting ideologically about why it’s important to protect Snowden.”
Venezuela and the United States are also in talks, and hoping to exchange ambassadors for the first time since 2010. Giving Snowden asylum would likely complicate those conversations.
But Mora doubted it would ever come to that. He said Venezuela and others have likely made the calculation that they will never have to make good on their promise.
“This offer is an opportunity for these three countries to poke the eye of the imperialists without having to incur much of a cost because it’s just rhetoric,” he said. “The question is whether, push comes to shove, if they will accept him. I tend to think no.”
Also Tuesday, the Organization of American States held a special meeting in support of Bolivian President Evo Morales, whose airplane was forced to make an emergency landing last week in Austria amid suspicions he was trying to smuggle Snowden out of Europe.
Bolivia and its allies say that Spain, Italy, France and Portugal put the president’s life at risk, and broke a series of international treaties, by closing off their air space. Bolivia is asking the OAS to pass a resolution condemning the event and asking the involved nations to explain the incident and apologize. An agreement had not been reached by late Thursday.
The United States wants Snowden on criminal espionage charges after he began revealing details about Prism and other mass surveillance programs.
Snowden has said the activities are illegal and violate international agreements.
“I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity, love or friendship is recorded,” he said in a video interview published on the Guardian Web site this week. “And that’s not something I’m willing to support not something I’m willing to build and not something to live under.”