Puerto Rico mentioned as part of NSA spying revealed by Snowden

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Some of the documents leaked by whistleblower and ex-employee of the United States National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Edward J. Snowden mention Puerto Rico as a center of covert spying for several Latin American countries.

According to news reports on the web newspaper sites of Brazil’s O Globo, Spain’s El Pais and England’s The Guardian about documents provided by Snowden about the NSA and the CIA, both agencies maintained a joint operation from the US Navy Base located in the Sabana Seca ward of the Toa Baja town in Puerto Rico.

This operation in Puerto Rico served to coordinate with other offices in Brasilia, Bogotá, Caracas, México City and Panamá City in which a program named Fornstat was used to intercept billions of private phone calls, email and text messages and other Internet communications.

Since news of the Snowden leak over the first July weekend, the Brazilian and Colombian Governments have officially called for explanations from the United States over the alleged telecommunications prying of citizens outside the latter’s oversight.

One of the news articles published by O Globo claims that most of the phone and Internet spying was done in Brazil, followed by Colombia, the closest Latin American ally of the United States, with whom it has strategic agreements to fight drug smuggling.

The news piece adds that the NSA intensified its eavesdropping in Colombia and Venezuela through the use of the Boundless Informant Program while President Hugo Chavez was dying from an incurable cancer in recent months.

Another article published by El País says the cyber communications were monitored under the PRISM Program with the aid of such web sites as Facebook and Google, something that these companies have denied. Other outlets have alleged that giants such as Microsoft (owner of Hotmail and Outlook) and YouTube as NSA and CIA collaborators.

El País says that some of the eavesdropping was done with the X-Keystroke system, under which the messages and calls were identified by the conversation language and was used in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and most of the Central American countries.

A piece by The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald on July 6, and in which he provides a link to another run by O Globo under his byline, says that billions of phone calls and emails monitored by the NSA and a major global telecommunications company were accomplished using the Fairview Program.

According to Greenwald, this program “erodes, if not eliminates, the ability to use the internet with any remnant of privacy or personal security. It vests the US government with boundless power over those to whom it has no accountability. It permits allies of the US – including aggressively oppressive ones – to benefit from indiscriminate spying on their citizens’ communications”.

The translation of the O Globo article published on July 7 states that, although the NSA budget is secret, the Federation of American Scientists estimates that it spent $75 billion last year. It’s also said that it has about 35,200 employees on its payroll and has strategic partnerships with more than 80 of the major global corporations of telecommunications, Internet, network infrastructure, equipment, operative systems and computer applications.

The Guardian ran a story on July 6 in which it states that the PRISM program allows the NSA access to the voice mails and chat areas of web site giants such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft and YouTube.

Some of the above mentions stories make reference to the NATO signing nations program known as Echelon and which had its headquarters in the town of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, under the jurisdiction of the United States Navy.

An article published by Spain’s El Mundo newspaper in January 2000 states that Echelon is capable of recognizing spoken and written words on phone conversations and fax, text and emails and phone messages. Other web sites claim that Echelon can even acknowledge the words better than the human ear.

Oscar J. Serrano, codirector of the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, wrote a series of news articles about Echelon for the Primera Hora newspaper in about 2000.

Although the Communications Group Operations at Sabana Seca Navy Base in Toa Baja has been closed for several years, there still a huge circle made out of over 40 meter high antennas en the Ingenio ward in Toa Baja and giant white geodesic domes in the Punta Salinas beach in the same town that reportedly belong to the Echelon system.

Information gathered through the Internet establishes that Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States formed Echelon during the 60’s, during the high of the Cold War, to intercept trunk communications from under the sea international phone cables and satellite transmitions.

O Globo mentions that the NSA and the CIA have operated the Fornstat Collection Operations from Sabana Seca, in reference to Toa Baja, as part of their joint web of 16 units of data retrieved from other nations satellites.

A declassified document about the History of the Air Intelligence Agency dated around 1990 makes a reference to Raytheon Corporation employees operating one of the systems sensors under a contract with the Electronic Systems Center Group of the Navy Security and the NSA.

No one has been able to confirm whether Echelon is still operating in Toa Baja since de closure of the US Navy Base in Sabana Seca.

Moisés Quiñones, special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations in Puerto Rico assigned as a spokesperson for the agency, stated to the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo that regulations inhibited him from commenting about Snowden claims about Echelon or telecommunication interceptions. Quiñones added that the FBI never confirms nor denies about ongoing investigations neither can divulge its investigative techniques.

Snowden, who worked in technology of information for the NSA in Japan and for the CIA and thereafter for both agencies’ contractor Dell Corporation and Booz Allen Hamilton was fired by the latter and charged with espionage by the United States Government in mid-June.

Since his claims about the NSA’s spying on private citizens were published by The Guardian, he fled his residence in Hawaii for Hong Kong, where he hid for several days, and has since been reportedly awaiting in the Moscow Airport for a nation to accept his political asylum bid from one of the 20 countries to which he has applied his petition.

The Bolivian, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan Presidents have granted Snowden political asylum and his main obstacle is travelling to one of those countries from Moscow after his US passport was revoked because of the espionage charges filed in his country.

Tahani Shayeb Barakat and Ezequiel Rodríguez Andino contributed to this report.