According to US NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden and published recently by the New York Times, Venezuela was one of the key targets of the agency’s spying. The US appeared to be particularly concerned with Venezuela’s regional influence.
The New York Times (NYT) published an official NSA document on 2 November which summarises the agency’s priorities in 2007 for the next 12 to 18 months in terms of signals intelligence (SIGINT) or electronic eavesdropping.
The document or “Strategic Mission List” details 16 priority “topics” such as terrorism, homeland security, and weapons of mass destruction, and also six “enduring targets”. The enduring targets are six countries the NSA believes it needs to “target holistically because of their strategic importance”. Venezuela is mentioned as one of the six “enduring targets” as well as in many of the 16 topic areas.
The NSA’s objective with Venezuela in 2007 as an “enduring target” was to enable US “policymakers in [sic] preventing Venezuela from achieving its regional leadership objective and pursuing policies that negatively impact US global interests”. The NSA focused on providing “US decision makers with a holistic SIGINT perspective of regional trends and developments, assessing and/or predicting strategic direction, plans, intentions and capabilities that impact US interests”.
The NSA was, in general, focused on Venezuela’s regional power and “[Hugo] Chavez’s progress in his initiatives to pursue regional power objectives in the political, economic, energy, and ideological arenas”. The NSA that year also decided to focus on assessing Venezuela’s “regime stability, particularly in the energy sector” and the “depth and breadth” of its relations with Iran, Cuba, China, and Russia.
The other countries it decided were “enduring targets” were China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Russia.
Venezuela was also one of the main countries mentioned in the 16 topic areas. In the area of State/Political Stability, where the NSA’s objective was to provide “warning of impending state instability”, Venezuela, Bolivia, and “Latin American Bolivarian Developments” were seen as a priority for monitoring “internal political activities that could result in crisis”.
Similarly, the document also listed Venezuela as one of the areas where the NSA was “monitoring regional tensions that could escalate to conflict/crisis” and it noted its concern about how such a crisis in Venezuela could “impact on the surrounding region”.
In the “Information Operations” topic, it is clear that the NSA engaged in “military deception” (MILDEC), “psychological operations” (PSYOP) and “inter-agency Strategic Communication … to influence target behaviour and activities” in order to mislead their so called adversaries, in Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, and China.
Venezuela was also on the NSA’s list of countries where it “ensures diplomatic advantage for the US” in foreign policy by monitoring diplomatic communications.
In its article about the leaked documents, the NYT further described a PowerPoint presentation from August 2010 on the “Development of the Venezuelan Economic Mission”. According to the NYT, “The NSA was tracking billions of dollars flowing to Caracas in loans from China (radar systems and oil drilling), Russia (MIG fighter planes and shoulder-fired missiles) and Iran (a factory to manufacture drone aircraft)”.
The newspaper also claims that the NSA observed Venezuela’s Finance and Planning Ministry, monitoring the governmental and personal emails of the top 10 Venezuelan economic officials. “An NSA officer in Texas, in other words, was paid each day to peruse the private messages of obscure Venezuelan bureaucrats, hunting for tidbits [sic] that might offer some tiny policy edge,” the NYT stated.
Venezuelan government reaction
Yesterday Venezuela’s foreign minister Elias Jaua reacted to the new leak. “It’s unacceptable that they spy on us… and on any government,” he said. “It’s not a surprise for us, we know it, and it’s precisely [this sort of thing] that has meant that the relationship between Venezuela and the United States is at the level that it is at”.
Venezuela and the US haven’t had ambassadors in each other’s countries since 2010. In October this year, Venezuela also expelled three US diplomats, including its Chargé d’Affaires, accusing them of being involved in a destabilisation plot. The next day the US then expelled three Venezuelan diplomats, including Chargé d’Affaires Calixto Ortega.
Rodrigo Cabezas, who was minister of finances in 2007 and therefore likely to have been one of the ten civil servants spied on, said, “For us it’s clear that the North America spying system violates article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights… every country in Latin America and the Caribbean…should take precautions to…guarantee that the transnationals who manage information don’t lend themselves to spying on citizens and their governments”.