RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s government acknowledged Monday that its top intelligence agency had spied on diplomatic targets from countries including the United States, Iran, and Russia, putting Brazilian authorities in the uncomfortable position of defending their own surveillance practices after repeatedly criticizing US spying operations.
Brazil’s Institutional Security Cabinet, which oversees the nation’s intelligence activities, contended in a statement Monday that the spying operations, involving relatively basic surveillance about a decade ago of diplomats and diplomatic properties in Brazil, were “in absolute compliance” with legislation governing such practices.
The statement came in response to a report in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo describing how the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, commonly known as Abin, had followed some diplomats from Russia and Iran by foot and by car, photographing their movements, while also monitoring a commercial property leased by the US Embassy in Brasília, the capital.
By almost any measure, such modest operations stand in sharp contrast to the sweeping international eavesdropping operations carried out by the National Security Agency.
Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, recently postponed a state visit to Washington after revelations that the NSA had spied on her and the Brazilian oil company Petrobras.
“It’s kind of basic stuff when you think about it,” said Fernando Sampaio, 70, Russia’s honorary consul in the southern city of Porto Alegre and one of the targets of Brazil’s spying program, according to the newspaper report, which was based on an Abin document.
“Governments spy; what a surprise,” Sampaio, a lawyer who has long worked to open Russian markets for Brazilian beef exports, said by telephone. “I’ve long suspected that my phone line was tapped, and it probably still is.”
Still, the report focuses new attention on Abin, an agency that has drawn scrutiny for being caught by surprise by the huge street protests that shook Brazilian cities in June and for quietly ousting an agent suspected of passing secrets to the CIA. Active intelligence officials have also publicly criticized the agency for prioritizing surveillance of Brazilian social movements.
Dean Cheves, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Brasília, said that the commercial property under surveillance was used as a repeater station for walkie-talkie communications, intended to function for embassy personnel during emergencies. Brazilian telecommunications regulators had authorized the facility, he said.
Cheves declined to comment on the targeting of the property by Brazilian intelligence officials.
Brazilian intelligence officials, for their part, insisted in their statement that Abin’s operations were intended to defend “national sovereignty.”
Referring to the revelations in the newspaper report, they also said that the leaking of classified material was illegal, and that those responsible for doing so would be held accountable under Brazilian law.
Rousseff has said that the NSA program, which has swept up data on billions of telephone calls and e-mails flowing through Brazil, is a violation of individual human rights.
Brazil has been targeted in part because it serves as an important transit point for trans-Atlantic fiber optic cables carrying much of the globe’s traffic.
Last week, Brazil joined Germany in asking the United Nations General Assembly to adopt a resolution calling on all countries to protect the right to privacy guaranteed under international law.
The draft emphasizes that illegal surveillance and interception of communications as well as the illegal collection of personal data “constitute a highly intrusive act that violates the right to privacy and freedom of expression and may threaten the foundations of a democratic society.”
Brazil’s Institutional Security Cabinet said Monday that it planned to prosecute anyone who may have leaked the documents to the Folha newspaper.
The Folha report detailed at least 10 intelligence operations carried out in Brasilia in 2003-04, as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was settling into office as president.