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
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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