The Bahamas Wants To Know The Reasons Of NSA Recording Its Phone Calls
25 May, 2014
The Bahamas government officials want their US counterparts to explain why the National Security Agency (NSA) has been intercepting and recording every cell phone call taking place on the island nation.
A report by The Intercept on Monday revealed that the NSA has been targeting the Bahamas’ entire mobile network and storing the audio of every phone call traversing the network for up to 30 days.
On the following developments, a report by Ryan Devereaux in The Intercept on 20 May 2014 said:
“Responding to the report Bahamian officials told the Nassau Guardian that they had contacted the US and vowed to release a statement regarding the revelations.
“In a front-page story published Tuesday, Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell told the Guardian that his government had reached out to the US for an explanation. Mitchell said the cabinet was set to meet to discuss the matter and planned to issue a statement on the surveillance. The Bahamian minister of national security told the paper he intended to launch an inquiry into the NSA’s surveillance but did not provide a comment.
“A source familiar with the situation told The Intercept that the cabinet meeting had indeed taken place, but an official in Mitchell’s office said there would be no comment Tuesday. ‘You’ll have to call back’, said the official, who did not identify herself.
“Calls to the office of the prime minister went unanswered, as did a call to Bahamas Telecommunications Company, the Bahamas’ largest communications provider.”
Ryan’s report said:
“US officials at the embassy in the Bahamian capital of Nassau, meanwhile, told the Guardian it would not comment on ‘every specific alleged intelligence activity.’
“‘The United States values its relationship with the Bahamas’, Neda Brown, a US embassy spokesperson, told the paper. Contacted by The Intercept, Brown directed inquires to the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemispheres. The bureau did not return a request for comment made late Tuesday.
“In addition to the Bahamas, The Intercept‘s report also revealed NSA’s targeting of mobile networks in Mexico, Kenya and the Philippines. Calls and emails to the embassies of each country were not returned Tuesday.”
An earlier report By Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in The Intercept said:
“The National Security Agency is secretly intercepting, recording, and archiving the audio of virtually every cell phone conversation on the island nation of the Bahamas.”
Citing documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, The Intercept report headlined “Data Pirates of the Caribbean: The NSA Is Recording Every Cell Phone Call in the Bahamas” (19 May 2014) said:
“[T]he 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 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.
“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 report added:
“The program raises profound questions about the nature and extent of American surveillance abroad. The US 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.
“‘The Bahamas is a stable democracy that shares democratic principles, personal freedoms, and rule of law with the United States’, the State Department concluded in a crime and safety report published last year. ‘There is little to no threat facing Americans from domestic (Bahamian) terrorism, war, or civil unrest.’
“By targeting the Bahamas’ entire mobile network, the NSA is intentionally collecting and retaining intelligence on millions of people who have not been accused of any crime or terrorist activity. Nearly five million Americans visit the country each year, and many prominent US citizens keep homes there, including Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey.
“In addition, the program is a serious – and perhaps illegal – abuse of the access to international phone networks that other countries willingly grant the United States for legitimate law-enforcement surveillance. If the NSA is using the Drug Enforcement Administration’s relationship to the Bahamas as a cover for secretly recording the entire country’s mobile phone calls, it could imperil the longstanding tradition of international law enforcement cooperation that the United States enjoys with its allies.”
The Intercept report cited Michael German, a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice who spent 16 years as an FBI agent conducting undercover investigations. Michael said: “It’s surprising, the short-sightedness of the government. That they couldn’t see how exploiting a lawful mechanism to such a degree that you might lose that justifiable access – that’s where the intelligence community is acting in a way that harms its long-term interests, and clearly the long-term national security interests of the United States.”
The report said:
“The NSA refused to comment on the program, but said in a statement that ‘the implication that NSA’s foreign intelligence collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false’. The agency also insisted that it follows procedures to ‘protect the privacy of US persons’ whose communications are ‘incidentally collected’.
Informed about the NSA’s spying, neither the Bahamian prime minister’s office nor the country’s national security minister had any comment. The embassies of Mexico, Kenya, and the Philippines did not respond to phone messages and emails.
In March, The Washington Post revealed that the NSA had developed the capability to record and store an entire country’s phone traffic for 30 days.
The Post reported that the capacity was a feature of MYSTIC, which it described as a “voice interception program” that is fully operational in one country and proposed for activation in six others. (The Post also referred to NSA documents suggesting that MYSTIC was pulling metadata in some of those countries.) Citing government requests, the paper declined to name any of those countries.
The Intercept report said:
“The Intercept has confirmed that as of 2013, the NSA was actively using MYSTIC to gather cell-phone metadata in five countries, and was intercepting voice data in two of them. 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 more expansive full-take recording capability has been deployed in both the Bahamas and the unnamed country.
“MYSTIC was established in 2009 by the NSA’s Special Source Operations division, which works with corporate partners to conduct surveillance. Documents in the Snowden archive describe it as a ‘program for embedded collection systems overtly installed on target networks, predominantly for the collection and processing of wireless/mobile communications networks.’
“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. 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. According to one NSA document, SOMALGET is ‘deployed against entire networks” in the Bahamas and the second country, and processes ‘over 100 million call events per day’.
“SOMALGET’s capabilities are further detailed in a May 2012 memo written by an official in the NSA’s International Crime and Narcotics division. The memo hails the “great success” the NSA’s drugs and crime unit has enjoyed through its use of the program, and boasts about how ‘beneficial’ the collection and recording of every phone call in a given nation can be to intelligence analysts.”
The report said:
“The documents don’t spell out how the NSA has been able to tap the phone calls of an entire country. But one memo indicates that SOMALGET data is covertly acquired under the auspices of ‘lawful intercepts’ made through Drug Enforcement Administration “accesses”– legal wiretaps of foreign phone networks that the DEA requests as part of international law enforcement cooperation.
“When US drug agents need to tap a phone of a suspected drug kingpin in another country, they call up their counterparts and ask them set up an intercept. To facilitate those taps, many nations – including the Bahamas – have hired contractors who install and maintain so-called lawful intercept equipment on their telecommunications. With SOMALGET, it appears that the NSA has used the access those contractors developed to secretly mine the country’s entire phone system for ‘signals intelligence’ –recording every mobile call in the country. ‘Host countries’, the document notes, ‘are not aware of NSA’s SIGINT collection’.”
The report cited Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. Christopher said: “Host governments really should be thinking twice before they accept one of these Trojan horses.”
The report also cited a 2004 memo by the manager of the NSA’s drug-war efforts: “DEA has close relationships with foreign government counterparts and vetted foreign partners.
“[W]ith more than 80 international offices, the DEA is one of the most widely deployed US agencies around the globe.
“But what many foreign governments fail to realize is that U.S. drug agents don’t confine themselves to simply fighting narcotics traffickers. ‘DEA is actually one of the biggest spy operations there is’, says Finn Selander, a former DEA special agent who works with the drug-reform advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. ‘Our mandate is not just drugs. We collect intelligence’.
“What’s more, Selander adds, the NSA has aided the DEA for years on surveillance operations. ‘On our reports, there’s drug information and then there’s non-drug information’, he says. ‘So countries let us in because they don’t view us, really, as a spy organization.’”
“For nearly two decades, telecom providers in the United States have been legally obligated under the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act to build their networks with wiretapping capabilities, providing law enforcement agencies with access to more efficient, centrally managed surveillance.
“The process for setting up lawful intercepts in foreign countries is largely the same as in the United States.”
There is a big market for interception. On the market, the report said:
“Countries like the Bahamas don’t install lawful intercepts on their own. With the adoption of international standards, a thriving market has emerged for private firms that are contracted by foreign governments to install and maintain lawful intercept equipment. Currently valued at more than $128 million, the global market for private interception services is expected to skyrocket to more than $970 million within the next four years, according to a 2013 report from the research firm Markets and Markets.
“‘Most telecom hardware vendors will have some solutions for legal interception’, says a former mobile telecommunications engineer who asked not to be named because he is currently working for the British government. ‘That’s pretty much because legal interception is a requirement if you’re going to operate a mobile phone network’.
“The proliferation of private contractors has apparently provided the NSA with direct access to foreign phone networks. According to the documents, MYSTIC draws its data from ‘collection systems’ that were overtly installed on the telecommunications systems of targeted countries, apparently by corporate “partners” cooperating with the NSA.”
The report said:
“Though it is not the ‘access provider’, the behemoth NSA contractor General Dynamics is directly involved in both MYSTIC and SOMALGET. According to documents, the firm has an eight-year, $51 million contract to process ‘all MYSTIC data and data for other NSA accesses’ at a facility in Annapolis Junction, Maryland, down the road from NSA’s headquarters. NSA logs of SOMALGET collection activity – communications between analysts about issues such as outages and performance problems – contain references to a technician at a ‘SOMALGET processing facility’ who bears the same name as a LinkedIn user listing General Dynamics as his employer. Reached for comment, a General Dynamics spokesperson referred questions to the NSA.
On MYSTIC, citing NSA documents the report said:
“MYSTIC targets calls and other data transmitted on Global System for Mobile Communications networks – the primary framework used for cell phone calls worldwide. In the Philippines, MYSTIC collects ‘GSM, Short Message Service (SMS) and Call Detail Records’ via access provided by a ‘DSD asset in a Philippine provider site.’ (The DSD refers to the Defence Signals Directorate, an arm of Australian intelligence. The Australian consulate in New York declined to comment.) The operation in Kenya is ‘sponsored’ by the CIA, according to the documents, and collects ‘GSM metadata with the potential for content at a later date’. The Mexican operation is likewise sponsored by the CIA. The documents don’t say how or under what pretenses the agency is gathering call data in those countries.”
The Intercept report said:
“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 US 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. 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 US Postal Service.”
The report questioned:
“Beyond a desire to bust island pot dealers, why would the NSA choose to apply a powerful collection tool such as SOMALGET against the Bahamas, which poses virtually no threat to the United States?”
As an answer to the question, it said:
“The answer may lie in a document that characterizes the Bahamas operation as a ‘test bed for system deployments, capabilities, and improvements’ to SOMALGET. The country’s small population – fewer than 400,000 residents – provides a manageable sample to try out the surveillance system’s features. Since SOMALGET is also operational in one other country, the Bahamas may be used as a sort of guinea pig to beta-test improvements and alterations without impacting the system’s operations elsewhere.”
It cited a former engineer, who said: “From an engineering point of view it makes perfect sense. Absolutely.”
“[T]he other countries being targeted by MYSTIC are more in line with the NSA’s more commonly touted priorities. In Kenya, the US works closely with local security forces in combating the militant fundamentalist group Al-Shabab, based in neighboring Somalia. In the Philippines, the US continues to support a bloody shadow war against Islamist extremists launched by the Bush administration in 2002. Last month, President Barack Obama visited Manila to sign a military pact guaranteeing that U.S. operations in Southeast Asia will continue and expand for at least another decade.
“Mexico, another country targeted by MYSTIC, has received billions of dollars in police, military, and intelligence aid from the U.S. government over the past seven years to fight the war on drugs, a conflict that has left more than 70,000 Mexicans dead by some estimates. Attorney General Eric Holder has described Mexican drug cartels as a US ‘national security threat’, and in 2009, then-CIA director Michael Hayden said the violence and chaos in Mexico would soon be the second greatest security threat facing the US behind Al Qaeda.”
The report observed:
“Legal or not, the NSA’s covert surveillance of an entire nation suggests that it will take more than the president’s tepid ‘limits’ to rein in the ambitions of the intelligence community.”
Comments are moderated