Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff delivered a sizzling rebuke of America's expansive electronic spying operation on Tuesday, telling a gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly that American eavesdropping constitutes "a breach of international law and an affront to" Brazil's sovereignty.
The Brazilian president's broadside came as President Barack Obama prepared in the wings to deliver his fifth address as president to the U.N's most representative body. Rousseff, who is seeking re-election in Brazil, charged the United States with "indiscriminately" scooping up the personal data of Brazilian citizens and businesses and targeting the communications of Brasilia's government.
Last week, Rousseff snubbed the U.S. president when she indefinitely postponed a state visit to the White House over revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had aggressively targeted Brazil as part of its intelligence-gathering practices. Her visit to Washington, scheduled for late October, was supposed to be a celebration of deepening cooperation between the Western Hemisphere's two largest economies.
"Given the proximity of the scheduled state visit to Washington and in the absence of a timely investigation" into the NSA snooping allegations, her office said in a statement, "there aren't conditions for this trip to be made."
The alleged U.S. spying program in Latin America first came to light because of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and was reported by the local Brazilian press in collaboration with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who was among the first to break the NSA snooping story.
In addition to scooping up the private telephone calls, emails, and other communications between top Brazilian officials, the NSA allegedly targeted the country's largest oil company, Petrobras, through a program called Blackpearl. If proven, the Brazilian government has charged, the allegations would amount to economic espionage -- something American spies have long insisted that they never do.
"If the facts reported by the press are confirmed, it will be evident that the motive for the spying attempts is not security or the war on terrorism but strategic economic interests," Rousseff said in a statement last month. The NSA has denied that it engages in economic espionage "in any domain, including cyber."
Rousseff has since called for new regulations that would require foreign-based technology companies like Google and Facebook to set up data centers inside Brazil that are subject to local laws. It's a plan that would come at substantial economic cost to the tech companies -- and might actually make it more likely that their customers will be targeted by surveillance operations.
On Tuesday, the Brazilian president told the General Assembly that America's spying operation posed a threat to democracy throughout the world, and she proposed U.N. regulation of cyberspace to ensure the integrity of the Internet. "Without the right of privacy there is no real freedom of speech or freedom of opinion, and so there is no actual democracy," she said. And "without respect for [a nation's] sovereignty, there is no basis for proper relations among nations."
Rousseff said that her government has filed a formal protest against the United States, demanding an apology and a "guarantee that such acts will not be repeated.… Those who want a strategic partnership cannot possibly allow recurring and illegal action to go on as if they were an ordinary practice." Rousseff dismissed Washington's contention that the United States needed to monitor electronic communications as part of its global campaign to fight terrorism as "untenable. Brazil knows how to protect itself. Brazil … does not provide shelter to terrorist groups; we are democratic country."