The United States National Security Agency is reportedly collecting the contents of effectively every phone call dialed or received within the Bahamas, putting the conversations of countless residents and tourists into the hands of the NSA.
Journalists at The Intercept on Monday accused the secretive American spy agency of participating in this massive but previously undisclosed dragnet surveillance system after being supplied with classified documentation provided to them by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
“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,” Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras wrote for The Intercept. “Instead, the agency appears to have used access legally obtained in cooperation with the US 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.”
In one of those documents, The Intercept acknowledged, the NSA boasts of being able to log “over 100 million call events per day.”
Previously, Mr. Snowden’s NSA disclosures have led national security reporters to reveal how the US intelligence community has been collecting in bulk the raw metadata pertaining to millions of phone calls domestically, and similar records abroad are collected and stored by a program codenamed MYSTIC: “a surveillance system capable of recording ‘100 percent’ of a foreign country’s telephone calls,” according to a Washington Post report published in March using documents supplied by Snowden. In the Bahamas and another, unnamed country, however, The Intercept reports that the NSA is allegedly recording the actual contents of every conversation, then storing it for analysts to review at a later date using a specialized project known only as SOMALGET.
“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 website reported. “The more expansive full-take recording capability has been deployed in both the Bahamas and the unnamed country.”
“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,” The Intercept reported this week. “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.”
When reached for comment by The Intercept, the agency reportedly said in a statement that “the implication that NSA’s foreign intelligence collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false.” The office of the Bahamian prime minister and another government official failed to comment ahead of The Intercept’s report, but journalists say that the documentation supplied by Mr. Snowden makes it clear that the NSA implemented this surveillance system unbeknownst to any officials in the Bahamas.
Key to the news, Greenwald tweeted on Monday, “isn’t just [that the] NSA is targeting country unrelated to terrorism, but the sweeping call-storing capability they’ve implemented.”