With the election of retired military officer Jair Bolsonaro to the highest civilian post in Brazil, some observers fear that the military will ascend to a position they haven’t occupied since the country’s return to democracy in 1985. Some of the changes that have fuelled such concern have taken place at Abin, the Brazilian Intelligence Agency.

The previous incarnation of Abin didn’t leave good memories, yet one could argue that was not a past life at all, but an altogether different institution. Created in 1964, the National Intelligence Service, or SNI, has given enough source for nightmares, and the one who said so was its very own Dr. Frankenstein, General Golbery do Couto e Silva, reported to have said they “created a monster.” According to journalist and researcher Elio Gaspari, author of a best-selling book series on Brazil under military rule, twenty years after the inception of SNI, Gen. Couto e Silva admitted that “We tried to create an information service, but we got screwed.”

In yet another example of his 20/20 hindsight, the general said that such a line of work “disfigures people.” That, perhaps, could be said of most work that entails secrecy and deception, but the SNI was a special case. It was espionage turned inwards, aimed at identifying and destroying the opposition while spreading enough fear to discourage any manifestation of dissent. To that end, the SNI went far beyond gathering intelligence. It persecuted artists, promoted censorship, and kidnapped and tortured antagonists of the regime. It even created its own false-flag terror attacks.

As summarised by Mr. Gaspari, the SNI’s fronts of activity were many. “It got involved in appeasing land conflicts in the Northeast and among indigenous tribes in Bahia. It directed and organized mining in the Amazon;” it used the mined gold to make money in contraband and the currency black market; it raised money through coffee exports and processed uranium; it held secret arsenals that it considered putting to use “in a megalomaniacal invasion of Portugal in 1975; it distributed TV and radio channels, financed newspapers and magazines” and its top brass covered-up more than 100 political acts of terrorism, “from exploding bombs to torching news-stands which sold leftist newspapers”.

All of this is a far cry from the current iteration of Brazilian intelligence, but a few statements and gestures by government officials suggest Abin may be once again looking for political enemies, rather than bonafide criminals.

The SNI was extinguished in 1990 by Fernando Collor de Mello and replaced by the much smaller and civilian Department of Intelligence. It was only under Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the sociologist president, that Abin was created in 1999.

Abin works under direct orders of the president, but also under congressional supervision. On paper, it is covered by checks and balances, all while protecting the necessary secrecy that is the hallmark of government surveillance. Abin’s stated mandate is intelligence and counterintelligence, in order to “further national goals,” both against foreign threats as well as in “pursuit of opportunities.” Domestically, it “focuses on the protection of the state, society, the stability of democratic institutions, and the efficiency of public administration.”

One of Abin’s most famous tasks is to vet people who are named to government positions, and subsequently inform authorities of potential conflicts of interest and crimes. Abin merely investigates and informs, as it holds no law enforcement or prosecution powers. But even that hasn’t been done well enough, and the agency has been widely criticized for not having spotted any of the recent corruption scandals that resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to both the government and national companies such as Petrobras.

The changing of the guard

Since 2016, Abin has been headed by the same man: Janér Tesh Alvarenga, a mathematician and veteran intelligence officer. The major change in direction, however, took place at the Office of Institutional Security, (GSI), to which Abin is subordinated. Although previously run by a military man, as it is now, it was the change in character of GSI chiefs that signaled a shift in how Abin will operate.

Retired General Alberto Heleno, the newly appointed head of the GSI, was the military commander of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti from June 2004 to September 2005. During his time in Haiti, Gen. Heleno commanded over 6,000 blue helmet soldiers and led an assault on Cité Soleil that has been blamed for dozens of civilian deaths.

Seen as a hardline military man, Gen. Heleno had been floated as a potential candidate to the vice-presidency during the election campaign, but Jair Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) is said to have vetoed his name. Now, in less than three months at the helm of the GSI, Gen. Heleno has made the front pages of newspapers with declarations that prompt more discomfort than security, depending on who is listening.

general augusto heleno

General Augusto Heleno

According to a report from newspaper Estadão, the GSI intends to return to its “golden years” of the military government and keep a close eye on indigenous people and the Catholic Church—historically associated with left-wing movements in Brazil, and more so now under the leadership of Pope Francis. More specifically, the article claims that the GSI is set on monitoring the upcoming Pan-Amazonian Synod, which will take place in October 2019 in Rome.

According to the Vatican, the official meeting of bishops will call for “a Church with an Amazonian face” that seeks “a model of alternative, integral, and solidarity-based development, grounded by a code of ethics that includes responsibility for an authentic, natural, and human ecology.” In other words, the synod intends to help curb deforestation and the destruction of native peoples inhabiting the Amazonian forest—an agenda seen as anathema to the right-wing government of Bolsonaro. “We want to neutralize this,” Gen. Heleno said to Estadão, criticizing the “progressive clergy” for its “interference in Brazilian domestic affairs.”

As irony would have it, however, it is another military man who is keeping Gen. Heleno in check, or so it would appear. Vice President and fellow retiree General Hamilton Mourão is widely believed to have ideological differences with Gen. Heleno, and has indeed often publicly manifested his disapproval of some iron-fisted declarations or decisions made by the president and his closest allies. In an attempt to present himself as the “voice of reason,” Gen. Mourão has played a laudable counterpart to a government riddled with errors, missteps and foot-in-mouth declarations.

But Gen. Mourão himself gave margin to fears of a return to the years of censorship, when he signed a decree increasing the number of government officials authorized to classify documents and keep them away from public scrutiny. True to form, the first person to make use of such rule was Gen. Heleno, who immediately assigned classifying powers to some officials in Abin, scaring those who value transparency and government accountability. Congress vetoed the decree, however, nullifying Gen. Heleno’s decision and prompting the VP to publicly admit that he had “lost” his first battle.

There is little doubt that Abin may need to have its role redefined, if only because there seems to be no proper integration among the several investigative and monitoring agencies and police in Brazil. The lack of communication among intelligence offices in the state apparatus makes what is an incredibly bureaucratic system even worse, and it increases the clumsiness of a service that has shown enough signs of being ineffective.

It’s worth pointing out that good intelligence is almost invisible, as successful secret operations must remain unknown by definition. In a continental-size country, it is no small feat to keep it free from terror attacks and major border skirmishes, and Abin may be able to claim some credit for this. But what about the huge drugs and arms trade, widespread organized crime, and the 60,000 homicides that haunt the country each year, of which less than 10 percent are ever solved?

Satiagraha

One event that illustrated the weakness of Abin, and the lack of integration among intelligence agencies, was revealed during the mammoth federal police investigation known as Satiagraha. The event also became a stain on Abin, perhaps more for the agency’s merits than its faults.

Launched in 2004, the Operation Satiagraha aimed at investigating massive corruption and money laundering through the sale, concession and privatization of Brazilian telecommunication companies, especially involving investment bank Opportunity and its owner, Daniel Dantas. It covered criminal actions in the governments of two different presidents, and implicated pension funds of state-owned companies and several government officials at many levels of the administration: from police officers to ministers, to employees of the judiciary and at least one judge in the Supreme Court.

daniel dantas

In the thoroughly researched, page-turning book Operation Banker – The Secret Evidence of the Satiagraha Operation, journalist Rubens Valente begins telling the story from a scene that should only belong in a movie. In it, chief police investigator Protógenes Queiroz and a coworker sit at a restaurant table with an envoy of banker Daniel Dantas, sent to bribe them into silence. Mr. Queiroz, then and after, kept the justice officials overseeing the investigation duly informed of his modus operandi and of the tools he used to produce evidence against the suspects.

All the while, Daniel Dantas had at least two offices of Kroll Investigations illegally eavesdropping on phone calls, emails and even in-person conversations in Italy, Brazil and the Cayman Islands. Those were used to extort officials involved in the investigation against Mr. Dantas and his bank. When extortion wasn’t enough, Dantas resorted to fake news planted in the media against judges, policemen, and government officials.

Through his criminal campaign of intimidation, Mr. Dantas managed to destroy many reputations, while he didn’t seem to care at all about his own. His lack of shame proved successful. Although he became notorious for being a rare Brazilian banker taken to prison, he was released soon after. The reason for this may be explained by one of his famous lines: “I won’t go down alone. If I fall, I will take [the political establishment] down with me,” citing the three most powerful parties at the time: the Workers’ Party, the Social Democracy Party, and the now-called Democratas party.

Despite all the evidence produced by the tireless work of underpaid police officials, what saved Mr. Dantas and the politicians who should have gone down with him was a technicality that proves Brazilian intelligence is not only uncoordinated— this clumsiness is mandated by law. The deus ex-machina that invalidated years of strenuous work was a few wiretaps carried out by Abin and the welcome participation of some of its personnel in aid of the federal police. In other words, an unusual and necessary partnership between Abin and the police was used as the excuse to invalidate all evidence of crimes unearthed by Satiagraha.

When he took over at GSI, General Heleno took a jab at former president Dilma Rousseff declaring that the Brazilian intelligence system was “melted down by Ms. Rousseff, who didn’t believe in intelligence.” But the general was being unwittingly kind, as Dilma did put Abin to work—only not where it should have.

Elected by the Workers’ Party, Ms. Rousseff’s administration sent Abin to investigate indigenous leaders and NGOs working against the construction of major infrastructure projects in the Amazon, including the Belo Monte Dam—an enterprise that future investigations revealed to be overflowing with corruption and irregularities. When it came to counterintelligence, however, the agency clearly failed, as the U.S. National Security Agency was easily able to wiretap government officials—as the Snowden leaks revealed. Even Ms. Rousseff phone had been tapped.

According to Abin officials, she only used her encrypted phone once—to order pizza.

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PowerMar 18, 2019

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BY Paula Schmitt

Paula Schmitt is an award-winning journalist, former Middle East correspondent for Radio France and SBT TV, author of the novel Eudemonia and the non-fiction book Spies. Follow her on Twitter