NSA Is Recording Every Phone Call… In The Bahamas?!?

from the dammit,-we-said-terrorists,-not-tourists! dept

So, back in March, the Washington Post published a report about the NSA’s MYSTIC program, where it was recording all phone calls from an unnamed country. The Washington Post chose not to reveal that country, leading many folks to assume that it was going to be a country like Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq. Would you believe… that it was actually the Bahamas? Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras have the long and detailed story over at The Intercept, revealing the SOMALGET program, a part of MYSTIC, which recorded every phone call from the Bahamas, not for terrorism, but to be able to hand over information about illegal drugs to the DEA.

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.

Other countries being targeted under MYSTIC, as revealed by the Intercept: Mexico, the Philippines and Kenya. There is also one other, unnamed, country that the US is recording all calls for, but even The Intercept won’t reveal that one (noting: “specific, credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence”). Either way, this has resulted in plenty of people pointing out that “tourists” and “terrorists” are not the same thing — while noting that tourism is 60% of GDP in the Bahamas, with 85% of those tourists come from the US. Others have pointed out that, perhaps, the use of the Bahamas was just a convenient testbed where most people wouldn’t notice, and where the information could easily be useful for the NSA’s partners at the DEA. Though, on that front, Julian Sanchez points out that one of the reasons the NSA got in trouble back in the 1970s with the Church Committee, was because the government used the NSA to evade limits on domestic wiretaps for illegal drugs.

As the report notes, the purpose of SOMALGET seems to have nothing to do with stopping terrorism, but is entirely about helping the DEA in its drug war efforts. And, of course, that also explains how the US was able to set this up. Basically, the DEA has a good relationship with the government in the Bahamas, and when it needed to set up phone taps, it appears that the Bahamas more or less let them bring in their own contractors to set up the phone taps. And, rather than just set it up to tap some individuals, the NSA swooped in and helped those “contractors” tap the entire phone network because… “collect it all.” Note how the “cover name” for the MYSTIC access provider is blacked out here:

The report further highlights that the DEA is one of the world’s largest intelligence agencies, and often has greater access in a variety of countries, because those countries don’t view it as “an intelligence agency” but rather as a drug fighting force. That has helped the NSA piggyback on the DEA for access in multiple countries.

Also, of interest, is the fact that, while the Bahamas is considered a popular place for money laundering and financial institutions to hide taxes, the NSA doesn’t seem even remotely interested in that kind of law breaking. Because why bother taking on real crimes when you can focus on busting pot dealers:

Somehow, this kind of stuff doesn’t make me feel any safer, as the NSA and its defenders insist. It makes me feel the opposite.

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Comments on “NSA Is Recording Every Phone Call… In The Bahamas?!?”

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Eric Holder says:


“people pointing out that “tourists” and “terrorists” are not the same thing…”

You people don’t know what you are talking about.

All terrorists are people, and all tourists are also people therefore all people are terrorists!

See, now you get the legal justification for us doing whatever the hell we want to, to terrorists!

A. Coward says:

What kind of drugs?

Implicit in the text is the idea that we are talking about controlled substances of high abuse potential like heroin, cocaine, meth, narcotic pharmaceuticals or (gasp) marijuana. Hence the connection with DEA and no mention of ICE. But given those agencies often intimate and many connections, as well as the Obama administration’s eagerness to do the bidding of big Pharma and crack down on offshore pharmacies, I wonder if that isn’t a primary goal of this operation?

Michael (profile) says:


“to be inserted in the packages…believed that the unspecified individuals removed the customs inspection seal, inserted the narcotics, and reapplied the seal.”

Can you imagine the audacity of someone intercepting packages, opening them, modifying the contents, and then sending them to their destination?

The NSA should be looking into this kind of behavior…

Anonymous Coward says:

So how do you inspire to change a country into totally mistrusting it’s own government?

How about you take all the enforcement agencies and turn them into fingers on the same hand of the spying agencies?

You then take the info gathered and hide the source when you go to bust the criminals in the US making sure that one of the core principals of the Constitution in which the accused has a right to face their accusers and null it without anyone else’s knowledge from the court on down.

Our government and it’s agencies has run amok to the point of no longer being anything resembling a Democracy beyond lip service for the plebs. The country these citizens believed in is a fairy tale and they are waking up to this fact.

The future does not look rosy.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Putting it to the test

Basically, the DEA has a good relationship with the government in the Bahamas

If they have any self respect, or respect for their citizens, after a stunt like this that should really change to ‘had a good relationship’, with hopefully the DEA getting the boot for helping the NSA put in place country-wide spying.

They might have been providing valuable, and free, help cracking down on drugs, but when they turn around and use that trust to allow another USG agency free reign like that, time to throw them out the door, publicly, and pick up the slack themselves.

Of course if the government over their is insistent on being good little USG lackeys, I’m sure they’ll probably just make some empty statements, and do their best to just brush everything under the rug. Can’t upset the boss after all.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

the SOMALGET program … recorded every phone call from the Bahamas, not for terrorism, but to be able to hand over information about illegal drugs to the DEA.

As you’re fond of pointing out on here, terrorism isn’t actually a serious threat to Americans. But you know what kills and ruins the lives of more Americans every single year than the 9/11 bombing? That’s right, drug abuse. It’s good to see these guys actually doing something constructive with their spying for once.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

@ mason-
get real, broken wheel: LEGALLY PRESCRIBED drugs kill more people every year than ALL ILLEGAL drugs combined…

mj ain’t NEVER killed anyone directly, only by being made illegal and kops kicking your door down, shooting your dog, and fucking your life up forever over a medicinal weed that makes you giggle, does mj do ‘harm’ as a RESULT of it being illegal, NOT for its inherent properties…

i have no doubt this has NOTHING to do with stopping drug smuggling/etc per se, it has to do with identifying and stopping INDEPENDENT drug smugglers, etc who avoid the cartels and payoffs to the banks, etc…

they don’t give a shit that illegal drugs are smuggled, they just want to make sure the ‘right people’ get a cut, otherwise they fuck you up…

stop being a propaganda victim for the war on (some) drugs…

Personanongrata says:

Revolt Slaves! Revolt!

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” ~ ~ Mario Savio, Sproul Hall, University of Califronia, Berkeley, December 2, 1964


Meho says:

And all this to protect us from terrorists that don’t possess a single tank, fighter jet, or war ship.

I just glad these guy’s weren’t calling the shot during WW2!! I can only imagine the actions they would have believed justified in that case.

I guess we should all just shut up and thank god for these brave patriots. As they dismantle the very principles contained in the constitution they took a oath to protect and defend!!

rapnel (profile) says:

Unnamed Country?

So we have one country that multiple parties feel is “not in the public interest” to be exposed due to a significant potential for violence. Correct?

Violence? That leaves Russia, China and the United States as the viable unnamed options, no? Given capabilities, presence and “present circumstances” I’m leaning towards America being on the full take list.

I think I can see how, if true, that could be cause for some genuine concern with regard to violent repercussions occurring. Violence that would stand a very good chance of escalating, rapidly.

I just can’t see anyone else on the planet freaking out quite as much as the privacy concerned American citizens with means and wills.

Anonymous Coward says:

Of relevance to a number of the comments here, Bruce Schneier has recently released an essay talking about the need for a separation between espionage and surveillance.


Executive summary (per my interpretation): Espionage should be targeted and secret (but expected), while surveillance should be public, transparent and subject to judiciary controls.

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