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The NSA in Mexico: If You Can’t Betray Your Friends, Whom Can You Betray?

David Shirk

In this Expert Take, David A. Shirk considers the implications of the NSA wiretapping scandal on the US-Mexico relationship. He argues that the current crisis gives President Obama an opportunity to right America's course, and to rebuild the relationship with Mexico. Both countries should ponder the NSA scandal seriously, and recognize that cooperation is not just contingent upon immediate interests but on longer-term mutual benefits.

The NSA in Mexico: If You Can’t Betray Your Friends, Whom Can You Betray?

Paraphrasing Bismarck: in statecraft, there are no amigos, only interests.

This truism of realpolitick has been underscored by revelations in recent months that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been tapping the electronic and wireless communications of its closest allies, including Mexico. Documents released this summer by Edward Snowden, a former-U.S. government contractor now living in exile in Russia, provide evidence that the NSA gained access to the official public email addresses used by the Mexican president and other government agencies, as well as the private communications of then-candidate Enrique Peña Nieto and his nine closest collaborators.

The NSA wiretapping scandal has provoked outrage around the world because of the apparently indiscriminate nature of the intrusions, but reactions have also varied. Germany has arguably been the most vocal critic, after learning that NSA tapped the official cell phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. France declared the NSA practices “shocking” and “unacceptable.” Brazil, too, has voiced strong objections, and has even considered retaliating through trade measures, particularly after learning that NSA intelligence gathering appears to have served U.S. economic interests. Russia, of course, thumbed its nose at the United States by offering Snowden a one-year visa and, recently, a job.

Reactions in Mexico have been comparatively staid. The Mexican foreign ministry immediately summoned the U.S. Ambassador and requested an explanation and issued a statement denouncing U.S. wiretapping as an illegal act in Mexican territory. President Obama pledged to investigate the matter, and to punish any wrong-doing, but basically got off with a slap on the wrist. The commentocracia on Mexico has had mixed reactions, with left-leaning pundits and publications expressing justifiable outrage about intrusions on national sovereignty and at least one Mexican conservative defending U.S. wiretapping as well-warranted by the pervasive corruption that infects Mexican government institutions.

There is no doubt that the NSA’s wiretapping shenanigans have serious international implications, and have done a great deal to discredit the use of U.S. power abroad. Spying on our friends reveals an intelligence culture of paranoia, ingenuousness, and diplomatic naiveté that is—to quote Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner’s appraisal of the NSA’s conduct—“un-American,” and unbefitting the world’s greatest power. This is a culture rooted in our post-9/11 anxieties over a global system seemingly spinning out of our control. The current crisis gives President Obama an opportunity to right America’s course, and rebuild our relationships.

And Mexico is a good place to start. The NSA leaks, and Mexico’s reactions to them, offer at least three points to ponder about U.S.-Mexico cooperation today, and how it could be better. The first thing we need to recognize is that the United States doesn't trust Mexico as much as it professes, nor as much as it should. Despite the spirit of shared responsibility under the Merida Initiative, Mexico is still not really inside the U.S. “circle of trust.” This is unfortunate. Targeted information exchanges have been critical to the arrests of key organized crime figures over the last decade, and Mexico has sacrificed thousands of lives to stem the flow of drugs into the United States. Yet, these efforts did not protect President Felipe Calderón from having his email bugged, or President-elect Peña Nieto from being spied on before he even took office. By all rights, Mexico—and the international community—has good reason to demand greater respect for the appropriate boundaries of cooperation with the United States.

Second, the NSA scandal shows that Mexico is not the country it was just a decade or so ago. Rather than exploiting the blundering of the “Damn yanquis!” to score political points at home, Mexico’s mandarins have taken a more much cautious approach. This suggests that the value of bi-national cooperation has grown, while anti-imperialist fervor has diminished. One way to interpret this is to see Mexico as a lackey to the United States. But what Mexico’s relatively nonplused reaction to the NSA scandal really shows is a country that is more confident of its actual importance to the United States, and the mutual benefits of an increasingly strong relationship. Over the last few years, both countries have weathered set-backs and scandals that would have once been seen as egregious and unforgivable: the murder of ICE agent Jaime Zapata, the ATF “gun-walking” operations into Mexican territory, the assault on CIA operatives by Mexican federal police, the recent release of druglord Rafael Caro Quintero. In this sense, both countries, and the relationship between them, have seemingly matured.

Finally, the one issue that merits further consideration in both countries is the one that no one has dared to ask: what did all that NSA spying actually reveal? Public scrutiny has focused mainly on what the NSA has done, to whom, and with what justification. Yet, the dog that is not barking is far more interesting. What does the United States know about Mexico that has not yet become evident? Were members of the Calderón administration really making deals with the Sinaloa Cartel, as some U.S. media reports have previously suggested? Has the NSA passed on any information about political activists or opponents that could be used against them by the Mexican government? Is Enrique Peña Nieto and the PRI sincerely committed to the rule of law and improving citizen security, or just faking it? Does President Fox actually say anything in private that is more inflammatory than his public commentary?

Judging from the Wikileaks from a few years ago, it seems quite likely that NSA wiretapping simply confirmed much of what the United States already knows through other channels. However, some information gleaned by the NSA wiretaps may hold real strategic value, not only to the United States but also to Mexico. Perhaps revealing high-level corruption or penetration by organized crime. Perhaps revealing an assassination attempt on a U.S. or Mexican official. Perhaps providing traceable intelligence back to a major drug trafficker’s yacht in the Caribbean. The difficult task for U.S. and Mexican authorities —and the domestic publics to which they must be beholden— is to determine the limits of state access to information in an era of limitless informational accessibility. In the inevitable, emerging age of cyberwarfare, there must be boundaries to ensure a focus on operational intelligence (rather than political intelligence and corporate espionage). There may be a need for special cases and protocols to insure against infiltration, but there must also be consequences for crossing the line.

For these reasons, both countries should ponder the NSA scandal seriously, and recognize that our cooperation is not just contingent upon our immediate interests but on longer-term mutual benefits. For now, and the foreseeable future, those interests are still fairly well aligned. In light of the NSA scandal, though, Mexico and the United States clearly need to have an on-going conversation—ideally not in a bug-proof bunker, but an open and honest way—about these common interests and the basis for our on-going security cooperation.

About the Author

David Shirk

David Shirk

Global Fellow;
Professor and Graduate Director, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of San Diego; Director, "Justice in Mexico" Project
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more