The U.S. National Security Agency has been recording and archiving “virtually every” cellphone call in the Bahamas without knowledge and permission from the island nation’s government, according to a report from The Intercept.
The surveillance is part of an NSA secret system called SOMALGET that tapped into access legally granted to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and opened a “backdoor” into the country’s cell telephone network, the article states.
The NSA is able to intercept and record cellphone calls made to, from and within the Bahamas, and access the recordings for 30 days, according to the article, whose revelations are based on documents provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
The article, authored by Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, describes SOMALGET as a “cutting edge tool” that gives the NSA access to the content of the calls, not just to their metadata.
SOMALGET is part of a broader program called MYSTIC in which the NSA secretly monitors the telecom systems not only of the Bahamas but of several other countries as well, including Mexico, the Philippines and Kenya, according to the report.
“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,” reads the article.
The Bahamas surveillance is focused on locating “international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers,” according to the story.
The Intercept is published by Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media and was co-created by Greenwald, whose groundbreaking coverage last year in The Guardian about NSA surveillance programs helped that newspaper win a Pulitzer Prize this year. The Intercept was founded primarily to report on documents provided by Snowden.
Monday’s article states that the Bahamas SOMALGET surveillance “raises profound questions about the nature and extent of American surveillance abroad” because it isn’t driven by anti-terrorism motivations and because the Bahamas is considered a stable democracy that presents no terrorism threat to the U.S.
“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,” reads the article, noting that almost 5 million Americans visit the Bahamas every year, and that many prominent U.S. citizens have homes there.
“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,” the article reads.
Asked for comment by The Intercept, the NSA refused to comment about the Bahamas SOMALGET surveillance but said that “the implication that NSA’s foreign intelligence collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false” and that protects the privacy of “U.S. persons” whose communications are “incidentally collected.”
Neither the Bahamian prime minister’s office nor the country’s national security minister offered any comment to The Intercept.