The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) refuses to acknowledge its involvement in a Top Secret U.S. intelligence facility in Mexico City, despite previously declassified information describing its role.
The NSA issued the “Glomar” denial in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request we filed last year. The agency did so even after we published a declassified Pentagon memo confirming the NSA’s involvement in the operations of the “Mexico Fusion Center,” a high-tech U.S. communications hub that barred Mexican personnel and focused on “high value targeting.”
U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the regional directorate with primary responsibility for the Mexico Fusion Center, was similarly evasive in response to a FOIA, saying that it had “determined that any documents responsive” to our request “are classified,” although it’s not at all apparent from their letter that the agency even conducted an initial search for responsive material.
In the U.S., federal agencies have the right to refuse to tell the requester whether documents do or do not exist in cases where such acknowledgement is itself a sensitive matter. The National Security Archive’s own Nate Jones has written a helpful primer on the “Glomar” response.
The Mexico/Migration project of the National Security Archive has appealed both decisions, arguing that prior acknowledgement of the existence of the Mexico Fusion Center and the involvement of NSA and NORTHCOM personnel undermines their “Glomar” argument. In this case, it’s already quite clear that the Mexico Fusion Center exists and that officials from the NSA, NORTHCOM, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other agencies have contributed resources and personnel to it.
What’s less clear is exactly what the staff of the Mexico Fusion Center is doing behind the backs of their Mexican security “partners.” In light of the Snowden disclosures, the “high value” targets mentioned in the final sentence of the Pentagon memo could refer to drug cartels or Mexican government itself. While the term “high-value target” often refers to leaders of terrorist groups or hostile states, highly-sensitive NSA documents leaked by Snowden and disclosed in September 2013 by Brazil’s O Globo show that NSA officials used the same language to refer to presidents Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, both of whom were targeted by the agency’s espionage operations.
During the presidency of Felipe Calderón, the two countries went out of their way to highlight the extent of their growing intelligence cooperation and touted the creation of joint “fusion centers” where U.S. and Mexican personnel worked side-by-side against increasingly powerful criminal organizations. With bilateral relations already having cooled somewhat under President Peña Nieto, new revelations about U.S. espionage operations and secret intelligence facilities have reportedly led to further retrenchment in U.S.-Mexico security cooperation and to calls for investigations by Mexican lawmakers.
Our posting from November 2013 unpacked the 2010 Pentagon memo that first revealed the Mexico Fusion Center and described its functions:
The document is perhaps the most detailed and up-to-date declassified account available of Pentagon intelligence programs in Mexico during the last few years. The memo also deepens our understanding of recent U.S. espionage activities in Mexico that came to light as a result of a cache of documents leaked to journalists by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. What emerges are the outlines of a two-track U.S. intelligence program: one, a network of joint intelligence centers staffed by personnel from both countries; the other, a secret facility located inside the U.S. Embassy to which the Mexicans are not invited.
It’s now up to the appeals review panels at the NSA and the Pentagon to either acknowledge that the records do exist or to disavow a clear, precise declassified memo exchanged between two top Pentagon officials. We’ll be sure to let you know whether they decide to acknowledge reality or not.
The Archive filed the requests as part of a broader effort to shed light on U.S.-Mexico security ties and the massive Mérida Iniative aid program.