The National Intelligence Service (SNI), 1964-90

The military-dominated SNI, which the Castelo Branco government created in 1964, was intended originally as a civilian agency of the executive branch. Initially, the SNI, under retired General Golbery do Couto e Silva, freed Castelo from dependence on army and Federal Police intelligence reports. The then head of the army, General Costa e Silva, feared that the new agency would weaken the army's secret service. However, by the end of 1968, with the triumph of the hard-liners, the SNI took on a military coloration. In 1973 it secured its dominance over the so-called intelligence community with the opening of the National Intelligence School (Escola Nacional de Informações--EsNI) in Brasília. The following year, the EsNI absorbed the ESG postgraduate intelligence course. Supposedly, the EsNI did not train police agents, and it selected its own students. By 1980 some officers were saying that the EsNI would be as useful as the ESG to their careers.

Alfred Stepan observed that the SNI differed from similar agencies in other countries in that it enjoyed a near monopoly over operations and training, and that the SNI chief had ministerial rank and therefore sat in the president's cabinet. In addition, he has pointed out that the SNI had an official in every government agency, in state-owned businesses, and at one point in the universities. These officials followed the daily functioning of the administrative machinery to ensure conformity with national security goals. Moreover, the SNI was autonomous, even regarding finances.

The SNI served as the backbone of the military regime's system of control and repression. Although there have been secret police in Brazil since at least the Vargas era, military involvement reached new heights with the creation of the SNI. The SNI grew out of the Institute for Research and Social Studies (Instituto de Pesquisas e Estudos Sociais--IPES), which General Couto e Silva had established to undermine the Goulart government. The SNI provided clearances for anyone seeking a government job or requesting to conduct research in the army archives. Using an elaborate system of informants and telephone taps, the SNI accumulated and analyzed reports on a wide range of people, organizations, and topics. One study by political scientists David V. Fleischer and the late Robert Wesson suggests that there were as many as 50,000 persons in the employ of the SNI during the 1964-85 regime. Furthermore, both Presidents Médici and Figueiredo had been SNI chiefs.

In theory, the SNI supervised and coordinated the intelligence agencies of the three services. However, in practice the service agencies maintained their autonomy. The service agencies included the Army Intelligence Center (Centro de Informações do Exército--CIE); the Air Force Intelligence Center (Centro de Informações da Aeronáutica--CIA); and the Naval Intelligence Center (Centro de Informações de Marinha--Cenimar).

The chief of staff of each of the army commands supposedly was responsible for the intelligence work in that command's territory. In practice, that officer was not necessarily informed of CIE activities, which followed a parallel chain of command. Each command also had an Internal Operations Department-Internal Defense Operations Center (Departamento de Operações Internas-Centro de Operações de Defesa Interna--DOI-CODI). The DOI-CODIs became centers of dirty tricks and torture.

From the outset, there was resistance to the idea of the CIE. In 1966 President Castelo Branco rejected the idea of creating an army intelligence service annexed to the minister of army's office, because it would weaken the General Staff's influence. The next year, the new minister of army, General Aurélio de Lyra Tavares, established the CIE over the objections of the chief of staff, General Orlando Geisel. As early as 1968, the CIE was exploding bombs in theaters, wrecking bookstores, and kidnapping people. When the left began terrorist violence in late 1968, the CIE expanded to about 200 officers and became the axis of repression, eliminating all signs of leftist violence in three years.

The SNI, CIE, and other intelligence agencies were the most dubious legacy that the military regime left to the New Republic. The scars of repression and violence, including the mistreatment, torture, and murder of prisoners, will mark the officer corps for years to come. During World War II, Brazilian officers serving in Italy with the FEB (Brazilian Expeditionary Force), the first Latin American military organization in history to participate in combat in Europe, prided themselves on the correct treatment they accorded German prisoners under the Geneva Convention. Their successors, however, were taught that international law did not apply in cases of internal security. Thus, they used massive intimidation, kidnappings, beatings, secret arrests and imprisonments, psychological and physical torture, murder, and secret burial. In the past, rebels or criminals from the margins of society and working-class people could expect brutal treatment from the forces of law and order. The military regime brought that experience to the opposition in the middle and upper classes. The "repressive apparatus," as it was often referred to, cast a shadow of fear and drew an invisible pale through Brazilian society to dissuade the educated classes from crossing it. It also served to dissuade opposition within the military itself.

The creation of the DOI network beginning in 1971 formed a parallel chain of command, one that did not necessarily end with the president of the republic. President Geisel, a retired general, struggled to have his orders fulfilled by the CIE system. Consequently, the CIE sought to undermine his government and to make Minister of Army Sylvio Couto Coelho da Frota the next president. The CIE also waged a pamphlet war against General Golbery do Couto e Silva, chief of Geisel's Civilian Household, who wanted to shut down the CIE.

Source: Library of Congress Country Studies: Brazil