EXCLUSIVE: Southern Command rebuilds intelligence relationship with Brazil years after Snowden damage

South America’s largest country by landmass and economy is also a flashpoint for criminal organizations, narcotics trafficking, and terrorism financing.

Brazil once provided vital intelligence to prevent transnational threats from reaching the U.S. homeland. Then, Edward Snowden published a trove of classified information in 2013, revealing wiretaps of then-Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Intelligence cooperation and military partnerships with Brazil broke down, and the United States lost a key partner.

But a renewed security partnership under a new Brazilian president is one of U.S. Southern Command’s chief priorities, its leader, Adm. Craig Faller, told the Washington Examiner in an exclusive interview.

“We get our best intelligence from our very capable partners,” Faller said on a Zoom call from Southcom headquarters in Miami.

With a narcotics fight in full force across the Caribbean and eastern Pacific and gaping intelligence holes in places such as Venezuela, protecting the homeland requires partners and trust, he explained.

“Intelligence is foundational to anything we do, any decision I make,” Faller said.

Former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and 33-year CIA veteran David Shedd said the relationship with Brazil is vital in the hemisphere.

“In Brazil, it’s very important for us to have an intelligence relationship with them because of the tri-border area,” Shedd, now a Heritage Foundation visiting fellow, told the Washington Examiner.

The porous border region of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay is a center point of money laundering, false documents, terrorism financing, and other illicit activities.

Even 9/11 architect Khalid Sheik Mohammed is known to have spent time there.

“None of these things stay within their borders. They become transnational organized crime,” Shedd said.

“The damage done by Edward Snowden is enormous,” he added. “So, when Dilma did not want the exercises or the visits, and then the intel sharing, that tone came from the top.”

Rebuilding a relationship with a partner country is a whole of government effort, but the security interests are coordinated in large part by military to military cooperation. Southcom has the lead for the countries of the Caribbean, as well as those in Central and South America.

“This is a focus of United States Southern Command with any country, with Brazil as one of our key partners,” said Faller, who noted that a Brazilian two-star general will be joining Southern Command as a liaison, putting Brazil on par with America’s closest partner in the region, Colombia.

“We have tangibly thickened our intelligence sharing processes and procedures and actually our understanding, and we benefit greatly from that,” Faller said.

A military president

Former army captain and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is known for inflammatory statements, his kinship with President Trump, and his controversial pro-military stance. That has included speaking positively about Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, a time when freedom of speech was stifled and democracy advocates disappeared.

While Brazil is now one of the most vibrant democracies in the region, strengthening ties under Bolsonaro is delicate, Faller explained.

“I stay out of the noise,” he said.

“We focus on strengthening our partnership, whether it’s intel sharing, whether it’s the ability to exercise together, planning, we stay out of policy and politics,” he said. “Their officers, just like ours, they swear an oath, and they’re swearing their oath to the constitution.”

Shedd, who dined with Bolsonaro during his 2019 visit to Washington, said the Brazilian president is eager to strengthen ties to the U.S. at all levels, and that benefits people in the U.S.

“He had just a really big vision of putting Brazil on the path to a strategic partnership with the United States,” he explained, describing economic, military, and judicial cooperation.

“In the military area, he very much wanted to see a reversal of the agenda with [former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva] first and then Dilma afterwards (which, of course, was rife with corruption) and really rebuild that relationship,” he said.

Bolsonaro’s visit to Southcom in March, the first by a Brazilian president, while it later caused a scare when his press chief tested positive for the coronavirus, served as a sign of the rising military relationship with the South American giant.

Strengthening partnerships with countries that Faller refers to as “neighbors” compensates where resources fall short of U.S. Central Command, which manages the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which counters China’s influence in the Pacific.

Russia made more port visits to Latin America in 2019 than it had in decades, Faller said, while China has ramped up its gifts of military equipment, including trucks and small boats, to countries in the region.

“We just don’t have a lot of assets down there to see what they’re doing,” Faller said of the great power rivals. “So, a lot of this is we pick up bits and pieces and pull together.”

Shedd said in a country such as Venezuela, where the U.S. no longer has a diplomatic presence, relationships with neighboring nations fill intelligence gaps.

“Presence matters,” he said. “And when you don’t have it, we do it by a proxy with friends and allies.”

Shedd explained, “Colombia, Brazil may be running sources inside Venezuela. They have a presence in Venezuela that we may not have.”

Faller used a sports analogy to make the case for continued regional engagement and strengthening partnerships to counter great power influence and regional security threats.

“Our partners want to do that with us. We just have to be there,” he said. “I never was in a sporting game yet that I won by not being on the field.”

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Author: Washington Examiner


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