Fresh Leak on US Spying: NSA Accessed Mexican President’s Email

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Jens Glüsing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark, October 20, 2013
(Photo Gallery).

The NSA has been systematically eavesdropping on the Mexican government for years. It hacked into the president’s public email account and gained deep insight into policymaking and the political system. The news is likely to hurt ties between the US and Mexico.

The National Security Agency (NSA) has a division for particularly difficult missions. Called “Tailored Access Operations” (TAO), this department devises special methods for special targets … //

… Brazil Also Targeted: … //

… Economic Motives?

  • Rousseff believes Washington’s reasons for employing such unfriendly methods are partly economic, an accusation that the NSA and its director, General Keith Alexander, have denied. Yet according to the leaked NSA documents, the US also monitored email and telephone communications at Petrobras, the oil corporation in which the Brazilian government holds a majority stake. Brazil possesses enormous offshore oil reserves.
  • Just how intensively the US spies on its neighbors can be seen in another, previously unknown operation in Mexico, dubbed “Whitetamale” by the NSA. In August 2009, according to internal documents, the agency gained access to the emails of various high-ranking officials in Mexico’s Public Security Secretariat that combats the drug trade and human trafficking. This hacking operation allowed the NSA not only to obtain information on several drug cartels, but also to gain access to “diplomatic talking-points.” 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 tone of the document that lists the NSA’s “tremendous success” in monitoring Mexican targets shows how aggressively the US intelligence agency monitors its southern neighbor. “These TAO accesses into several Mexican government agencies are just the beginning — we intend to go much further against this important target,” the document reads. It goes on to state that the divisions responsible for this surveillance are “poised for future successes.”
  • While these operations were overseen from the NSA’s branch in San Antonio, Texas, secret listening stations in the US Embassies in Mexico City and Brasília also played a key role. The program, known as the “Special Collection Service,” is conducted in cooperation with the CIA. The teams have at their disposal a wide array of methods and high-tech equipment that allow them to intercept all forms of electronic communication. The NSA conducts its surveillance of telephone conversations and text messages transmitted through Mexico’s cell phone network under the internal code name “Eveningeasel.” In Brasília, the agency also operates one of its most important operational bases for monitoring satellite communications.
  • This summer, the NSA took its activities to new heights as elections took place in Mexico. Despite having access to the presidential computer network, the US knew little about Enrique Peña Nieto, designated successor to Felipe Calderón.

Spying on Peña Nieto:

  • In his campaign appearances, Peña Nieto would make his way to the podium through a sea of supporters, ascending to the stage like a rock star. He is married to an actress, and also had the support of several influential elder statesmen within his party, the PRI. He promised to reform the party and fight pervasive corruption in the country. But those familiar with the PRI, which is itself regarded by many as corrupt, saw this pledge as little more than a maneuver made for show.
  • First and foremost, though, Peña Nieto promised voters he would change Mexico’s strategy in the war on drugs, announcing he would withdraw the military from the fight against the drug cartels as soon as possible and invest more money in social programs instead. Yet at the same time, he assured Washington there would be no U-turn in Mexico’s strategy regarding the cartels. So what were Peña Nieto’s true thoughts at the time? What were his advisers telling him?
  • The NSA’s intelligence agents in Texas must have been asking themselves such questions when they authorized an unusual type of operation known as structural surveillance. For two weeks in the early summer of 2012, the NSA unit responsible for monitoring the Mexican government analyzed data that included the cell phone communications of Peña Nieto and “nine of his close associates,” as an internal presentation from June 2012 shows. Analysts used software to connect this data into a network, shown in a graphic that resembles a swarm of bees. The software then filtered out Peña Nieto’s most relevant contacts and entered them into a databank called “DishFire.” From then on, these individuals’ cell phones were singled out for surveillance.
  • According to the internal documents, this led to the agency intercepting 85,489 text messages, some sent by Peña Nieto himself and some by his associates. This technology “might find a needle in a haystack,” the analysts noted, adding that it could do so “in a repeatable and efficient way.”
  • It seems, though, that the NSA’s agents are no longer quite as comfortable expressing such pride in their work. Asked for a comment by SPIEGEL, the agency replied: “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. As the President said in his speech at the UN General Assembly, we’ve begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.”
  • Meanwhile, the NSA’s spying has already caused considerable political damage in the case of Brazil, seriously denting the mutual trust between Rousseff and Obama. Brazil now plans to introduce a law that will force companies such as Google and Facebook to store their data inside Brazil’s borders, rather than on servers in the US, making these international companies subject to Brazilian data privacy laws. The Brazilian government is also developing a new encryption system to protect its own data against hacking.
  • So far, Mexico has reacted more moderately — although the fact that the NSA infiltrated even the presidential computer network wasn’t known until now. Commenting after TV Globo first revealed the NSA’s surveillance of text messages, Peña Nieto stated that Obama had promised him to investigate the accusations and to punish those responsible, if it was found that misdeeds had taken place.
  • In response to an inquiry from SPIEGEL concerning the latest revelations, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry replied with an email condemning any form of espionage on Mexican citizens, saying such surveillance violates international law. “That is all the government has to say on the matter,” stated a spokesperson for Peña Nieto.
  • Presumably, that email could be read at the NSA’s Texas location at the same time.

(full text).

Links:

NSA leaks: Years of spying on Mexico govt gave US investment benefits, on Russia Today RT, Oct 20, 2013;

NSA failed to install anti-leak software at Snowden’s workplace – report, on Russia Today RT, Oct 19, 2013: The reason Edward Snowden managed to download highly classified documents is because the NSA failed to install anti-leak software at its Hawaii facility, where the whistleblower worked, according to US officials …;

Internet freedom on decline worldwide as governments tighten grip – report, on Russia Today RT, Oct 04, 2013;

A REVOLUTION ON THE NILE, on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Nevine El-Aref, Oct 7, 2013;

The 13 Biggest Empires of the World: The 13 Biggest Empires of the World (ever had), 2.33 min, uploaded by Higor SoaresS, Sept 16, 2012:

  • 13. Rome,
  • 12. Japan,
  • 11. Brazil,
  • 10. Ottoman,
  • 9. Portugese,
  • 8. Abbasid Caliphate,
  • 7. Umayyad Caliphate,
  • 6. Second French,
  • 5. Qing,
  • 4. Spanish,
  • 3. Russian,
  • 2. Mongol,
  • 1. British.

(see also: Welcome to our new blog: politics for the 99%).

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