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Texas used aerial surveillance to 'spy on Mexico,' contractor memo alleges

  • HAVANA, TX - SEPTEMBER 11:  A Texas National Guard soldier operates a LRAS3 surveillance system while monitoring the U.S.-Mexico border on September 11, 2014 in Havana, Texas. His unit, deployed along the Rio Grande, is part of a 1,000 strong force of troops called up by Texas Governor Rick Perry to guard the border. The soldiers were sent to help state and federal law enforcement stem a surge of illegal immigrants, many of them families and unaccompanied minors.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

    HAVANA, TX - SEPTEMBER 11: A Texas National Guard soldier operates a LRAS3 surveillance system while monitoring the U.S.-Mexico border on September 11, 2014 in Havana, Texas. His unit, deployed along the Rio Grande, is part of a 1,000 strong force of troops called up by Texas Governor Rick Perry to guard the border. The soldiers were sent to help state and federal law enforcement stem a surge of illegal immigrants, many of them families and unaccompanied minors. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2014 Getty Images)

A former border security contractor in Texas says there was "spying on Mexico" during aerial surveillance missions and urged caution with state officials over that disclosure, though state security officials said the wording was a mischaracterization of the operation, a newspaper reported Monday.

The "spying" reference was contained in a November 2010 report to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) during a period of heightened border violence and obtained by the Austin American-Statesman.

Abrams Learning and Information Systems, known as ALIS and run by former Army Gen. John Abrams, which the state hired in 2006 to bring military know-how to state border security efforts, told state officials in the memo that they "need to be careful here as we are admitting to spying on Mexico." It prefaced an excerpt that discussed state aircraft being used to monitor drug cartel movements.

Contacted by the newspaper about the memo, DPS officials distanced themselves from the materials.

"This document was developed by an outside vendor, and it is imperative to make clear that the department unequivocally rejects the reference to 'spying,'" spokesman Tom Vinger said in an email. "This characterization does not reflect the department's position nor was this ever used as a talking point."

It's unclear how far into Mexico surveillance may have occurred, using powerful cameras turned to the south. But Vinger told the Associated Press late Monday that Texas authorities do not enter Mexican airspace.

It was also unclear whether Mexican counterparts granted permission for the surveillance or whether the state had a formal intelligence sharing agreement with federal authorities.
DPS officials say they had no information to speak directly to the mission described in the documents.

The Texas National Guard, which regularly operated the surveillance flights in support of state and federal counterdrug missions, said it had no information about the specific mission.
Speaking generally, both the National Guard and DPS said their aerial operations steer clear of Mexican airspace, and DPS said its surveillance doesn't go beyond the "immediate inland area" of Mexico cited in the report.

ALIS was once a key DPS partner. The Virginia-based company received $20 million in no-bid contracts that at one point received scrutiny from public corruption prosecutors in Austin. DPS spokesman Tom Vinger told the Associated Press that the final contract related to border security with the company ended in 2010.

DPS has increased its aerial surveillance efforts in recent years. The agency bought a high-altitude spy plane in 2012 and has asked lawmakers for more funding this year to purchase another.

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