The U.S. is covertly recording the conversations of "virtually every cellphone conversation" taking place in the Bahamas and storing them for up to 30 days, according to new documents supplied by Edward Snowden.
The classified program, dubbed SOMALGET, was put in place by the National Security Agency without any knowledge or consent from the Bahamian government, according to top-secret documents published by The Intercept on Monday. SOMALGET is part of a broader program known as MYSTIC, which reportedly also monitors the telephone communications of several other countries, such as Mexico, the Philippines, and Kenya, for a grand total of 250 million people.
As The Intercept notes, the Bahamas are not viewed as a national security threat to the U.S. government. The State Department last year called it a "stable democracy that shares democratic principles, personal freedoms, and the rule of law with the United States." It concluded the Bahamas posed "little to no threat" to Americans in terms of "terrorism, war, or civil unrest."
The Intercept continues:
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.
It remains unclear exactly how the NSA is able to run SOMALGET, but a memo suggests the data is collected via "lawful intercepts" made through the Drug Enforcement Administration's "legal wiretaps of foreign phone networks." That exploitation has apparently led to a back door to the nation's cell-phone network.
Earlier this year, The Washington Post reported that the NSA had developed the ability to record and archive every phone call taking place in an unidentified country. That program—MYSTIC—is the same one being used in the Bahamas, but the country mentioned by The Post remains unknown.
The bulk phone-tapping program collects the actual contents of calls, as opposed to metadata—such as the numbers and time stamps of a call—that the NSA collects domestically. But almost 5 million Americans visit the Bahamas every year, and many own homes there, including Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey.
The Intercept—journalist Glenn Greenwald's national security channel for First Look Media—reported that the NSA was breaking into "potentially millions of computers worldwide" and posing as a fake version of Facebook to infect computers with malware. It has joined The Guardian and The Washington Post in recent months as a publisher of the leaked Snowden files. On a book tour last week, Greenwald repeatedly promised more big government-surveillance revelations in the near future.
The NSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.