NSA Records All Cell Phone Calls in the Bahamas, Finds Some Guy Mailing Marijuana


They know what you did last summer.
Credit: mdanys / photo on flickr

If you've been to the Bahamas recently, the National Security Agency (NSA) knows who you called and what you said while you were there. If you called some guy whose number a friend of a friend provided for you to score some weed while on the island to help you relax, because you're one of those people who actually gets even more wound up while on vacation, the NSA knows that, too.

The latest big revelation from Edward Snowden's files is that the NSA has the ability to record and store the content (not just the metadata) of all cell phone conversations in the Bahamas and at least one other country. The Bahamas: A hotbed of terrorism activity? Of course not. But the popular small island could serve as a nice testing ground for this surveillance system, code-named SOMALGET. Snowden's primary partners in document-dumping, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, analyzed the info along with Ryan Devereaux at The Intercept:

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.

Since the Bahamas are a popular travel location for Americans, and since many Americans have homes there (the article notes that Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey have residences there), SOMALGET is then sweeping up the content, not just the metadata, of untold numbers of conversations by U.S. citizens.

According to the documents, one other country is getting the full recording treatment, but The Intercept has decided to keep the identity of this country a secret because of "credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence." Speculation immediately followed that the country they're refusing to identify is Afghanistan. Since the system seems to operate with the help of private firms providing access with wiretap equipment, it seems possible these people are the ones The Intercept is trying to protect from harm (it's also possible that the private contractors have no idea of the extent of access they're providing).

One memo indicates that the relationship between the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and foreign governments may be how the NSA is putting these surveillance tools into play. The way The Intercept describes it, the DEA may be requesting legal, specific wiretaps to snoop on targets, with the NSA then using that access to snoop on the whole network.

What is the NSA getting out of this? Possibly not a whole lot:

[T]he NSA documents don't reflect a concerted focus on the money launderers and powerful financial institutions – including numerous Western banks – that underpin the black market for narcotics in the Bahamas. Instead, an internal NSA presentation from 2013 recounts with pride how analysts used SOMALGET to locate an individual who "arranged Mexico-to-United States marijuana shipments" through the U.S. Postal Service.

Not even the NSA is immune to crowing about the low-hanging fruit they've gathered to make an extremely expensive system appear to be successful. But it's important to remember who "low-hanging fruit" is to any sort of law-enforcement agency. It's not the big drug lords and heads of terror organizations. It's average joes who don't have the resources to protect themselves and are in difficult economic situations. Is catching a guy mailing dope from the Bahamas to the United States what this program is all about?

Given that this massive NSA surveillance program hasn't actually succeeded in catching terrorists or stopping terrorist plots, one doesn't have to be a conspiracy theorist to note that the government rarely shuts down massive programs just because they aren't successful. And, as The Intercept reminds, the DEA has been using information gathered through secret surveillance to launch criminal investigations against Americans and then trying to hide the source through its "parallel construction" process.   

NEXT: Thomas Massie Eats Hemp on Live TV

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  1. OT: The KOCHTAPUS looms large!

    1. Money well spent. Pensioners colluded with corrupt politicians to bleed Detroit dry, so they need to take a haircut just like all the other “creditors” in this bankruptcy.

      Bankruptcy is your incentive not to drain the host dry, parasites.

      1. ^^THIS^^

        If the retirees have anyone to blame, it is their union leaders who lied to them and pretended there was no limit to how much they could collect and themselves for being stupid and greedy enough to believe them.

        You pension does you know good if your employer goes bankrupt.

      2. Despite the cost, “It would be more positive to get this behind us,” Snyder said. “How many of us have traveled somewhere in the country or the world and had to listen about this bankruptcy?”

        I have no clue why this statement has any bearing anything at all.

        1. any bearing on

        2. Exactly. “Bail out Detroit because I haz a sad.”

  2. the DEA has been using information gathered through secret surveillance to launch criminal investigations against Americans and then trying to hide the source through its “parallel construction” process.

    This to me at least is the biggest scandal to come out of the whole Snowden affair and really the entire Obama Administration and maybe Bush too if it was happening then. If the NSA can listen to your phone calls without a warrant and then pass the information onto law enforcement who then uses that as a basis to investigate you, we no longer have a 4th Amendment in this country.

    This sort of thing was inevitable as soon as the NSA started listening to everything. The problem with listening is that it means you are going to hear a few things you don’t want to hear. I don’t care how much the government lies and assures us otherwise, there is no way that one portion of the government is going to stumble on evidence of a crime and not pass that information onto law enforcement. The temptation is just too great. Worse still, that is a temptation to try to do good (who doesn’t want to catch criminals?). A temptation to do wrong is going to be resisted by most people since most people don’t want to do wrong most of the time. But most everyone wants to do good. A temptation to do good is irresistible.

    You can’t let the NSA do this. Once they start listening to US persons, there is not stopping it and we no longer have a 4th Amendment.

    1. I would be stunned if this wasn’t happening under Bush as well.

      And we haven’t had a 4th amendment for a long time. It’s only now that the truth is getting out and a few people are realizing it.

      1. I assume it was too but I have never heard one way or another. Regardless it is apparently still happening now. And to me at least that is a big fucking problem.

      2. One of the things I always tell my clients is “don’t collect information unless you know how to and are prepared to use it, because once you have it people are going to ask you why you didn’t use it if something happens”.

    2. we no longer have a 4th Amendment in this country.

      We don’t.

      We conclude that the warrantless
      entry into Sutterfield’s home was justified under the exigent
      circumstances exception
      to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant
      requirement, as the defendant officers had a reasonable basis
      to believe that Sutterfield posed an imminent danger of harm
      to herself

      Can you find that exception in your copy of the Constitution, because I can’t.

      1. It says The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures

        The problem is that dreadful word “reasonable”. We have a court system that views damn near anything the cops do as “reasonable”.

  3. According to the documents, one other country is getting the full recording treatment, but The Intercept has decided to keep the identity of this country a secret because of “credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence.”

    Wikileaks is saying that they will release the name of the other country within the next few days.

    1. My money is on Iran.

      1. Burkina Faso.

      2. North Korea.

        Only need to tap 5 phones.

    2. What a bunch of magnificient bombthrowers, shifting the Overton window like that.

  4. Look, the NSA is just scouting out the best conch salad before the next secret seminar.

    1. I’ve got the conch! – Eric Holder

      1. Conch salad is yummy. Was in Nassau a couple of years ago and had some. Guy with a machete, a live conch, and lots of citrus, jalape?os and salad stuff was the chef of the day.

  5. Fucking great – and all paid for with money borrowed against my great-grand-kids’ future earnings.

  6. Those fucking devious Chinamen are always spying on everybody!

  7. the defendant officers had a reasonable basis
    to believe that Sutterfield posed an imminent danger of harm
    to herself


    Why not just tattoo “PROPERTY OF US GOVT” on the forehead of every child when they’re born?

    1. “That child? You didn’t build that.”

      1. Melissa Harris-Perry: “We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.” … This is about whether we as a society, expressing our collective will through our public institutions, including our government, have a right to impinge on individual freedoms in order to advance a common good.”

        1. “We hold these truths to be self evident…that our public institutions, including our government, have a right to impinge on individual freedoms in order to advance a common good…” has such a nice ring to it.

          Twat. There are plenty of places in the world that operate under this principle. She should go live in one of them if she really believes this, and leave the rest of us alone.

    2. In fairness to the cops, the America public has themselves to blame for that. If the cops don’t act, the city risks being sued for not stopping poor Sally from killing herself. Maybe we should stop thinking the government should right every wrong as a way to get the government to leave us alone.

      1. If the cops don’t act, the city risks being sued for not stopping poor Sally from killing herself.

        Unfortunately you are correct. However, I would have the therapist’s license after this. But then again, she risks being sued for not preventing it either. Maybe we need to get rid of lawyers.

        1. Bring back the common law tort system and stop holding people responsible for failing to stop other people from doing stupid things.

  8. I’m impressed that the NSA has been able to scrounge up the money to do this (probably via bake sales and walk-a-thons), given that federal spending has been slashed to the bone and that there is “nowhere left to cut”.

    1. This must have happened before sequestration.

    2. In all seriousness, how much blackmail do you think the NSA has on Congress?

      1. Probably less that you would think. Most Congress creatures are vile but most of their vileness is done through legal and public acts. I seriously doubt there are many of them who are real deviants such that they can be blackmailed.

        The other problem with blackmail is that it gives the victim leverage. Sure, some Congress creature doesn’t want the world to know he gets off watching his wife bang people, but once you blackmail him with it, he now knows something bad about you; that you are illegally blackmailing political figures.

        If the NSA really were blackmailing political figures, those political figures, by virtue of the blackmail being if ever revealed the biggest political scandal in US history, now own the NSA because they can threaten to go public with the blackmail.

        For this reason, I don’t think many people are being blackmailed if any at all.

        1. When has corruption or deviancy cost a Democrat in a safe district an election (assuming no jail time)? It hasn’t hurt Bob Mendez, Charlie Rangel, Feinstein, Gary Studds, Chris Dodd, a Kennedy, the Clintons, any Mayor of Newark, etc…

          They may be the most blackmail proof people in the country.

          1. Exactly. This is not 1955 when being caught with a hooker by one of Hoover’s FBI agents was a real scandal.

        2. I am pretty damn clean and I think I could be blackmailed to some degree. It is not only criminal behavior that can be used as leverage.

          To believe what you say is true, I would need to believe that members of Congress today are immaculate compared to those from 1930’s-1960’s. No way! J. Edgar was the most powerful man in America because he had the dirt on all of ’em. What the NSA has access to now puts the FBI info from that era to shame.

          The difference today is most likely one of willingness to use the dirt and the relatively weaker impact of the dirt once it is released.

          1. Looks like you already addressed most of my comment. Carry on : )

          2. You are capable of embarrassment and shame – which disqualifies you for political office. You probably would feel even more guilt and embarrassment lying about your past and destroying the people reporting it.

            1. All true. The few times in my life where the idea of running for some local office went zipping through my head have been followed by lmfao.

    3. Well this is why they’ve only been able to catch a few small fish. If they only had more money and more power, the war on drugs/terror/disobedience/etc. would be surely won. Surely.

  9. Deny everything, Baldrick.

    1. [Baldrick enters the witness box at Blackadder’s trial]

      Captain Blackadder: [whispering] Baldrick, deny everything.

      Lieutenant George: You are Private Baldrick?

      Private Baldrick: No.

      Lieutenant George: Are you not Captain Blackadder’s batman?

      Private Baldrick: No.

      [Blackadder beats his head against the desk]

  10. So many of the comments at The Intercept are about how its all the Banksters fault. We are so fucked.

  11. Valerie Jarrett jokes about being able to listen to anything.

    So should you be concerned that this high-ranking and influential political operative took the occasion of the Pomona College commencement address to comment on the Administration’s ability to monitor your behavior on the Internet? That’s just what she did when she delivered a word of warning about the young graduates entering the work force:

    “But also remember, before I hire anybody, I always check out everything that they’ve been doing online. And believe me, we have ways of finding out everything you’ve been doing online.”

    Sure, it’s just a joke. We get it. But would it have been wise for Bill Clinton’s closest advisor to make a joke about bosses messing around with their much younger interns at the workplace? Would it have been wise for a senior adviser to Richard Nixon to joke about how hard it is to erase audio tapes?


    If we had anything approaching an independent media, Jarrett would be a national embarrassment such that no President could be seen with her much less employ her at the White House.

    1. That was disgusting. The only worse thing was when Obama joked, “Predator drones” when talking about his daughters liking the Jonas Brothers.

      1. You just don’t appreciate dark humor.

    2. So Ayaan Hirsi Ali has her commencement invitation pulled – but Valarie Fucking Jarrett gets cheered while joshing about how she has destroyed privacy and the Fourth Amendment?

      What the fuck is wrong with people?

      1. TEAM

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