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

They know what you did last summer.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

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

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
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

[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

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