Paradise lost? NSA allegedly recording all phone calls in Bahamas

The National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly monitoring, recording and stockpiling virtually every conversation made on a cellphone in the Bahamas, according to new documents from Edward Snowden.

The top-secret SOMALGET program, revealed in a report by The Intercept on Monday, was reportedly carried out without the knowledge of the local government. Instead, the agency worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to sneak into the country’s cellular network and record “full-take audio” of every mobile call in the nation of 370,000 people and kept it for up to a month.

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A 2012 NSA memo published by the website said that the ability to record calls and listen to them later allowed an analyst “to selectively retrieve audio content and immediately validate his/her tentative analytic conclusions derived from metadata.”

In another document, the NSA called the island nation program a “test bed for system deployments, capabilities, and improvements,” an indication that officials had planned to export it to other nations.

By listening to all mobile calls in the country, the NSA was able to listen to the conversations of the 5 million to 6 million American tourists who visit the Caribbean island each year. That includes Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Oprah Winfrey and Nicolas Cage, who all reportedly own vacation spots in the tropical getaway destination.

The Bahamas program is part of a larger operation that also monitors communications from Mexico, the Philippines and Kenya. Unlike those other countries, though, the agency’s work in the Bahamas captured people’s actual conversations, not just information about their calls.  

“The overt purpose is for legitimate commercial services for the [telecommunications companies] themselves; our cover mission is the provision of [signals intelligence],” the NSA said in one description about the broader program, called MYSTIC.

Neither the NSA nor the DEA immediately responded to inquiries from The Hill with a comment about the report.

The Intercept report comes after similar allegations in The Washington Post earlier this year.

The Post reported that the NSA had built a system to collect “100 percent” of a foreign country’s phone calls, but did not disclose details about where it was being deployed.