RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil's government acknowledged Monday that its top intelligence agency had spied on diplomatic targets from countries including the United States, Iran and Russia, putting Brazilian authorities in the uncomfortable position of defending their own surveillance practices after repeatedly criticizing U.S. spying operations.
Brazil's Institutional Security Cabinet, which oversees the nation's intelligence activities, contended in a statement Monday that the spying operations, involving relatively basic surveillance about a decade ago of diplomats and diplomatic properties in Brazil, were "in absolute compliance" with legislation governing such practices.
The statement came in response to a report in the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo describing how the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, commonly known as Abin, had followed some diplomats from Russia and Iran by foot and by car, photographing their movements, while also monitoring a commercial property leased by the U.S. Embassy in Brasília, the capital.
By almost any measure, such modest operations stand in sharp contrast to the sweeping international eavesdropping operations carried out by the National Security Agency. Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, recently postponed a state visit to Washington following revelations that the NSA had spied on her and the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras.
"It's kind of basic stuff when you think about it," said Fernando Sampaio, 70, Russia's honorary consul in the southern city of Porto Alegre and one of the targets of Brazil's spying program, according to the newspaper report, which was based on an Abin document.
"Governments spy; what a surprise," Mr. Sampaio, a lawyer who has long worked to open Russian markets for Brazilian beef exports, said by telephone. "I've long suspected that my phone line was tapped, and it probably still is."
Still, the report focuses new attention on Abin, an agency that has drawn scrutiny for being caught by surprise by the huge street protests that shook Brazilian cities in June and for quietly ousting an agent suspected of passing secrets to the CIA. Active intelligence officials have also publicly criticized the agency for prioritizing surveillance of Brazilian social movements.
Dean Cheves, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Brasília, said the commercial property under surveillance was used as a repeater station for walkie-talkie communications, intended to function for embassy personnel during emergencies. Brazilian telecommunications regulators had authorized the facility, he said.
Mr. Cheves declined to comment on the targeting of the property by Brazilian intelligence officials.
Brazilian intelligence officials, for their part, insisted in their statement that Abin's operations were intended to defend "national sovereignty." Referring to the revelations in the newspaper report, they also said that the leaking of classified material was illegal and that those responsible for doing so would be held accountable under Brazilian law.