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Die Hard

Authoritarianism still reigns in the Brazilian information service

From biblical times – when Moses sent a representative from each one the tribes under his command to spy on the lands of Canaan – up until today, we have a vast reference archive of spying activities, linked to the start of military field campaigns and afterwards also to politics and finally encompassing power as a whole –, preached the manual of the Information Course of the Upper School of War in 1967, further remembering that at the same time, “Noah sent out a pigeon to see if the waters had subsided on the face of the Earth”. The biblical justification did not disguise the original sin of the poor training given to information agents: the need is to spy, but contrary to the past, the focus is not on war but on the control of power. “The ‘external’ enemy, considered the target of the intelligence services of democratic countries abroad, meant in Brazil, Chile and Argentina, anybody who was ‘external’ to the center of power. It was from those ‘excluded from power’ who were sought out to protect the State, by way of commonplace violence and of a culture of government secrets”, says Priscila Antunes, the author of the research work entitled, Intelligence Services of the Southern Cone, funded by FAPESP, a comparative study about the legacies of transitions to democracy in these three countries. The result is frightening: little changed with the end of dictatorships and the “threat” is as yet “internal”.

“Democracy needs civil control over military power, and the more complex situation of having an effective political control over the civil and military intelligence services”, the researcher warns. In  Ministério dio Silêncio (Ministry of Silence), recently launched by the publisher Editora Record, the journalist Lucas Figueiredo reveals that in October 2003, in full flight of the Lula government, the Brazilian Information Agency (Abin), founded in 1999, during  a meeting to discuss the possibilities of cooperation between the intelligence services of South America, in the final report included among the current “threats” the “social movements, especially the organizations that had dealt with the question of poverty”. The National Security Doctrine, idealized by the military regimes, may well have gone out of fashion, but the “monster” – the nickname given by general Golbery do Couto e Silva on the founding of the National Information Service (SNI) –, as yet in a new mould, remains active. “The organ looked for the enemies of the State within the frontiers of the country and did not see that the greater threat was always outside of itself. But the existence of the secret service, as it finds itself in 2005, is the signal that Brazil has come out of the dictatorship, but has not as yet arrived at full democracy”, evaluates Figueiredo. Is it really necessary to watch?

“Intelligence is extremely useful for democracy assuming that it acts in an efficient form in the evaluation of threats, which today are more and more diversified. This is a reality to be absorbed by the politicians and common citizens”, explains Priscila. “But democratic control is fundamental, since only by way of the development of efficient control mechanisms we can avoid that democracy and intelligence turn themselves into antagonistic terms”, she evaluates. The risks are great, both from the manipulation of the ruling classes, interested in the maximization of power, to the independence of the intelligence organs (which occurred during the dictatorship), since they have a notable capacity for transforming themselves into a parallel power within the State. Unfortunately, recent history shows that both the Executive and the Legislative branches do not have an interest in getting involved with this “creature”: “The elaboration of pacts that would condition the transition in Brazil allowed military autonomy in the definition of its missions and areas in which it acted. Civil inertia does not only allow that the military define the autonomous form of its focus of attention, as is verified with their perspectives”, the researcher noted. “In Brazil, as well having a badly elaborated intelligence law, one doesn’t note in the Congress any real interest in legislating this issue. The illegal actions of these institutions, in order to achieve political or private objectives, are under the responsibility both of those who carry out the action and of those who control these organisms. Intelligence services without controls threaten democracy” One need to oversee those who are overseeing us.

Indeed, the State has been shirking this responsibility since the beginning: The first Brazilian secret service was founded in 1927, by Washington Luis, in order to investigate the political adversaries of the president and to spy workers on strike. “It was born with a vice that the organ has carried with it for always: an excessively wide mandate, made to measure so that the government could use it to act against whoever it wanted. In the majority of cases against the people”, says Figueiredo. The “monster” was at its worst in its adolescence: Presidents Vargas and afterwards Dutra, he explains, militarized the institution and molded it according to the parameters of the Americans facing the Cold War and the fight against communism. Consequently, in the manuals of the Upper School of War, the Brazilian people became to be described as the potential enemy of the motherland, the basis of the National Security Doctrine, the country seen through military eyes. But neither could the civil government of president Juscelino Kubitschek resist external pressures, and, leaving his Bossa-Nova facet aside, he gave official form to the so-called Federal Service of Information and Counter Information (Sfuci), the “father” of the SNI and the “school” for minister Golbery and general Figueiredo. “In the strange happenings of the JK government, considered to be the most democratic in our history, the ‘monster’ was being created”, points out Figueiredo.

After serving president Jânio Quadros and helping to get rid of Jango, the Sfuci was terminated by President Castello Branco, who put the SNI in its place, based on a three-page document set out by Minster Golbery. With autonomous funding and its head elevated to the status of a State Minister, the service was the only organ of the Executive that did not suffer any type of external control. Thus, like today, notes Priscila, the Legislative has not shown an interest in controlling the institution, which was created to control a lot and not to be held responsible for anything. But: in the opposite direction to what occurs in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany, which do not allow that the secret services to have both an internal and external action, the SNI brings together these two functions. “It looked like the KGB of the URSS and even reached having greater power than the communist organization”, the researcher comments.

Golbery went even further and gave the SNI a new prerogative: interfere directly in the politics of the government. The State, little by little, was being swallowed by the “monster”. Which didn’t remain on its own for very long. During the governments of presidents Costa e Silva and Médici (who had been the head of the SNI), the Army Information Center (CIE), the Navy Information Center (Cenimar), the Air Force Information and Security Center (Cisa) and the DOI and Codi, forming the so-called information community, responsible for the bloody repression of the military regime, were added to it.

The unexpected problem was that the “community” turned itself into a parallel State. Thus, during the Geisel government, when Golbery realized that the time had come to dismantle the apparatus, the “monster” reacted. Even with the communist “threat”  extinguished, the service fabricated inexistent dangers in order to keep itself alive and, more importantly, free of judgments concerning its activities within the possibility of the democratization of the country. Fear did not arise. José Sarney, the first civil president after the end of the dictatorship, adored the efficiency of the SNI and used it, without ceremony, to monitor strike movements. “The organ had still concentrated the majority of its resources on keeping watch on groups capable of changing the direction of national politics”, notes Priscila. Curiously, it was a personal vendetta that put an end to the service. The then governor Fernando Collor was impeded from visiting president Sarney in the Planalto Palace by the head of the SNI, Ivan de Souza Mendes (who had become furious with the criticisms made by the “candidate” to the president), and Collor de Mello promised to finish with the organ if elected president. He kept his promise and in 1990 the “monster” stopped existing. At least in appearance. The new Intelligence Department maintained a good part of the framework of the dead organ, continued without any supervisory control, there were only promises from Collor de Mello of a supervisory commission from Congress, and still kept watch on the opposition.

The interregnum Itamar Franco served only to bring the military once more into the service, and the politician from Minas Gerais knew how to use them to keep the unions, religious movements and especially the Workers party under control. The election of Fernando Henrique Cardoso gave another direction to the service, since the new president, in spite of his desire to strengthen the organ, attempted, for the first time, to put in place mechanisms for external supervision. Re-baptized as Abin, the information service, it was under the direction of General Alberto Cardoso who promised “to act with strict observance on civil rights and individual guarantees, to be faithful to institutions and ethical principles”. But the military insisted, with the approval of the president, that it was still necessary to keep watch on “national groups that could be a threat to the continuity of the State and the interests of the Brazilian nation”. In spite of the creation of the Ministry of Defense, Abin served the president and the national defense policy instituted by him, according to researcher Priscila, as it had been established in vague terms and was reaffirming the capacity of the military to exercise functions linked to the internal policy of the country, “and not to cause any type of significant change in the performance of the intelligence service”. “The military maintained the power to decide in an autonomous and secure manner several of their interests”, the researcher evaluated.  Once more the Legislative branch of government remained quiet.

The Lula government has not changed the structure designed by Fernando Henrique Cardoso and even took up an old practice of the SNI: the legalizing of telephone wire tapping by the service, which still continues to operate internally. Indeed, today the president has as his security advisor a past agent of the “monster” who in 1993, saying he was a journalist, infiltrated into a closed meeting of the PT party in the city of Vitoria in order to spy on Lula. “It was only recently that the government made changes in the direction of the Abin, after the scandal of Waldomiro Diniz, filmed asking for a kickback and whose filming had the participation of Abin agents”, evaluates Priscila. These changes could be the result of a civil war through which the organ has been passing, in which there was fencing between the old guard of the SNI, fighting to maintain their positions, and the new civilians, hired through public civil service exams (from 1996 on), who had resented the lack of opportunities of promotion and of segregation by the “old brigade”. The dispute, the journalist evaluates, has fed the many leaks of secret information to the media, including the recording of the corruption by Valdomiro Diniz. “Only now has the government cottoned on to the danger of the option of giving the management of sectors to corporations themselves and of how it could transform itself into a victim of this policy neglect”,  explains Priscila. “Amazingly as it might appear, after a year and a half of his term, the president has not nominated anyone of his confidence to coordinate national intelligence. Even the nomination of general Félix appears subordinate to a policy of ‘peace and love’ with the military areas more than regulating them via professional or political criteria. If those responsible for the conduct of the intelligence service continue with omission of their duties, this could lead to a crisis in the political system, undesirable for Brazil.”