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The NSA’s Spying Operation on Mexico


The latest analysis of Snowden leaks from the German magazine Der Spiegel is a bombshell for Mexico.

“The NSA has been systematically eavesdropping on the Mexican government for years,” reads the opening line in the Oct. 20 issue.

The article goes on to detail three major programs that together constitute a massive espionage operation against Mexico. No one seems to have been immune from its intrusions, including with two presidents.

The presidential computer network was infiltrated since 2010 when Felipe Calderon was still president. The ever-zealous National Security Agency (NSA) was apparently very proud of itself for hacking the private communications of the leader and cabinet members of an allied nation.

In a “top secret” report, its “Tailored Access Operations” division (TAO) crows:

“TAO successfully exploited a key mail server in the Mexican Presidencia domain within the Mexican Presidential network to gain first-ever access to President Felipe Calderon’s public email account”, calling it a “lucrative source” to gauge Mexican “political system and internal stability”. The leaked operation was code named “Flatliquid”.

Mexicans first found out that their nation, along with Brazil and other Latin American countries, was a major target back in September, when Brazil’s O Globo published an article by Glenn Greenwald, Roberto Kaz and Jose Casado on tapping Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s phone and other communications. The article noted that the NSA had Mexico in its sights too.

A specially designed NSA program spied on then-presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto to find out who he was planning to appoint to his cabinet and how he’d handle the volatile drug war—the cornerstone of US policy in Mexico.

That caused a stir and the Peña Nieto administration sent a diplomatic note and demanded a U.S. investigation.

Sunday’s revelations add details to the previous information and show a far vaster and more insidious operation than was first imagined. Text messages from Peña Nieto’s cell phone—85,489 to be exact, according to the Der Speigel-Snowden report were harvested and organized into data bases, identifying nine close associates for surveillance and analysis.

A third program called “White Tamale” dates back to 2009, when the NSA managed to hack into the emails of high-level officials in the now-defunct Public Security Ministry.

“In the space of a single year, according to the internal documents, this operation produced 260 classified reports that allowed US politicians to conduct successful talks on political issues and to plan international investments.”

The documents note that the spy operation allowed the NSA to gain access to  “diplomatic talking points”.

What does this mean? Wouldn’t using ill-begotten private communications in negotiations be something akin to blackmail?

In any case, it seems to have fulfilled its purpose because during the subsequent period U.S. intelligence, military, police and drug enforcement agencies achieved an unprecedented margin to operate in-country, effectively breaking down any remaining resistance to their activities on Mexican soil.

The Der Speigel article states that in spy operations in Mexico, “the drug trade” was given top priority level, while the country’s “political leadership”, “economic stability” and “international investment relations” received number-three priority rankings on a scale of five.

This latter category gives credence to charges from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff that the NSA used its apparatus for industrial spying, seeking advantages. Her charges are borne out by documents that show that Brazilian oil company, PETROBRAS, was a target of U.S. espionage. The Mexico revelations were more general but also indicate economic espionage.

The NSA, as reflected in its own documents, seems to have no sense of boundaries—it qualifies its invasions as unqualified “successes”. Der Spiegel quotes another document that reads,

“These TAO accesses into several Mexican government agencies are just the beginning — we intend to go much further against this important target.”

It goes on to state that the divisions responsible for this surveillance are “poised for future successes.”

Mexico’s Muted Response

The response from NSA to questions was predictable,

“We are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, and as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.”

So far, no enterprising journalists have asked the Mexican government if it has 85 thousand text messages off of Obama’s phone.

Since September the Mexican government has known it was massively spied on by the United States. After the revelations regarding Peña Nieto’s communications and contacts with US diplomats, Mexico says President Obama agreed to carry out an investigation.

But what exactly does the Mexican government expect of this investigation? No one has questioned the authenticity of the documents. Everyone knows Snowden has them, otherwise why would the U.S. be trying to force his extradition and threatening countries offering asylum. And it seems that asking the U.S government to investigate NSA be an exercise in futility, especially since the Der Speigel article states explicitly that the programs had presidiental authorization.

Not surprisingly, Mexico’s response was widely considered weak.

So far, the response to this latest round of revelations hasn’t shown much more backbone. The foreign relations ministry called the practice “unacceptable, illegitimate and against the law”—and said it would be sending another diplomatic note.

“In a relationship between neighbors and partners, there is no room for the practices alleged to have taken place,” the ministry said.

When Der Speigel asked for a comment from Felipe Calderon, Harvard University, apparently the spokesperson for the beleaguered ex-president since it took him under its ivied wings as a Global Leaders Fellow at the Kennedy School, said it would give him the message.

A senior U.S. State Department official told CNN that the Mexican government reached out about the report, and that the two governments will be discussing it via diplomatic channels.

Peña Nieto has to react now. Brazil is taking specific steps to protect privacy from the long ear of the NSA. Rousseff has been outspoken in its indignation, taking it to the floor of the United Nations General Assembly and cancelling a state visit to Washington.

Mexico’s economic dependence on the United States under NAFTA puts the Peña administration in a tougher bind. Big business will put pressure on Peña to let it slide. The PRI is likely to be seriously annoyed, but it also knows an important part of its power base rests on its relationship with the US government and economic elite, almost a tautology, as shown again in the fact that taxpayer-supported NSA spying was directed at industrial spying to give US companies an edge in bidding, investing and competing.

Whatever the response, the revelations are a blow to a somewhat shaky relationship. Peña Nieto has made it clear it will not allow the same carte-blanche treatment U.S. agencies were given under former president Calderon, but he has also continued security integration and US expansion under the guise of the war on drugs.

Calling into question the terms of the binational security relationship should not necessarily be viewed negatively. Demands for a more transparent and less military-oriented relationship between the U.S. and Mexico have been growing. The NSA documents reveal a global security doctrine that has spun dangerously out of control, with what Greenwald calls “the construction of a worldwide, ubiquitous electronic surveillance apparatus” that apparently has no qualms regarding the right to privacy or national sovereignty. Neither the Mexican nor the U.S. Congress has sufficient knowledge of what’s going on to provide reasonable oversight, and the Mexican government apparently has little knowledge of the realm of shadowy US intelligence activity in its own country.

When you add in the private contractors hired under the $2 billion-dollar Merida aid package, it makes for a vast and murky world of post-Cold War conniving.

That can’t be good for diplomacy, or democracy.

Laura Carlsen is Director of the CIP Americas Program at

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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