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NSA in the Bahamas: 'Data Pirates of the Caribbean'

Greenwald: 'Key to new story isn't just NSA is targeting country unrelated to terrorism, but the sweeping call-storing capability they've implemented.'

(Photo: Flickr / cc / with overlay)

According to new NSA revelations at the The Intercept on Monday—reported by Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras—the U.S. National Security Agency "is secretly intercepting, recording, and archiving the audio of virtually every cell phone conversation on the island nation of the Bahamas."

Based on documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the surveillance program in the Caribbean nation, known as much in the U.S. as home for off-shore banking and shell corporations as for its luxurious resorts, "is part of a top-secret system – code-named SOMALGET" which has been executed without the knowledge of the Bahamian government.

The Intercept—whose reporting indicates the program is ongoing—explains how the NSA, "in cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration," has been able "to open a backdoor to the country’s cellular telephone network, enabling it to covertly record and store the 'full-take audio' of every mobile call made to, from and within the Bahamas – and to replay those calls for up to a month."

Part of a previously disclosed surveillance program called MYSTIC—which was revealed to be operative in Mexico, Kenya, and The Philippines—SOMALGET has been deployed in the Bahamas and at least one other nation. Due to "specific, credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence" in that country if revealed, however, The Intercept decided to withhold that information.

Describing the nature of the programs, The Intercept explains:

If an entire nation’s cell-phone calls were a menu of TV shows, MYSTIC would be a cable programming guide showing which channels offer which shows, and when. SOMALGET would be the DVR that automatically records every show on every channel and stores them for a month. MYSTIC provides the access; SOMALGET provides the massive amounts of storage needed to archive all those calls so that analysts can listen to them at will after the fact. According to one NSA document, SOMALGET is “deployed against entire networks” in the Bahamas and the second country, and processes “over 100 million call events per day.”

Following publication of the story, Greenwald highlighted important elements of the revelations by tweeting:

According to The Intercept:

By targeting the Bahamas’ entire mobile network, the NSA is intentionally collecting and retaining intelligence on millions of people who have not been accused of any crime or terrorist activity. Nearly five million Americans visit the country each year, and many prominent U.S. citizens keep homes there, including Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey.

In addition, the program is a serious – and perhaps illegal – abuse of the access to international phone networks that other countries willingly grant the United States for legitimate law-enforcement surveillance. If the NSA is using the Drug Enforcement Administration’s relationship to the Bahamas as a cover for secretly recording the entire country’s mobile phone calls, it could imperil the longstanding tradition of international law enforcement cooperation that the United States enjoys with its allies.

“It’s surprising, the short-sightedness of the government,” says Michael German, a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice who spent 16 years as an FBI agent conducting undercover investigations. “That they couldn’t see how exploiting a lawful mechanism to such a degree that you might lose that justifiable access – that’s where the intelligence community is acting in a way that harms its long-term interests, and clearly the long-term national security interests of the United States.”

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