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10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2016-2017

Happy Birthday to me! To us! To the emptywheel community!

On December 3, 2007, emptywheel first posted as a distinct website. That makes us, me, we, ten today.

To celebrate, over the next few days, the emptywheel team will be sharing some of our favorite work from the last decade. I’ll be doing probably 3 posts featuring some of my most important or — in my opinion — resilient non-surveillance posts, plus a separate post bringing together some of my most important surveillance work. I think everyone else is teeing up their favorites, too.

Putting together these posts has been a remarkable experience to see where we’ve been and the breadth of what we’ve covered, on top of mainstays like surveillance. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and proud of the community we’ve maintained over the years.

For years, we’ve done this content ad free, relying on donations and me doing freelance work for others to fund the stuff you read here. I would make far more if I worked for some free-standing outlet, but I wouldn’t be able to do the weedy, iterative work that I do here, which would amount to not being able to do my best work.

If you’ve found this work valuable — if you’d like to ensure it remains available for the next ten years — please consider supporting the site.

2016

Why Doesn’t Dianne Feinstein Want to Prevent Murders Like those Robert Dear Committed?

I’ve written a lot about how the focus on Islamic terrorism, based on a claim it’s foreign, creates gross inequalities for Muslims in this country, and does nothing to address some of our most dangerous mass killers (as the Stephen Paddock massacre in Las Vegas makes all too clear). This post is one of that series. It focuses on how the ill-advised efforts to use the No Fly List to create a list of those who couldn’t own guns would be discriminatory and wouldn’t add much to safety.

“Only Facts Matter:” Jim Comey Is Not the Master Bureaucrat of Integrity His PR Sells Him As

From the periods when Jim Comey was universally revered as a boy scout through those when Democrats blamed him for giving us Trump (through the time Democrats predictably flip flopped on that point), I have consistently pointed to a more complicated story, particularly with regards to surveillance and torture. I think the lesson of Comey isn’t so much he’s a bad person — it’s that he’s human, and no human fits into the Manichean world of good guys and bad guys that he viewed justice through.

NSA and CIA Hacked Enrique Peña Nieto before the 2012 Election

As Americans came to grips with the fact that Russia had hacked Democrats to influence last year’s election, many people forgot that the US does the same. And it’s not even just in the bad old days of Allen Dulles. The Snowden documents revealed that NSA and CIA hacked Enrique Peña Nieto in the weeks before he was elected in 2012. The big difference is we don’t know what our spooks did with that information.

Why Is HPSCI’s Snowden Report So Inexcusably Shitty?

In 2016, HPSCI released its Devin Nunes-led investigation into Edward Snowden’s leaks. It was shitty. Really shitty.

Now that the HPSCI investigation into the Russian hack (which has not been subjected to the same limitations as the Snowden investigation was) has proven to be such a shit show, people should go back and review how shitty this review was (including its reliance on Mike Flynn’s inflammatory claims). There absolutely should have been a review of Snowden’s leaks. But this was worse than useless.

Look Closer to Home: Russian Propaganda Depends on the American Structure of Social Media

As people began to look at the role of fake news in the election, I noted that we can’t separate the propaganda that supported Trump from the concentrated platforms that that propaganda exploited. A year later, that’s a big part of what the Intelligence Committees have concluded.

The Evidence to Prove the Russian Hack

In this post I did a comprehensive review of what we knew last December about the proof Russia was behind the tampering in last year’s election.

Obama’s Response to Russia’s Hack: An Emphasis on America’s More Generalized Vulnerability

Last year, in a speech on the hack, Obama focused more on America’s vulnerability that made it possible for Russia to do so much damage than he did on attacking Putin. I think it’s a really important point, one I’ve returned to a lot in the last year.

The Shadow Brokers: “A Nice Little NSA You’ve Got Here; It’d Be a Shame If…”

In December, I did a review of all the posts Shadow Brokers had done and suggested he was engaged in a kind of hostage taking, threatening to dump more NSA tools unless the government met his demands. I was particularly interested in whether such threats were meant to prevent the US from taking more aggressive measures to retaliate against Russia for the hack.

2017

On “Fake News”

After getting into a bunch of Twitter wars over whether we’re at a unique moment with Fake News, I did this post, which I’ve often returned to.

How Hal Martin Stole 75% of NSA’s Hacking Tools: NSA Failed to Implement Required Security Fixes for Three Years after Snowden

The government apparently is still struggling to figure out how its hacking tools (both NSA and CIA) got stolen. I noted back in January that an IG report from 2016 showed that in the three years after Snowden, the IC hadn’t completed really basic things to make itself more safe from such theft.

The Doxing of Equation Group Hackers Raises Questions about the Legal Role of Nation-State Hackers

One thing Shadow Brokers did that Snowden and WikiLeaks, with its Vault 7 releases, have not is to reveal the identities of NSA’s own hackers. Like DOJ’s prosecution of nation-state hackers, I think this may pose problems for the US’ own hackers.

Reasons Why Dems Have Been Fucking Stupid on the Steele Dossier: a Long Essay

I believe Democrats have been ill-advised to focus their Russia energy on the Steele dossier, not least because there has been so much more useful reporting on the Russia hack that the Steele dossier only makes their case more vulnerable to attack. In any case, I continue to post this link, because I continue to have to explain the dossier’s problems.

Other Key Posts Threads

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2008-2010

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2011-2012

10 Years of emptywheel: Key Non-Surveillance Posts 2013-2015

NSA’s Spying on Le Pen Is Probably Working Better than GRU’s Spying on Macron

In advance of this report on APT 28 (the hacking group presumed to be tied to Russia’s military intelligence, GRU, blamed for the DNC hack-and-leak), Trend Micro got a lot of publicity for its report that APT 28 had targeted Emmanuel Macron, who just won the most votes in France’s presidential election and will face a run-off against Marine Le Pen in a few weeks.

At least according to Macron’s campaign, the attempts to phish his campaign were unsuccessful.

Mounir Mahjoubi, digital director of Mr. Macron’s campaign, confirmed the attempted hacking, saying that several staffers had received emails leading to the fake websites. The phishing emails were quickly identified and blocked, and it was unlikely others went undetected, Mr. Mahjoubi said.

“We can’t be 100% sure,” he said, “but as soon as we saw the intrusion attempts, we took measures to block access.”

The timing of all this is all rather interesting. Back in early February, France’s Le Canard Enchaîné exclusively reported that France’s security officials worried that Macron would be hacked, a vague report that was picked up really broadly without confirmation. Shortly thereafter, Macron claimed that his campaign had been the target of thousands of attacks from entities within Russia’s border, including a DDOS attack that took down his website for nine minutes. According to the sole mention of Macron in the Trend Micro report, the OneDrive-based phish targeting Macron took place a month later, on March 15.

These hacking attempts accompanied a great deal of fake news (and leaked gossip) targeting Macron. But at least if Macron’s own campaign is to believed, APT 28 never succeeded in its attempt to hack the favorite to be France’s next president, and so presumably has not yet succeeded in stealing emails that Russia might use to attack Macron during the run-off.

Which gives the hype about APT 28’s attempted hack a really curious character. It is treated as if Russia is the only state actor that might be spying on French presidential candidates.

Does anyone honestly believe that the United States is not spying on Le Pen, for example, given that the CIA and NSA have a history of spying on candidates with whom the US is even friendlier than Le Pen? Indeed, earlier this year, WikiLeaks published a tasking order for CIA to collect HUMINT and open source intelligence on all the parties in the 2012 French election, though without any cyber element specified. In 2010, the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party was included in NSA’s foreign government Section 702 certificate by name. And in 2012, CIA and NSA partnered to target Enrique Peña Nieto and nine of his closest associates in the weeks leading up to his victory. With both the PPP and EPN, these were nominally political parties friendly to US interests.

By comparison, it would seem that targeting Le Pen, at a time when the intelligence community has a very public concern about collusion between Russia and populist parties in Europe to destabilize Europe, would be a no-brainer.

And here’s what else gets left out of the coverage of GRU’s attempts to spy on Macron: how much easier a job the NSA might have than GRU, even ignoring NSA’s greater capabilities.

Many (though not all) of the phishing attempts detailed in the Trend Micro report pretend to be the email log-ins for US-based email providers: with virtually all the most detailed attention on Yahoo, Gmail, and Microsoft. The attempted Macron targeting exploited his campaign’s use of OneDrive. That means all the entities GRU targeted with phishes pretending to be US providers are available to NSA via Section 702, or PRISM.

In other words, to collect on the very same targets that GRU is targeting via phishing attacks that users continue to be better informed about (and that Macron claims to have withstood entirely), the NSA could just add LePen’s email address to the list over 93,000 targets being targeted under Section 702 (as they presumably did with PPP in 2010). And unlike a phishing campaign, which can be made more difficult with the use of two factor authentication, Le Pen would have no defense against collection targeting her or her campaign’s PRISM provider accounts, beyond encrypting everything that resided in an American-owned cloud (and even there, there would be a great deal of interesting metadata available). If she or key aides uses any of the major American tech providers, stealing their emails would be as easy as providing a foreign intelligence justification (one that would be bolstered by her close ties with Russia) and tracking to make sure her accounts are detasked when she comes to the US to visit Trump Tower.

All that’s on top of any more sophisticated targeting of Le Pen akin to what CIA and NSA did against EPN.

And therein lies the rub, the reason you shouldn’t be saying, “So what? We should spy on that fascist Le Pen, she’s a menace to civilization” (though I agree she is).

The NSA’s spying on Marine Le Pen is likely having more success than GRU’s spying on Emmanuel Macron. But is there any reason to believe — particularly given CIA’s targeting of all French parties in 2012 and given Trump’s stated preference for Le Pen — to think that NSA is not also targeting Macron, targeting his OneDrive in a way that would be immune from whatever defenses he is using against phishing attacks?

Here’s where folks will say, “but we don’t leak stolen communications,” in spite of some evidence that we have in the past, albeit perhaps not in a democratic election. (On that note, this Politico story exposing Mike Flynn’s ties, via his Turkish lobbying client, to Russia, relies on a WikiLeaks-released email, which is a notable instance where evidence made available by WikiLeaks may help those investigating Russia’s influence on the Trump administration.). Of course, GRU can only leak what it can steal, and Macron believes that GRU hasn’t succeeded in stealing anything.

Furthermore, we have no visibility what US policymakers in the past have done with intelligence collected on political parties. We certainly have no current limits on what Trump can do with it, aside from limits on the dissemination of that actual raw emails. We’ve always given the President great discretion on such issues, in the name of ensuring a unified foreign policy. And there are plenty of ways Trump’s administration could intervene to help Le Pen beyond just leaking any derogatory information on Macron.

All this is not to say that GRU’s reported continued attempts to hack democratic targets is not a concern (indeed, I’m at least as worried that FSB is conducting similar intelligence collection without the same easily identifiable tracks).

But it is to say that, particularly in the era where Donald Trump sets this country’s foreign policy, we need to be a lot more mindful of NSA’s own far more considerable ability to steal information on democratic candidates.

NSA and CIA Hacked Enrique Peña Nieto before the 2012 Election

Part of the frenzied discussion about the possibility that Russia hacked the DNC includes claims that the US would never do something so dastardly.

Except that the Foreign Government Section 702 Certificate makes it clear the NSA is authorized to spy on foreign based political organizations even within the US (and would have far more liberty under EO 12333). Among the parties specifically authorized for targeting in 2010 was Pakistan’s People Party, the incumbent party in a nominal ally.

Indeed, the Snowden documents have an even better example of the US spying in advance of an election — when, in June 2012, NSA targeted the texts between Enrique Peña Nieto and nine of his closest associates.

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.”

This would have been in the weeks leading up to the election on July 1.

There is one difference: We don’t know what our spooks did with the information gleaned from the 85,489 texts kept from candidate EPN (it was a close election, and I presume we preferred EPN to Andrés Manuel López Obrador). NSA and CIA (with which NSA partnered on this hack) certainly did not release any information we know of from those texts. A more interesting question, in this case, is whether the US used anything from those texts to reassure ourselves — or ensure — that EPN’s campaign promises to change Mexico’s level of cooperation in the war on drugs (which of course also means spying) would change once he won the election, as they did.

None of this excuses Russia if it hacked the DNC. But it does provide a very concrete example where the US hacked the most intimate network of a person running for office — and of an ally, no less.

Spies steal information, even from political candidates. Including American spies.

More Details on the Tres Marias Ambush

Matthew Aid linked to FOIAed State Department documents on the ambush of two intelligence officials in August 2012 (the documents were actually released to John Dyer in 2014).

They provide a number of interesting new details about the assault (see my earlier coverage here, here, here, and here).

  • Although the State Department hesitated to use the word “ambush” publicly for some time after the event, internal documents used that term immediately
  • The Federal Police — the same people who conducted the ambush! — brought the Americans to a hospital in Cuernavaca, though there were also army and navy individuals present (note, there had been a shooting in Cuernavaca the previous day)
  • There were 152 shots fired at the American car — far more than reported in initial reports; 40% of those were focused on the front seat windows, which not only (according to a cable) are the most vulnerable spots in the armor on the SUV, but also happened to be where the Americans were sitting
  • There’s a reference to pictures from the phones of the “agents,” which seems to be a reference to the victims; this is the one instance where the cables drop the charade that these were general Embassy employees
  • Both DIA and CIA were copied immediately on the first cables (DEA was not copied on anything, I don’t think)
  • An early cable said that our escaping vehicle may have run over one or two of the assailants
  • Unsurprisingly, the FBI had the lead on investigating the incident from very early on, despite a public focus on Mexico’s Attorney General’s role
  • A mostly redacted cable complaining about the slow pace of the investigation includes discussion of the US refusing to provide the victims for witness testimony (remember one of the two was on Temporary Duty in Mexico, meaning they hadn’t approved him as a credentialed Embassy employee working under official cover)
  • The police commander who ordered the culprits to lie about whether they were wearing uniforms or not had been in appropriately promoted, suggesting he’s someone’s fixer

More generally, the cables seem concerned with measuring the seriousness with which President Felipe Calderón responded to the attack. For example, this partly redacted discussion relays someone’s explanation of Calderón’s instructions the day of the attack.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 11.38.40 AM

Then, a cable relaying the public apology Calderón gave four days after the attack included these details, including that the apology was not in his written speech.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 11.43.33 AM

A description of Ambassador Anthony Wayne’s meeting with Calderón on early September is mostly redacted (it also includes details of meetings with Mexico’s AG). That description went to — among others — CIA Director David Petraeus, as well as John Brennan (who was still in the White House). And once Enrique Peña Nieto was elected, the Americans seemed pretty enthusiastic about cooperating when them going forward rather than Calderón.

A number of the cables tie the attack closely to the Merida initiative.

 

El Chapo

Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 5.21.44 PMToday, they announced the capture of Chapo Guzmán.

According to Mexico’s el Universal, Sinaloa Cartel boss Chapo Guzmán was captured by authorities at 6:40 AM (it’s unclear whether this is Mexico City or Mazatlán time, which are an hour and two behind ET, respectively; and the local Sinaloa press says the operation started at 3:30 AM).

The AP broke the story at 10:52 AM, sourcing to a US official. At around 11:00 (presumably, Mexico City time), Mexico’s Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam announced the capture — he attributed the delay to taking time to confirm Guzmán’s identity.

And around that same time, President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted out congratulations to Mexico’s security services for the capture.

As of right now, I’ve seen no comment from the White House on the capture, even though the DEA were said to be heavily involved.

There have been two pictures circulating relating to the arrest: a KSM-style picture of Guzmán at least partially undressed, and pictures taken in full daylight of him being transferred, fully dressed, to a helicopter by masked men wearing Mexican Navy uniforms.

I lay out these details because I have been wondering for some time why, alone among the world leaders spied on by the NSA, Peña Nieto never complained all that loudly. When Speigel first reported the spying, it suggested the US was trying to determine how seriously Peña Nieto — then still a candidate — meant his campaign promises to change the war on drugs. But according to Dana Priest, subsequent to the start of that spying, upon being presented with the range of our spying in Mexico, the President ended much of that “cooperation.”

The new administration has shifted priorities away from the U.S.-backed strategy of arresting kingpins, which sparked an unprecedented level of violence among the cartels, and toward an emphasis on prevention and keeping Mexico’s streets safe and calm, Mexican authorities said.

Some U.S. officials fear the coming of an unofficial truce with cartel leaders. The Mexicans see it otherwise. “The objective of fighting organized crime is not in conflict with achieving peace,” said Eduardo Medina Mora, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States.

[snip]

U.S. officials got their first inkling that the relationship might change just two weeks after Peña Nieto assumed office Dec. 1. At the U.S. ambassador’s request, the new president sent his top five security officials to an unusual meeting at the U.S. Embassy here. In a crowded conference room, the new attorney general and interior minister sat in silence, not knowing what to expect, next to the new leaders of the army, navy and Mexican intelligence agency.

In front of them at the Dec. 15 meeting were representatives from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the CIA, the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other U.S. agencies tasked with helping Mexico destroy the drug cartels that had besieged the country for the past decade.

The Mexicans remained stone-faced as they learned for the first time just how entwined the two countries had become during the battle against narco-traffickers, and how, in the process, the United States had been given near-complete entree to Mexico’s territory and the secrets of its citizens, according to several U.S. officials familiar with the meeting

Four months after that meeting, Peña Nieto involved his government in the information sharing process between the US and Mexico, and he reportedly kicked out Americans working in Mexican fusion centers.

Medina Mora, the Mexican ambassador, said in an interview that his nation considers U.S. help in the drug war “a centerpiece” of Mexico’s counternarcotics strategy. But the Mexican delegation in Washington also informed U.S. authorities that Americans will no longer be allowed to work inside any fusion center, including the one in Monterrey. The DEA agents and retired military contractors there will have to go.

Mind you, it’s clear that this change in strategy didn’t really come about — or if it has, the US has accelerated its own work without the Mexicans — as can be seen by the string of Guzmán associates who’ve been rolled up in recent weeks.

There were further hints of Mexico’s close cooperation when James Clapper, at a recent hearing, refused to elaborate in public session on an answer suggesting that Mexico was cooperating as closely as ever. And this response — in a background briefing in advance of President Obama’s trip to Toluca last week — makes it clear the Americans believe cooperation is still ongoing.

Q I was wondering, since we’re on the topic of messages, and you’ve already outlined the main topics of the summit, what sort of message is the President going to give the Mexican President Peña Nieto with the ongoing violence in Michoacán and whether or not they’re going to talk about new initiatives or somehow renewing the — or expanding the Merida initiative to combat drug traffickers down there. So in other words, what sort of deliverables can we expect from this summit? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for that question. First of all, we have a very good and effective security relationship with Mexico and we have a for a number of years now, including with this administration. Certainly our shared security interests are going to be a part of the conversation. As President Obama made very clear in his initial meeting with President Peña Nieto, we stand by to help in any way we can and to cooperate as determined by the government of Mexico as it develops its security posture and deals with security concerns and judicial reform in Mexico.

You mentioned the Merida programs; those are continuing. And there’s a process in place between our two governments to develop priorities for cooperation. There’s a greater emphasis on the judicial cooperation now and finding ways to work together in that field. With respect to Michoacán, certainly we’re following closely what is happening there and stand by the government of Mexico as it confronts challenges there and elsewhere. [my emphasis]

And now Chapo is in custody, reportedly as a result of several weeks of cooperation between the DEA and Mexico’s Navy.

We shall see whether this time he stays in custody, and if so, in which country.

Why Does France Get Publicly-Reported Phone Calls?

The White House just released a readout of a call between President Obama and French President François Hollande pertaining to the spying revealed yesterday by Le Monde.

Readout of the President’s Call with President Hollande of France

The President spoke today with President Hollande of France. The United States and France are allies and friends, and share a close working relationship on a wide range of issues, including security and intelligence. The President and President Hollande discussed recent disclosures in the press – some of which have distorted our activities and some of which raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed. The President made clear that the United States has 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. The two Presidents agreed that we should continue to discuss these issues in diplomatic channels moving forward.  The two leaders also discussed the ongoing violence in Syria and the importance of a political solution to the crisis.

Such releases tend to be blather, so I don’t take all that much from the content of the readout.

But I am interested that they released it.

Remember, this is not the first conversation with an angry world leader Obama has had about the runaway NSA. Angela Merkel, Dilma Rousseff, and Enrique Peña Nieto have as well. And while Obama was in Germany not long after the initial Germany releases, and saw Rousseff at the G20 in Russia not long after the worst of the Brazilian stories, I don’t see any call with Peña Nieto. Plus, we know there was a follow-up call between Obama and Rousseff on September 16 (he was supposed to report his findings about the nature of NSA’s spying on Brazil and Rousseff; she called off her State Visit the day afterwards).

I assume the Obama-Rousseff call couldn’t be spun into a happy message like this one.

But what of the call to Peña Nieto? Or did he already know about the spying they did before he was elected, because content from it has been used to pressure him to keep the DEA presence in Mexico?

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.

The Transnational Crime Organizations the Presidents Didn’t Mention

Yesterday’s joint press conference with President Obama and Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto was an opportunity for the two leaders to lay out their take on the new limits imposed by Peña Nieto on counter-narcotics partnership.

Peña Nieto repeated what he has elsewhere: Mexico will continue to combat crime, but with a priority on ending violence rather than stopping the flow of drugs.

In a different arena, we have addressed security. We have both recognized the level of cooperation that the U.S. has shown towards the Mexican government. And the strategy in the area of security in our country has a very clear purpose, and that is to fight organized crime in all of its forms, be it drug dealing, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, or any crime perpetrated. We are not going to renounce that responsibility as a government and my administration. We’re going to face crime in all of its forms.

But in our new strategy we have emphasized the fact that we will reduce violence. Fortunately systems between Mexicans to fight organized crime and reduce violence are not objectives that contradict each other. There is no clash between these two goals. These are two goals that fall within the framework of one same strategy. And President Obama’s administration has expressed his will, as we know, to cooperate on the basis of mutual respect, to be more efficient in our security strategy that we are implementing in Mexico. [my emphasis]

Obama didn’t actually address security partnership in his prepared remarks, but in response to a question, he repeated Peña Nieto’s formulation–organized crime–then described what he claimed was the US contribution to organized crime: drug use and the flow of guns and cash from the US.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all, just on the security issue, I think it’s natural that a new administration here in Mexico is looking carefully at how it’s going to approach what has obviously been a serious problem. And we are very much looking forward to cooperating in any ways that we can to battle organized crime, as President Peña Nieto stated.

And we anticipate that there’s going to be strong cooperation, that on our side of the border, we have continued work to do to reduce demand and to try to stem the flow of guns and cash from North to South.

So this is a partnership that will continue. I think that President Peña Nieto and his team are organizing a vision about how they can most efficiently and effectively address these issues. And we will interact with them in ways that are appropriate, respecting that ultimately Mexico has to deal with its problems internally and we have to deal with ours as well. [my emphasis]

But while he mentioned cash, he didn’t talk about the form of banking that facilitates organized crime, with multinational structures that permit banks like HSBC or Wachovia to facilitate organized crime for years, with mere wrist-slaps in response from US regulators.

Indeed, because the press conference emphasized trade over security, Obama twice touted the benefits of the Trans Pacific Partnership. Yet TPP will, unless things change, actually make it easier for big banks to capture international markets and speed money across international borders.

Prevent Public Banks and Banking Regulation: These same provisions about state-owned enterprises will affect public banking too. North Dakota is the only state in the US to have a public state bank, although over a dozen states and cities are considering them. Public banks are used to hold taxes that are collected, administer payroll for public employees and provide loans for public projects. The advantage is that all public dollars are managed in a public institution rather than having to pay fees and interest to a private bank. But the TPP would consider public banks to have unfair advantages and therefore violate free trade.

And trade agreements protect big finance by (1) preventing regulation of the finance industry by locking in a model of extreme financial service deregulation; and (2) allowing capital to move in and out of countries without restrictions.

Overall, Obama seemed to be avoiding discussing security at length, perhaps hoping a focus on increasing trade yet further would serve as a carrot to convince Mexico to continue allowing us to infringe on its sovereignty in the name of hunting drug lords.

Even still, it seemed the entire discussion failed to consider that our organized crime lords, the banksters, are as much a part of the problem as Mexico’s organized crime lords.

TerrorismNarcotic Partner Asks for a Divorce'>When a Counter-TerrorismNarcotic Partner Asks for a Divorce

Dana Priest has a fascinating piece ostensibly describing how the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has chosen to shift its counter-narcotic approach from the one Felipe Calderón’s PAN party had pursued for a decade. About 12 of the article’s 60-some paragraphs describe first how, in a scene reminiscent of Bob Woodward’s account of Michael Hayden and others briefing Obama on the national security programs they assumed he’d retain after he took over the presidency, the US presented the existing US-Mexican counter-narcotics programs to Peña Nieto’s team.

In a crowded conference room, the new attorney general and interior minister sat in silence, not knowing what to expect, next to the new leaders of the army, navy and Mexican intelligence agency.

In front of them at the Dec. 15 meeting were representatives from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the CIA, the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other U.S. agencies tasked with helping Mexico destroy the drug cartels that had besieged the country for the past decade.

The Mexicans remained stone-faced as they learned for the first time just how entwined the two countries had become during the battle against narco-traffickers, and how, in the process, the United States had been given near-complete entree to Mexico’s territory and the secrets of its citizens, according to several U.S. officials familiar with the meeting. [my emphasis]

Priest then notes, at the end of the story, that Mexico had ejected the US personnel who had been working in fusion centers in Mexico.

But the Mexican delegation in Washington also informed U.S. authorities that Americans will no longer be allowed to work inside any fusion center, including the one in Monterrey. The DEA agents and retired military contractors there will have to go.

But the guts of the story replicate work Priest did with the Top Secret America series and book (and perhaps, given that the program ostensibly deals with Mexican rather than US security, offers even more detail), laying out precisely what we were doing in Mexico, from drones to electronic surveillance and data analysis to personal direction of raids. She describes a number of approaches here that are presumably replicated in or borrowed from counterterrorism operations, which makes the article an interesting reflection of both.

This description of the way Mexico controls drones, for example, reinforces questions I’ve had about the Saudi drone base we use to target Yemen.

An agreement was reached that would temporarily give operational control to Mexican authorities during such flights. U.S. pilots sitting in the States would control the planes remotely, but a Mexican military or federal police commander would be able to direct the pilot within the boundaries of a Mexico-designated grid.

Here, though, are two of my favorite details.

[Mexico’s intelligence service] CISEN discovered from a captured videotape and a special analytical group it set up that some of the cartels had hired former members of the U.S.-trained Guatemalan special forces, the Kaibiles, to create sociopathic killers who could behead a man, torture a child or immerse a captive in a vat of acid.

Anxious to counterattack, the CIA proposed electronically emptying the bank accounts of drug kingpins, but was turned down by the Treasury Department and the White House, which feared unleashing chaos in the banking system.

This has been reported elsewhere, but it’s important to remember the lethal cartels we’re fighting in Mexico arose, in part, out of training we did that is not that different from what Priest describes here. Blowback, baby.

Then there’s Treasury’s concerns about chaos in the banking system if the US were to mess with drug accounts. We know drug money served as a key revenue source for shaky banks during the financial crisis. And we know the government gave HSBC a wrist-slap rather than indictments after discovering the vast amounts of money laundering it was facilitating. One reason Latin American leaders are increasingly choosing a different approach to combat drugs is that under the current plan, the money ends up in the US, while the violence largely remains in their countries.

There are a few details of Priest’s piece that deserve some challenge, though. Read more