Interview with The Intercept’s Leandro Demori, whose team of reporters challenged Brazil’s anti-corruption probe

“URGENT: Car Wash’s secret conversations,” read the e-mail subject that The Intercept Brazil sent to its subscribers on June 9, a Sunday, around 6 p.m. It was not a usual time for updates, even less for breaking news.

The Brazilian branch of the US news outlet had just published a series of stories revealing leaked private Telegram messages exchanged over the past three years between prosecutors and judges overseeing Operation Car Wash, calling into question the integrity of what is arguably Brazil’s largest anti-corruption probe.

Since it was launched in 2014, the Operation Car Wash investigation has led to the arrest of dozens of high-profile businessmen, politicians, and lobbyists — as well as six former Latin American presidents, including Lula da Silva who represented the Worker’s Party as president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010.

The Intercept Brazil’s series shows that Sergio Moro, who in 2019 became President Jair Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister, has advised and directed prosecutors throughout the operation. A federal judge stationed in the southern state capital of Curitiba, Moro has become a folk hero in Brazil in recent years after the Car Wash investigation brought down wealthy and powerful people on an unprecedented scale in Brazilian history.

In April 2018, Lula surrendered to the Federal Police after Moro handed him down a 12-year sentence for receiving a beachfront apartment in exchange for contracts with Brazil’s state oil company Petrobrás. In August, a court forbade him to run for a third term just as he was leading the polls for the October 2018 vote, paving the way for second-favorite Jair Bolsonaro to secure a victory.

Leftist activists have long contended that Moro and the Car Wash prosecutors were driven by partisan politics and legal experts — many with no particular sympathy for the Worker’s Party — have long disputed the evidence against Lula.

Now, The Intercept’s leaks seem to support those reservations as they show that Moro colluded with the prosecutors all along. Chat excerpts show that Moro anticipated one of his decisions, suggested they replace a prosecutor that he deemed “too weak”before an upcoming hearing, and even recommended a potential witness who claimed to have evidence against Lula to the prosecutors. Legal experts argue this violates penal code provisions that ban judges from informally aiding either side of the process.

Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept’s founder and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for his reporting on the United States’ National Security Agency spying program, has said that the chat history delivered to The Intercept’s newsroom is a larger file than what was handed over by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Speaking with Global Voices, The Intercept Brazil’s Executive Editor Leandro Demori spoke about his team’s groundbreaking work and the stories that have now trended on Brazilian social media for weeks under the hashtag #VazaJato (a pun with the Portuguese word for “leak” and Car Wash’s Portuguese name, “Lava Jato”). “What we are doing is what the Operation Car Wash always said they did: fighting corruption,” he said.

Without specifying a date, Demori said that the news outlet received a file from an anonymous source. To ensure protection, The Intercept doesn’t reveal any details about the source or the format of the file. Demori said of the process:

It was all traditional reporting work, looking at documents, doing complementary reporting… I think that The Intercept was chosen by this source because we are recognised for doing that kind of work.

Demori highlights that earlier in 2018, The Intercept Brazil published an investigation into Rio de Janeiro’s paramilitary militias and their links to politicians. He said:

I believe that The Intercept is seen as a place where there is a way of providing information with courage.

Hacker narrative

Moro and the prosecutor have neither denied nor confirmed the veracity of the chats. They have, however, contended that the messages were obtained through hacking, which is a crime in Brazil.

In a note released on June 9, the Car Wash prosecutors say their devices had been targeted shortly before the publication of the first stories, but The Intercept claims they had received the data long before the alleged attacks.

Demori commented on this:

Whoever reinforces the invasion narrative is not The Intercept. The Intercept does not talk about hackers. Perhaps they imagine that this is missing context, but we can assure that the journalistic process was trustworthy when it comes to ethics. What is published is what was said, they are messages that can no longer be “unsaid” simply by challenging the context.

Part of Brazil’s mainstream media has focused on the “hacker narrative”. Outlets connected with Globo Group, Latin America’s largest mass media organization, have centered their reporting on the legal implications associated with the alleged attack, in detriment of the content of the leaks. Other large publications, such as magazines Veja, IstoÉ and Exame, also covered the case from a cybercrime perspective.

Telegram has denied that their servers were breached:

Eduardo Bastian@ebastian_me · Jun 11, 2019Replying to @glichfield @telegram

Apparently even Telegram was hacked, fueling a huge political scandal in Brazil: …Chats privados revelam colaboração proibida de Moro com DeltanMoro sugeriu trocar a ordem de fases da Lava Jato, cobrou novas operações, deu conselhos e pistas e antecipou ao menos uma decisão, mostram conversas privadas ao longo de dois

Telegram Messenger@telegram

Telegram was not hacked. But there are other risks one should consider. See: …865:39 PM – Jun 11, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacyKeeping your chats secureTelegram encryption protects your messages when they travel along the communication lines and when they rest in Telegram’s encrypted cloud. Secret Chats are further protected by a layer of end-to-end…telegra.ph46 people are talking about this

History of leaks

Moro and the Car Wash prosecutors aren’t strangers to the power of leaks. In the entire five-year history of Lava Jato, preliminary and official testimonies, secret plea bargain agreements, and even wiretapped phone calls were constantly leaked to the mainstream press, which helped galvanize public support for the operation.

An infamous case was in 2016 when Moro lifted the veil over a wiretapped phone conversation between former president Lula and then-sitting president Dilma Rousseff. The call suggests Dilma was about to appoint Lula as chief of staff so that he could avoid prosecution, as cabinet ministers can only be tried by Brazil’s Supreme Court.

The conversation was broadcast on national television only hours after it had taken place, and protests erupted in many Brazilian cities right after.

Moro stood up for his decision to release the tapes more than once, claiming that their content was of public interest. For Demori, the media coverage has encouraged the public to believe that, when it comes to fighting corruption, the “ends justify the means”. When asked about the public’s approval of Moro’s decisions, despite its apparent illegalities, Demori said:

I think it’s normal, it’s the game. Everyone has their personal motives.

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