AFRICANGLOBE – The National Security Agency is secretly intercepting, recording, and archiving the audio of virtually every cell phone conversation on the island nation of the Bahamas.
According to documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the surveillance is part of a top-secret system – code-named SOMALGET – that was implemented without the knowledge or consent of the Bahamian government. Instead, the agency appears to have used access legally obtained in cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration 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.
SOMALGET is part of a broader NSA program called MYSTIC, which The Intercept has learned is being used to secretly monitor the telecommunications systems of the Bahamas and several other countries, including Mexico, the Philippines, and Kenya. But while MYSTIC scrapes mobile networks for so-called “metadata” – information that reveals the time, source, and destination of calls – SOMALGET is a cutting-edge tool that enables the NSA to vacuum up and store the actual content of every conversation in an entire country.
All told, the NSA is using MYSTIC to gather personal data on mobile calls placed in countries with a combined population of more than 250 million people. And according to classified documents, the agency is seeking funding to export the sweeping surveillance capability elsewhere.
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.
“The Bahamas is a stable democracy that shares democratic principles, personal freedoms, and rule of law with the United States,” the State Department concluded in a crime and safety report published last year. “There is little to no threat facing Americans from domestic (Bahamian) terrorism, war, or civil unrest.”
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.”
The NSA refused to comment on the program, but said in a statement that “the implication that NSA’s foreign intelligence collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false.” The agency also insisted that it follows procedures to “protect the privacy of U.S. persons” whose communications are “incidentally collected.”
Informed about the NSA’s spying, neither the Bahamian prime minister’s office nor the country’s national security minister had any comment. The embassies of Mexico, Kenya, and the Philippines did not respond to phone messages and emails.
In March, The Washington Post revealed that the NSA had developed the capability to record and store an entire nation’s phone traffic for 30 days. The Post reported that the capacity was a feature of MYSTIC, which it described as a “voice interception program” that is fully operational in one country and proposed for activation in six others. (The Post also referred to NSA documents suggesting that MYSTIC was pulling metadata in some of those countries.) Citing government requests, the paper declined to name any of those countries.
The Intercept has confirmed that as of 2013, the NSA was actively using MYSTIC to gather cell-phone metadata in five countries, and was intercepting voice data in two of them. Documents show that the NSA has been generating intelligence reports from MYSTIC surveillance in the Bahamas, Mexico, Kenya, the Philippines, and one other country, which The Intercept is not naming in response to specific, credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence. The more expansive full-take recording capability has been deployed in both the Bahamas and the unnamed country.
MYSTIC was established in 2009 by the NSA’s Special Source Operations division, which works with corporate partners to conduct surveillance. Documents in the Snowden archive describe it as a “program for embedded collection systems overtly installed on target networks, predominantly for the collection and processing of wireless/mobile communications networks.”
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.”
SOMALGET’s capabilities are further detailed in a May 2012 memo written by an official in the NSA’s International Crime and Narcotics division. The memo hails the “great success” the NSA’s drugs and crime unit has enjoyed through its use of the program, and boasts about how “beneficial” the collection and recording of every phone call in a given nation can be to intelligence analysts.
Rather than simply making “tentative analytic conclusions derived from metadata,” the memo notes, analysts can follow up on hunches by going back in time and listening to phone calls recorded during the previous month. Such “retrospective retrieval” means that analysts can figure out what targets were saying even when the calls occurred before the targets were identified. “[W]e buffer certain calls that MAY be of foreign intelligence value for a sufficient period to permit a well-informed decision on whether to retrieve and return specific audio content,” the NSA official reported.
“There is little reason,” the official added, that SOMALGET could not be expanded to more countries, as long as the agency provided adequate engineering, coordination and hardware. There is no indication in the documents that the NSA followed up on the official’s enthusiasm.
By: Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras