The NSA Is Listening to Every Phone Call in the Bahamas

Intelligence analysts are spying on virtually all cell-phone calls in the Caribbean nation, which the U.S. has said poses “little to no threat” to Americans.

Nassau Harbor in the Bahamas
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
May 19, 2014, 10:05 a.m.

The U.S. is cov­ertly re­cord­ing the con­ver­sa­tions of “vir­tu­ally every cell­phone con­ver­sa­tion” tak­ing place in the Ba­hamas and stor­ing them for up to 30 days, ac­cord­ing to new doc­u­ments sup­plied by Ed­ward Snowden.

The clas­si­fied pro­gram, dubbed SOM­AL­GET, was put in place by the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency without any know­ledge or con­sent from the Ba­hami­an gov­ern­ment, ac­cord­ing to top-secret doc­u­ments pub­lished by The In­ter­cept on Monday. SOM­AL­GET is part of a broad­er pro­gram known as MYS­TIC, which re­portedly also mon­it­ors the tele­phone com­mu­nic­a­tions of sev­er­al oth­er coun­tries, such as Mex­ico, the Phil­ip­pines, and Kenya, for a grand total of 250 mil­lion people.

As The In­ter­cept notes, the Ba­hamas are not viewed as a na­tion­al se­cur­ity threat to the U.S. gov­ern­ment. The State De­part­ment last year called it a “stable demo­cracy that shares demo­crat­ic prin­ciples, per­son­al freedoms, and the rule of law with the United States.” It con­cluded the Ba­hamas posed “little to no threat” to Amer­ic­ans in terms of “ter­ror­ism, war, or civil un­rest.”

The In­ter­cept con­tin­ues:

The pro­gram raises pro­found ques­tions about the nature and ex­tent of Amer­ic­an sur­veil­lance abroad. The U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­munity routinely jus­ti­fies its massive spy­ing ef­forts by cit­ing the threats to na­tion­al se­cur­ity posed by glob­al ter­ror­ism and un­pre­dict­able rival na­tions like Rus­sia and Ir­an. But the NSA doc­u­ments in­dic­ate that SOM­AL­GET has been de­ployed in the Ba­hamas to loc­ate “in­ter­na­tion­al nar­cot­ics traf­fick­ers and spe­cial-in­terest ali­en smug­glers” — tra­di­tion­al law-en­force­ment con­cerns, but a far cry from de­rail­ing ter­ror plots or in­ter­cept­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

It re­mains un­clear ex­actly how the NSA is able to run SOM­AL­GET, but a memo sug­gests the data is col­lec­ted via “law­ful in­ter­cepts” made through the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “leg­al wireta­ps of for­eign phone net­works.” That ex­ploit­a­tion has ap­par­ently led to a back door to the na­tion’s cell-phone net­work.

Earli­er this year, The Wash­ing­ton Post re­por­ted that the NSA had de­veloped the abil­ity to re­cord and archive every phone call tak­ing place in an uniden­ti­fied coun­try. That pro­gram — MYS­TIC — is the same one be­ing used in the Ba­hamas, but the coun­try men­tioned by The Post re­mains un­known.

The bulk phone-tap­ping pro­gram col­lects the ac­tu­al con­tents of calls, as op­posed to metadata — such as the num­bers and time stamps of a call — that the NSA col­lects do­mest­ic­ally. But al­most 5 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans vis­it the Ba­hamas every year, and many own homes there, in­clud­ing Sen. Tom Har­kin of Iowa, Bill Gates, and Oprah Win­frey.

The In­ter­cept — journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity chan­nel for First Look Me­dia — re­por­ted that the NSA was break­ing in­to “po­ten­tially mil­lions of com­puters world­wide” and pos­ing as a fake ver­sion of Face­book to in­fect com­puters with mal­ware. It has joined The Guard­i­an and The Wash­ing­ton Post in re­cent months as a pub­lish­er of the leaked Snowden files. On a book tour last week, Gre­en­wald re­peatedly prom­ised more big gov­ern­ment-sur­veil­lance rev­el­a­tions in the near fu­ture.

The NSA did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

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