NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s “Open Letter to the People of Brazil” made headlines this week, with many U.S. and international media outlets characterizing it as a quid-pro-quo offer of help investigating NSA surveillance in Brazil in return for asylum. In an article about the letter, Folha de Sao Paulo – which also first published the letter -- stated, “US espionage whistleblower Edward Snowden has promised to cooperate with investigations into the actions of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Brazil. In order to do so, he wants political asylum from Dilma Rousseff's government in return.”
“Snowden to Brazil: Swap you spying help for asylum,” read a USA Today headline for a story about the letter (even though the article stated midway-through that “It was not entirely clear from the letter whether Snowden was suggesting that the South American nation should grant him asylum in return for help in probing claims that the U.S. has spied on Brazil”). The Financial Times ran a similar headline: “Edward Snowden offers Brazil help on spying in return for asylum.” CNN reported that Snowden was offering “a deal”: “Help fighting NSA surveillance in exchange for political asylum.”
But in his letter, Snowden does not make his offer of assistance contingent on the asylum. He points out that the U.S. government has constrained his ability to travel, and will do so “[u]ntil a country grants permanent political asylum.”
It is also clear that Snowden is responding, in part, to requests from Brazilian senators for help in investigating U.S. spying in Brazil, which he says he is unable to do while in Russia. As Folha reported:
"Many Brazilian senators have asked my help with their investigations into suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens. I expressed my willingness to assist, where it is appropriate and legal, but unfortunately the US government has been working very hard to limit my ability to do so," said the letter.
Snowden was referring to an open [Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry] in the Senate to investigate the activities of the NSA in Brazil, which included monitoring the phone calls and emails of both Dilma and Petrobras.
According to him, it was not possible to collaborate because of his precarious legal situation and with only temporary asylum granted by Russia until mid-2014.
"Until a country grants permanent asylum, the US government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak," Snowden said in the letter.
Snowden’s letter, then, can be seen in part as response to Brazilian senators who reached out to him, requesting his help. By addressing the letter to the “Brazilian people” and not just those senators, however, the letter was by definition public, allowing Snowden to explain his case to the Brazilian public, as well as the senators, President Rousseff, and the entire government as well.
Glenn Greenwald, who has broken several stories on NSA surveillance programs based on documents that Snowden has revealed, said that Snowden’s letter was “wildly misreported”:
“This is being wildly misreported,” the lawyer and journalist said in an email to BuzzFeed. “He already requested asylum months ago to Brazil and several other governments, and it’s still pending.”
“Brazilian Senators and other officials have been asking him to participate in the criminal investigation in Brazil over U.S. surveillance, so he wrote an open letter to them and the people of Brazil explaining why he currently wasn’t able,” Greenwald said.
Snowden’s motivation in writing to Brazil was partly due to the conditions he agreed to for temporary asylum in Russia, as journalist (and Greenwald’s partner) David Miranda pointed out:
“He is on a temporary visa in Russia, and as a condition of his stay there he cannot talk to the press or help journalists or activists better understand how the US global spying machine works …
"If Snowden was in Brazil, it is possible that he could do more to help the world understand how the NSA and its allies are invading the privacy of people around the world, and how we can protect ourselves He cannot do it in Russia."
The asylum proposal has also been met with more support in Brazil than might be suggested by some of the media coverage of the story. As the New York Times notes, “In Brazil, a Senate committee investigating the N.S.A.’s activities convened on Tuesday, with prominent senators expressing support for giving asylum to Mr. Snowden. In July, the Brazilian Senate’s committee on foreign relations and defense unanimously recommended granting asylum to Mr. Snowden.” Folha reported, however, opposition and government caution on the asylum idea, stating, “There is concern over the impact the decision may have on Brazil's relations with the U.S., one it's major trade partners.”
Brazil has been far less dependent on trade with the U.S. than many countries in Latin America, however. As we noted in a 2008 research paper, Brazil’s exports to the U.S. were just 1.9 percent of GDP in 2007. By comparison, Venezuelan exports to the U.S. were 15 percent of GDP in 2007, Costa Rica’s were 17 percent and Mexico’s were 21.4 percent, respectively. Brazil’s foreign minister at the time, Celso Amorim cited the paper in explaining Brazil’s "scarce interest" in pursuing a NAFTA-style trade agreement with the U.S.: heavy reliance on the U.S. market made some countries more vulnerable to the economic downturn than others. Brazil’s exports to the U.S. have declined since, to just 11.3 percent of total exports (down from 16.1 percent in 2007) and 1.2 percent of GDP, in 2012.
In a related development, as Folha described concerns over the impact an asylum offer for Snowden might have on Brazil-U.S. commercial relations, the Brazilian government this week passed over U.S. company Boeing in order to contract with Sweden’s Saab for a $4.5 billion deal for a fleet of fighter jets. While AP reported that “Defense Minister Celso Amorim said the choice …was made following ‘careful study and consideration, taking into account performance, transfer of technology and cost, not just of acquisition but of maintenance,’” a Reuters article yesterday cited an unnamed Brazilian government source as saying “[t]he NSA problem ruined it for the Americans.”
Ironically, the New York Times reported three years ago that "State Department and Boeing officials, in interviews last month, acknowledged the important role the United States government plays in helping them sell commercial airplanes..." Now the NSA’s spying on Brazil has cost the deal for Boeing, which the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports “could have supported thousands of jobs in St. Louis.”
Rights watchdog Amnesty International said Brazil should give "full consideration" to Snowden's claim for asylum.
"It is his right to seek international protection, and it's also Brazil's international obligation to review and decide on his request under the refugee convention," Amnesty said in a statement.
Amnesty’s statement also included this quote from Brazil director Atila Roque: "Edward Snowden is a whistleblower who has disclosed an unlawful global digital surveillance program that has violated the right to privacy of millions of people[.] As such, he has grounds to seek asylum abroad out of well-founded fears the USA would persecute him for his actions."