When Edward Snowden's leaks revealed what the NSA had been up to in Mexico, Mexicans were understandably pissed. The National Security Agency had spied on Mexican presidents Enrique Peña Nieto and Felipe Calderón, on Calderón’s cabinet, and on multiple governmental agencies as part of an operation dubbed Flatliquid. An August 2009 NSA operation in Mexico, perhaps somewhat insensitively code-named Whitetamale, included a wide-scale hack of Mexico’s Public Security Secretariat, the body that polices the trafficking of drugs and people. And Mexican phone calls and texts were collected as part of operation Eveningeasel.
The operations netted the NSA info not only on drug cartels, but also on diplomatic talking points that, according to Der Spiegel, “allowed US politicians to conduct successful talks on political issues and to plan international investments." Operations Whitetamale, Flatliquid, and Eveningeasel — it's unclear how many NSA guys high-fived each other after coming up with the names — were conducted from the NSA office in San Antonio. But other Snowden documents showed that the NSA captured and analyzed Internet traffic from a US diplomatic post in Mexico City, and that the US embassy hosted agents from the joint NSA/CIA Special Collection Service, a black-budget program dedicated to bugging foreign embassies and government installations.
But it took a separate, recently declassified memo to confirm that the NSA maintained a secret office inside the US Embassy in Mexico City.
That office is a so-called fusion center. The existence of fusion centers in the United States is no secret; they were established in the wake of the glaring 9/11 intelligence failures to promote information sharing between US intelligence agencies, the military, and state and local governments. The centers were primarily a creation of the George W. Bush administration; at least 72 had been established by 2009.
The secret fusion center in Mexico City, however, was only confirmed by a 2010 Department of Defense memorandum requested by George Washington University’s National Security Archive project under the Freedom of Information Act. The document also revealed a network of joint US/Mexican intelligence centers open to staff from both countries — but Mexican personnel weren't allowed access to the one in the embassy. Support was given to the fusion center by the Department of Defense’s office for Counternarcotics and Global Threats, and was largely channeled through US Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which is charged with protecting US interests in North America.
Despite the existence of the memorandum, the NSA is backing away from any admission that the Mexico center exists and is refusing requests for further information. According to Unredacted, the National Security Archive’s blog, the NSA has given a Glomar response to further FOIA requests — in other words, they're saying that they can neither confirm nor deny the existence of more documents. (This, despite the fact that Unredacted has already published the the memo.) NORTHCOM has also refused additional FOIA requests, stating that the material is classified.
Why is everyone refusing to discuss something whose existence has already been established? Because the center is broadly concerned with “high value targets" (HVTs), or what the DoD calls “a target the enemy commander requires for the successful completion of the mission." HVTs are typically understood to be terrorist leaders. But the fusion center at the US Embassy in Mexico appears to have a somewhat broader definition.
“Reading the document, we know that the Mexico fusion center is focused on high value targeting, but it’s not clear at first glance who or what those targets are,” Michael Evans, director of the National Security Archive’s Mexico project, told VICE News. “In Mexico, one might logically assume that high value targets are the leaders of criminal organizations — drug traffickers, human smugglers, etc."
But as Evans points out, we now know — thanks to Snowden — that the National Security Agency applied the HVT label to Peña Nieto along with other world leaders who were the targets of US snooping. "Given that this is a top secret, US-only facility," Evans said, "my guess is that the Mexico fusion center probably takes an ‘all of the above’ approach, targeting both criminal organizations and Mexico’s political leadership.”
The memo revealing the existence of the center was written by William Wechsler, who at the time was the head of Counternarcotics and Global Threats at the DOD. It's addressed to then-Assistant Secretary of Defense Mike Vickers, and calls for multiple interagency centers throughout Mexico, to be kept separate from the US-exclusive fusion center in the embassy.
The United States and Mexico have worked closely to police narcotrafficking since the 2006 inauguration of Calderon, who reached out to George W. Bush for aid against the cartels during Bush's second term. Among the targets of a $1.9 billion American aid package, according to the Washington Post, were the cartels' brutal death squads. In order to help the government, the US began employing Predator drones in Mexican airspace for reconnaissance by mid-2009.
“It’s important to remember that it was only a few years ago that Mexico and the United States were touting the establishment of the joint-intelligence fusion centers, in which both countries worked side-by-side against the drug cartels and other shared threats," Evans said. "But we now know that the US has been pursuing a two-track policy: One, a network of joint-intelligence centers staffed by personnel from both countries. The other, a secret facility to which the Mexicans were not invited.”
After the initial disclosures, Mexican legislators demanded the country’s Attorney General investigate the secret facility and any espionage being conducted by the United States.
So Mexico is mad, but was it worth it? A two-year bipartisan investigation into domestic fusion centers by the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, released in 2012, found that the centers’ intelligence reports were largely worthless, that they violated civil liberties and privacy, and that the data gathered often had little to do with terrorism. The subcommittee report also found that between $289 million and $1.4 billion of taxpayer money had been spent on the centers, including line items like $75,000 spent on 55 flat-screen TVs for the San Diego Fusion Center to conduct “open-source monitoring.”
That, no joke, is essentially how they refer to “watching the news.”
The National Security Archive is fighting to overcome the NSA's Glomar response and NORTHCOM’s denials in order to uncover more information about the NSA's secret office in the US Embassy. Meanwhile, earlier this month, US Ambassador to Mexico Tony Wayne witnessed the signing of a new data-sharing agreement between the US and Mexico.