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.