NSA and Mexico: missing facts, reporters are puppets on Snowden's string

NSA and Mexico: missing facts, reporters are puppets on Snowden's string

Summary: The truth about the relationship between Mexican and American leaders is not what the current crop of Snowden-driven outraged reporters and bloggers would have you believe. In fact, they don't seem to know the truth. Read this article, and you'll have the facts they don't.


The problem with all these Snowden leaks is that reporters and bloggers are responding like puppets on a string. The outrage-of-the-day is great for our attention economy, and it doesn't hurt if the weekly dose of whining sticks it to the American government. That's just a bonus.

The problem is, many of these braying, whining, righteously indignant reporters and bloggers don't have any perspective, so they're feeding right from the Russia-running Snowden's outstretched hand and dancing to his holier-than-thou tune without applying any critical thinking (or actual investigation).

Take the most recent outrage. Apparently, the NSA has been spying on former Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Now, if that were the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, outrage might have been in order.

But the truth is that Calderon hasn't exactly been playing fair himself. In fact, four years ago, I covered Calderon in some detail because he got caught red-handed, stealing American information.

Let's dig into that story for a moment, so you can learn about just how much of a stellar statesman Calderon was during his years in (and getting into) office.

We flash back to April 2008

U.S. President George W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Mexican President Felipe Calderón were meeting at a North American Leader's Summit at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans. Members of the Mexican delegation were meeting with President Bush and senior staff in a conference room at the Windsor Court.

As something of a security effort (presumably to make sure pictures and recordings didn't leave the room), everyone was required to deposit his or her BlackBerry (and other devices of the Palm Treo generation) on a table outside the room. BlackBerry still meant something back then.

In fact, BlackBerry meant so much that one Rafael Quintero Curiel, a "diplomatic functionary" of the Mexican delegation, walked off with BlackBerry devices belonging to senior U.S. government officials. The Secret Service finally caught up with him on the way to the airport.

I wrote a nine-page analysis on this event, which I invite you to read. BlackBerry devices back then could store about 64MB, which is the equivalent in strategic U.S. government information of about 28,000 printed pages of data, or seven complete sets of all seven Harry Potter novels -- now in the hands of a Mexican official, stolen straight from senior White House officials.

Were the Mexico story just about the BlackBerry devices, I probably wouldn't have brought it up in this column today. But there's more.

First, it should be remembered that the U.S. and Mexico weren't always neighborly neighbors. Back in 1846, President Polk decided he wanted a bunch of Mexican territory for the U.S. and started a nice little war that high school students are taught to call the Mexican-American War.

That may have been over a century and a half ago, but as recently as 1994, a Mexican President, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, pointed out, "Having suffered an external intervention by the United States, in which we lost more than half of our territory, Mexico cannot accept any proposal for intervention by any nation of the region."

At least one Mexican leader still held a grudge.

But that doesn't really vilify Calderon enough to put the NSA complaint in perspective. Former Mexican president Calderon, the one documented in the recent NSA stories as having been spied upon, has a brother-in-law, Diego Zavala. As it turns out, Mr. Zavala formed a software company called Hildebrando.

Mexico is a democracy and its citizens vote. Of course, those votes have to be counted. Now, what company do you think developed the vote counting system that validated Calderon as president? Yep, brother-in-law Diego's Hildebrando. Even worse, a bunch of university mathematicians analyzed the results of the Mexican Federal Election Board and wrote that the votes had a "mathematically impossible behavior".

Apparently, as votes were added for Calderon, votes were reduced for his rival. Uh, oops.

Calderon, of course, disputed these claims, but math is math.

Before I wrap this up, I should also point out that Mexico has it's own security force, the Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (or CISEN). CISEN is known as the strong-arm intimidation agency of the Mexican government, so it's not like the U.S. is the only country with an intelligence apparatus.

Let's bring it back home

The NSA has been accused of spying on a former Mexican president, Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa (his full name). That same Mexican president (a) was in office, and even in the room(!) when one of his flunkies stole BlackBerry devices from our White House officials, and (b) quite possibly influenced his own election by having his brother-in-law's company count the results. Further, a previous Mexican president showed hostility towards the U.S. for actions that took place more than 150 years ago, showing he could really hold a grudge.

I can't tell you whether or not the NSA spied on Calderon. But if they did, it's pretty clear he deserved it. Dude was not a friend of America and if he talked like a friend to our face, he sure as heck acted unlike a friend behind our backs.

NSA has a job to do. Keeping an eye on a hostile neighbor who has stolen American leaders' information is part of that job.

So, reporters and bloggers, stop your whining until you have all the facts. And read my comprehensive analysis of the Mexico situation before you rush to judgment against the American intelligence community.

Topics: Government US, Government, Privacy, Security


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Mexico, Brasil, France

    should shut up and volunteer the info we need.
    These spoiled brats need a responsible big brother to watch and protect them.
    LlNUX Geek
    • seriousnes of response

      is this a serious response or extreme sarcasm
  • So, Calderon cheated, therefore it is OK to spy on everybody

    I got it. Calderon cheated, therefore it is OK to spy on everybody. Like, because person A is a killer, it is OK that person B is a killer too. Do you happen to be insane, or you are just a paid shill ?
    • He's the latter ...

      ... admittedly so.
      David A. Pimentel
      • The Goose & Gander Annology . . .

        "The problem is, many of these braying, whining, righteously indignant reporters and bloggers don't have any perspective, so they're feeding right from the Russia-running Snowden's outstretched hand and dancing to his holier-than-thou tune without applying any critical thinking (or actual investigation)."

        Was it not that the POTUS himself indeed said "the rhetoric should be turned down" only to give credence to it by his enablers, seemingly this zdnet site? After all of the above mentioned quote, it strays off into "Well, Calderon did such and such, so we are Entitled to do it too." - LOL - More Spin to lessen the Sin, I gather.
    • Uh, no. Calderon MAY have cheated.

      Granted there is a conflict of interest where his brother's company was the one making the voting machines and the voting machines were proven tobe fraudulently tabulating the votes.

      Question is, did that voting fraud give him the election, or would he have won anyway? And was his brother or his company punished for it?

      Other question is, Did Calderon instruct or cover the blackberry theft?

      "We suspect" is a world of difference from "We know and have proof." The fundamental question is, "Does the NSA have enough reason to suspect Mr Calderon of commiting a U.S. crime that a judge would sign off on permitting them to wire tap his phone and e-mail?"
      • Brother in Law?

        Brothers in law?
        Voting irregularities?
        Anyone remember Jeb Bush.? His brother in law was also in the room.
      • Isn't it obvious, from the behavior of the NSA and our government

        that the concept of innocent until proven guilty no longer applies? And Now we also have self important "writers", including the author of this piece, whose sanctimony grants them the power to judge.
        • Looks like we're all judging

          And David says we should, but should look at the big picture before we do, which only makes sense. I don't buy the reasons David gives, but his main point is correct.

          The other alternatives would be:

          1. Let the President decide what should and should not be secret.
          2. Let the courts decide whether any disclosed secrets are legitimate.

          Both presuppose that the public should defer to the authorities without formulating or expressing any opinions of our own, which I don't think many of us would find acceptable.
          John L. Ries
        • Exactly.

          When I saw him use the phrase, "holier-than-thou" as a slight to Snowden, I laughed at this obviously pot-kettle statement. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm getting pretty sick of the lectures from Gewirtz on why it's a good thing for the NSA to break the law and trample the Bill of Rights like a fascist regime. Gewirtz makes money from supporting these illegal acts, so his bias is incredibly obvious. Any value his opinion might have is negated by his conflict of interest. He's the very definition of a paid shill and I don't understand why ZDNet let's him continue spouting his NSA propaganda. It's a pathetic way to get page hits.
          • Thank you, Bill! I'm as sick of it as you are.

            David, go back to operating systems/devices/whatever reviews... WRT to anything NSA: I'm sorry, but your vilifying what that brave man did is beneath contempt. The reasons you've given are of a "tarred with the same brush" variety.
            journalists and Snowden have put their careers and lives at stake reporting the truth. Our rights as Americans have been diminished to an unprecedented low. You may have an opinion on this, David, but you can't deny what is colouring that opinion. This is not journalism, this is mudslinging.
        • Trust, but verify

          This is an ESPIONAGE case not a criminal one. "Innocent until proven guilty" has _never_ applied in matters of state.

          Should we try to find out what other world leaders, even our friends (some would say: ESPECIALLY our friends) really think and do behind our backs? Definitely. As the Gipper once said: "Trust, but verify."

          Do other countries spy on us? I have no doubt. I suspect the US has dozens of PRC agents, Mossad, and even MI-6 hard at work trying to figure out what we are up to. Are we really acting in their government's interests, or against them? Are we serious about our commitments? When diplomats meet, they already have a pretty good idea of what concessions the other side are going to be willing to make for what advantages they can offer. To do less would be foolish.

          The cat-and-mouse game of espionage and counter-espionage, with every government trying to keep it's cards close to the vest while trying to get a peak at everybody else's, has existed since the first king sent a spy into the second king's court. Now we call it "information dominance."

          The big deal here is, the US got caught doing it. So we get egg on our face and lose a valuable tool in the spying business. (Although one could argue that every government should have already taken this particular technique into account and taken appropriate precautions.)

          I'm not really one to say, "everybody's doing it" as an excuse for anything, but in this case, if you're a government not spying on your enemies _and_ friends, you're an idiot.
    • It's okay to make your own point, bit why twist David's?

      He is addressing the crowd who says "Mexico is our good buddy". Essentially, they shout that we shouldn't snoop in our brother's dresser drawers.

      David says Mexico is not our brother. It's just another nation pursuing it's own self interests like every other nation.

      USA politicians are dumb enough already. I don't want them stumbling through world affairs with their eyes closed.
    • We spy on them

      and they spy on us, it's been that way with all our enemies AND friends. This is not news, it's what is done with this information that is relevant. If it's used to subvert our friends, or interfere with them, or for corporate spying, then that is a problem, both directions.
      • God father saying

        What was that saying? Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
    • Awful research, David

      I don't want to write a primer on Mexican politics, so I will just say this:

      * Your portrayal of the Mexican NSA, CISEN, as an all powerful state police is terribly dated. Since 2000 the CISEN has been so dismantled it's now a national security problem.

      * The Mexican electoral system of 2006 (Calderon's election) had security measures and safeguards the US can only dream of, like passport-like voter id's issued months in advance (the same for all states), with poll officials having a printed copy to make sure they match (voters are assigned a poll in advance). The poll result (signed by the citizen officials and party representatives that made it) was published outside the poll at closing -this alone prevents count-fixing after the fact.

      Political parties had real time access to the national polls database where results were captured as they arrived (if for some reason they doubted the count reported by their own representatives), with the public getting periodic updates starting after the last poll closed.

      These updates to the ongoing public count were the source of the "algorithm" myth, by amateur staticians and militant journalists (like Julio Hernandez, which is probably your "source" for this) claiming the votes didn't have a random distribution neither geographically nor in time -it's not like parties have strongholds, the rural vote takes longer to reach the electoral office or updates by skilled technicians tend to have similarly sized "jumps".

      I'm taking the liberty of including your likely ultimate sources -in Spanish, obviously: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2006/07/04/index.php?section=opinion&article=004o1pol and http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2006/07/05/index.php?section=opinion&article=004o1pol -this last one has the approximated formula for count-fixing. No mention how to deal with the published counts outside the polls, though. I'd like to see the names of those "university mathematicians" who analyzed the results and found them unlikely. As a courtesy I'm giving you the names of the scientists who analyzed the running count the day of the election for the Electoral Board and didn't find anything strange: Miguel Cervera, Guillermina Eslava, Rubén Hernández, Ignacio Méndez, Manuel Mendoza. Most work for UNAM or ITAM.

      I'm not sure why the "outrage" bothers you. If it's outrage by foreigners, I don't see why you should care; if it's by Americans they are probably hopeless.

      In any case is funny how you adopted the cause of Mexican journalists that make Snowden and Manning seem apolitical and realist, as should be obvious from the facts I just gave you. If you really want to be part of the team you can read the opinion pieces by Fidel Castro (rings any bell?) they proudly publish in their front page since 2007 (although it's admittedly a small banner at the bottom). For the full list, http://www.jornada.unam.mx/cobertura/reflexiones/
    • Analogy is a bit off

      Because person A is a killer person B should take precautions to ensure that person A doesn't kill them.
  • Oh well

    I have no problem with the NSA spying on other countries, in fact I expect them too. Just as I expect other countries to spy on us, it has always been so, and it will always be so. We don't have "friends" we have shared interests with other countries. this notion that we should not "spy on our friends" is laughable. I do however object to the NSA spying on US citizens in the USA. Let Mexico or France whine to their hearts content, I'm sure when they need some intelligence they wont hesitate to call the NSA.
  • Yes, but ...

    Very interesting article. You make a lot of good points and I agree with about 75% of them; the remaining 25% I feel strongly about. For instance, the statements made by Salinas de Gortari about U.S. intervention cannot be taken seriously. He is by far, the Mexican president that has been the most subservient to the United States (see NAFTA); statements like those are empty rhetoric for the populace. I believe both Calderon's and Peña Nieto's 'outrage' are similar theatrics. I agree with you on the sorry state of reporters and media, but I hope you are not trying to make the point that it's ok for the U.S. to spy on Mexican presidents, because Mexico has done similar things in the past? Finally, I agree with you on the dubious results of the election when Calderón became president in 2006, but smearing him because he is 'not a friend of the U.S.' is not only inaccurate, it does not make your point. We agree that he's an idiot that stole the election, but his presidency was outrageously subservient to the interests of the United States; as a candidate he was adamant about 'respecting our agreements with other countries', i.e. NAFTA. I can go on but I'll leave it there.
  • Spying on foreign government is OK, violating Constitution is not.

    I don't care if we spy on foreign governments but spying on US citizens is not OK. The 4th amendment says you need a warrant, issued for a cause, that list the persons and things being searched. Think about J Edger Hover, former FBI director, manipulating Washington officials for 40 years with recordings of phone conversations. This will happen if the NSA is not reigned in and forced to follow the Constitution. If you think this is program is not putting us on the fast path to tyranny then you are under a delusion.
    KLS 12.5