Washington’s Prying Eyes

Edward Snowden mural. (Thierry Ehrmann / Creative Commons)

As the U.S. government maintains its uneasy silence about the kidnapping and probable murder of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico–or, for that matter, about the estimated 100 thousand Mexicans killed since the recommitment to the drug war in 2006–it is worth remembering that the United States maintains the largest and most elaborate international surveillance network in the world. Which, then, is the more troubling interpretation of events: that U.S. State Department and National Security Agency (NSA) officials know who is responsible for these horrific crimes but are choosing not to say, or that despite untold billions of dollars of investment in spy programs like PRISM and Boundless Informant, Washington still has no clue?

Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the NSA’s global surveillance practices sparked outrage around the world, but nowhere more than in Latin America, where U.S. efforts to project its influence have long been concentrated. Anger rose as the scoops piled up: that the NSA’s Fairview program colluded with local telecom companies to steal Brazilians’ Internet and phone data; that secret NSA listening stations were operating out of Panama City, Bogotá, Caracas, and Mexico City; that the Agency had tapped into the personal emails and texts of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and Mexico’s then-president Felipe Calderón; that the spying targeted not only drug trafficking and suspected terrorism but also corporate matters and everyday citizens’ private lives. Now that the dust has settled, we should ask: Did the NSA disclosures, and the criticism they provoked, represent a historic break in hemispheric relations? Or was this just business as usual, another insult added to the ongoing injury of U.S. hegemony in the Americas?

On the one hand, the NSA and other U.S. government branches, from the Central Intelligence Agency to the State Department, have been collecting voluminous data on Latin American internal affairs since their inception. Knowledge is power, and a quick trip to the U.S. National Archives confirms that the United States has always conceived of its dominance in the Americas not only as an economic, cultural, or military project, but also as an informational one.

From social scientists and anthropologists preparing analyses of on-the-ground conditions to inform policy, to friendly allies in local security forces sharing intelligence with their American counterparts, to CIA spooks forging boundary-blurring relationships while riding shotgun alongside contras and narcos, information gathering has been a constant feature of U.S. interactions with its southern neighbors. Latin Americans are well aware of the paradigm; as Argentine president Cristina Kirchner said of Snowden’s disclosures, “More than revelations, these are confirmations of what we thought was happening.”

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