The latest revelation from the Snowden documents is that the NSA “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.
Why Bahamas? Again, it was not due to catching terrorists, which is the catch-all excuse given for everything, but to target drug traffickers and smugglers. The government of the Bahamas gave some access to the US Drug Enforcement Agency to help in drug enforcement but the US then exploited that concession to go far beyond what that government thought it was allowing.
“Lawful intercept systems engineer communications vulnerabilities into networks, forcing the carriers to weaken,” says Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Host governments really should be thinking twice before they accept one of these Trojan horses.”
The US is, as usual, careful not to harm the interests of the oligarchy, many of whom use the Bahamas to hide their wealth from US taxes.
If the U.S. government wanted to make a case for surveillance in the Bahamas, it could point to the country’s status as a leading haven for tax cheats, corporate shell games, and a wide array of black-market traffickers. The State Department considers the Bahamas both a “major drug-transit country” and a “major money laundering country” (a designation it shares with more than 60 other nations, including the U.S.). According to the International Monetary Fund, as of 2011 the Bahamas was home to 271 banks and trust companies with active licenses. At the time, the Bahamian banks held $595 billion in U.S. assets.
But the 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.