DishFire and the Drug War

I imagine that NSA’s success at spying on Felipe Calderón’s inner circle made it a lot easier for the US to convince him to allow “near-complete entree to Mexico’s territory and the secrets of its citizens” in the name of the war on drugs.

A report classified as “top secret” said: “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.”

I presume continued spying on Enrique Peña Nieto has convinced him to permit that access to largely remain in place, in spite of his campaign promises.

But one of the most interesting aspects of the Spiegel story outlining such spying is the description of how metadata relates to content. In 2012, the NSA conducted analysis of Peña Nieto’s metadata, along with that of 8 of his associates, to figure out who to wiretap.

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.”

That is, at least in this case, NSA used metadata analysis to find the content that might be most interesting. It’s not entirely sure what “needles” the NSA imagined Peña Nieto had in his haystack (always this metaphor!), but Spiegel describes that US prioritizes collection on the drug war over issues — like human rights and economic development — that might combat the underlying conditions that allow drug trafficking to flourish.

In the case of Mexico, the US is interested primarily in the drug trade (priority level 1) and the country’s leadership (level 3). Other areas flagged for surveillance include Mexico’s economic stability, military capabilities, human rights and international trade relations (all ranked at level 3), as well as counterespionage (level 4).

This metadata to content relationship is not surprising in the least. But it implies a faith — and I do mean “faith” — in data analysis that might not be sound.

Not to mention, when transplanted into the United States, a suspect basis for probable cause.

9 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    from the spiegel story:

    “..another, previously unknown operation in Mexico, dubbed “Whitetamale” by the NSA…”

    sounds a bit contemptuous and arrogant to me.

  2. What Constitution? says:

    From the Spiegel article: “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.”

    Now, this is truly foolish of that silly, gullible Mexican president, right? I was going to suggest this may become a comment famous as the last foreign dignitary publicly expressing this kind of trust. But then, why not? Our own country is still full of people who do the same, regardless of the mountains of evidence to the contrary. I guess Mexico’s President just correctly perceives his country’s place in the imperial pecking order and is working to assure the crumbs keep flowing from the master’s table. That’s kind of sad, though. Maybe he was snarking, eh?

  3. bloodypitchfork says:

    Maybe they can find the 2000+ weapons that ATF lost in that haystack too. You know..the ones from that other “program”..Fast & Furious. Sheeezushchrist..sounds to me like silly gullible Mexican president is a massive understatement. He sounds like a posterchild for Great Moments in Monumental Stupidity to me.

  4. rg says:

    @What Constitution?: “promised to investigate the accusations and punish those responsible, if it was found that misdeeds had taken place”.

    Those were not”misdeeds” (and they won’t be “found”), but logical acts in the drug war. Part of the objective of that war is combating corruption, and where better to look for that than among the president and his associates. You have to give Obama credit for knowing just how far he can go to insult the neighboring crumb seekers.

  5. rg says:

    @rg: Hmmm. Looking for evidence of corruption among the president’s and his associates’ communications. Now I wonder if such reasoning could be applied by NSA to monitoring that of the the US president, etc.

  6. Arbusto says:

    Still waiting, after all these years, for the effects of NSA, FBI, CIA and DEA cross pollination of intercepts, legal and otherwise, analysis, stings and boots on the ground, to dent either drug traffic or corruption. Of course when corruption is fighting corruption, who wins.

  7. orionATL says:



    i’ve gotten to the point that i have that thought compulsively every time i read an official pronouncement about spying – and drugs, and/or human trafficking, and/or child porn, and/or money laundering and/or others of the many official rationalizations our gov uses to make its tompeepery appear well-intentioned.

  8. What Constitution? says:

    Hey, maybe it’s the thought that NSA sees everything that got Jamie Dimon so sign JP Morgan up for a $13 Billion settlement, huh? That would be the day.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    But of course the US doesn’t spy for such mundane purposes as obtaining and maintaining economic advantage, but only to keep us safe.

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