Revelations over the weekend that the National Security Agency was collecting information on a Brazilian oil company have led to allegations that NSA is using the cover of terrorism investigations to conduct economic espionage.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper on Sunday strongly rebuked that characterization.
“What we do not do, as we have said many times, is use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of — or give intelligence we collect to — U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line,” he said in a statement posted to the intelligence community’s Tumblr account.
Sunday night, Brazil’s Globo television reported the U.S. government was spying on Brazil’s state-run Petrobras oil company, citing classified documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. NSA has insisted its surveillance programs combat terrorist attacks and international crime. The new documents suggest in this process, the agency collects information on multinational companies.
Clapper defended the practice and explained the government’s rationale.
“One, it could provide the United States and our allies early warning of international financial crises which could negatively impact the global economy,” he said. “It also could provide insight into other countries’ economic policy or behavior which could affect global markets.”
Terrorist financing often involves international money laundering, Clapper added.
“Since 9/11, the intelligence community has found success in disrupting terror networks by following their money as it moves around the globe,” he said. “International criminal organizations, proliferators of weapons of mass destruction, illicit arms dealers or nations that attempt to avoid international sanctions can also be targeted in an effort to aid America’s and our allies’ interests.”
But the Brazil incident was not specifically addressed. The slide with the information — from a 2012 computer surveillance training presentation — also indicated NSA targets the private networks at Google, the French foreign ministry and SWIFT, a company providing secure communications between financial institutions.
The revelations have heightened criticisms of U.S. surveillance efforts for several reasons. First, U.S.-Brazil relations are already tenuous. Before the most recent revelations, Brazil President Dilma Rousseff had already charged the U.S. with using its intelligence agencies for commercial gain after documents showed the U.S. gathers more data in Brazil than in any other Latin American country, including direct spying of Rousseff.
Second, U.S.-European economic relations are also strained. Officials in countries such as Germany have said the U.S. is getting “dishonest advantages” from its surveillance programs. “The [European Union] is not a supporter of terrorism, but is indeed a strong competitor in the global economy,” said Hans Michelbach, chairman of Germany’s conservative Christian Social Union’s small business group, in an interview with German international broadcast network Deutsche Welle.
And if it’s not the U.S. government using trade secrets to its advantage, countries fear it could be any one of the millions of contractors working with the government. This concern has put a damper on potential trade agreements between European countries and the U.S., according to German officials.
For Clapper, the practice is about ensuring national security, not gathering trade secrets.
“The intelligence community’s efforts to understand economic systems and policies and monitor anomalous economic activities is critical to providing policy makers with the information they need to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of our national security,” he said.