OTTAWA, (Reuters) – Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed concern yesterday about allegations that Canada’s signals intelligence agency had targeted Brazil and said officials were reaching out to their Brazilian counterparts.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Monday demanded Canada explain a media report that said the Communications Security Establishment Canada (known as CSE or CSEC) – the equivalent of the top-secret U.S. National Security Agency – had spied on Brazil’s Mines and Energy Ministry.
The affair is a potential embarrassment for Harper, who visited Brazil in 2011 and held talks with Rousseff in a bid to deepen ties with a regional power that is both a trading partner and a competitor.
“Canadian officials are reaching out very proactively to their counterparts … I’m obviously very concerned about this story and some of the reports around it, very concerned,” Harper told reporters in Indonesia on the sidelines of an Asian summit.
He added: “That said, you know I cannot comment on national security operations.”Harper did not give details of which Brazilian officials had been approached.
A spokesman for Foreign Minister John Baird said Canada’s ambassador to Brazil “speaks with the foreign ministry on a regular and ongoing basis” but declined to comment further.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, who is ultimately responsible for CSE, declined to discuss the allegations when speaking to reporters on Monday.
There could be worse to come for Ottawa. Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke the story with the aid of former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that he had evidence of more spying abroad by Canada.
CSE is part of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network that also includes the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia.
Last month Rousseff canceled a state visit to the United States in October over revelations the NSA had spied on her personal communications and those of other Brazilians.
Wesley Wark, one of Canada’s leading intelligence experts, told Reuters he doubted CSE had planned to steal Brazilian commercial secrets and then pass them onto Canadian firms.
“It was probably something assigned to them to work on by their Five Eyes partners, presumably the NSA, which of course has already been implicated in Brazilian intelligence gathering,” said Wark, a professor at the University of Ottawa. “I don’t think there’s much indication CSEC has been devoting resources – particularly after 9/11 – to economic intelligence gathering,” he said, adding it was quite possible Harper did not know about the Brazil operation.
Bilateral relations have improved markedly from the period around 2001, when the two sides were involved in disputes over Brazilian beef exports and whether Canada was illegally subsidizing foreign sales of airliners.
“Brazil is a priority market for Canada. It is a major economic player, not just in South America, but also globally, as our 11th largest trading partner globally,” Canada’s foreign trade ministry said in a statement in July this year.