Report: Brazil monitored French spies, suspecting them of sabotage at rocket launch site

Brazil's intelligence agency monitored French spies it suspected of involvement in the 2003 explosion at a satellite launch base, the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper said Tuesday, though it was finally determined they played no role.

The newspaper said it had obtained documents from the Brazilian Intelligence Agency that showed its agents had tracked French spies near the Alcantara Rocket Launch Center in the northeastern state of Maranhao a year before the blast. When the explosion occurred, killing 21 engineers and technicians, suspicion fell on the French.

Citing unnamed sources, the newspaper said the agency known as ABIN carried out at least three operations against what it called a "network of spies" from France's foreign intelligence agency and its activities in the French-Brazilian Technical and Scientific Cooperation Center and in Brazil's National Space Research Institute.

But it said no evidence of sabotage was found and the explosion finally was blamed on poor maintenance and mechanical failures.

The base, which is being rebuilt, could be a rival to France's Guiana Space Center in Kourou in neighboring French Guiana.

The Alcantara center is just 2.3 degrees south of the equator. Because the earth's rotation is faster at the equator, rockets can be launched into space using less fuel and with heavier payloads. Alcantara-based rockets could be sent into space using 13 percent less fuel than those from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and 31 percent less than from Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome.

The French Embassy said it would not comment on the report.

Brazil's Institutional Security Cabinet, which oversees ABIN, said that the operations cited in the Folha report "follow Brazilian law for the protection of national interests."

It was the same comment it made on Monday when Brazil confirmed a Folha d S. Paulo report that said ABIN spied on U.S., Russian, Iranian and Iraqi diplomats and property about a decade ago in the capital, Brasilia.

Monday's report forced the Brazilian government to defend its own espionage while remaining the loudest critic of the NSA programs that have aggressively targeted communications in Brazil, including the personal phone and email of President Dilma Rousseff, who canceled a state visit to Washington in response.