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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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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