NSA Collects All Phone Calls from One of World’s Most Secretive Tax Havens, But Doesn’t Track That

In its report on how the NSA collects every cell phone conversation that takes place in the Bahamas, The Intercept focuses on the use of such intercepts for drug investigations (indeed, one of the other countries targeted in the MYSTIC program is Mexico, which clearly has a DEA angle).

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 U.S. 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.

Perhaps the most telling part of the article, however, is that NSA/DEA don’t appear to be using this facility to track money launderers.

If the U.S. government wanted to make a case for surveillance in the Bahamas, it could point to the country’s status as a leading haven for tax cheats, corporate shell games, and a wide array of black-market traffickers. 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 U.S. assets.

They’re tracking pot, but not bothering to track the dollars that drive the pot.

So aside from the hubris of stealing off of the cell phone calls from Bahama, this is also a testament to the US’ misplaced priorities, its inability to understand how its coddling of tax havens serve to drive the drug trade.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

10 replies
  1. lefty665 says:

    “inability to understand…”? USG understands fully. Corrupt is as corrupt does.

  2. gmoke says:

    The pot puts poor and non-white people in jail where they belong. The money laundering banks get fines and a “go forth and sin no more.” Vide HSBC.

    • P J Evans says:

      Money laundering benefits the bankers, who buy the politicians. Growing your own pot doesn’t do that, so they have to keep it illegal.

  3. chronicle says:

    quote”So aside from the hubris of stealing off of the cell phone calls from Bahama, this is also a testament to the US’ misplaced priorities, its inability to understand how its coddling of tax havens serve to drive the drug trade.”unquote

    Oh it understands alright. After all, how else does Empire protect both it’s CIA drug trade from competition and it’s banks.

  4. Malkovich says:

    Any guesses as to the unnamed country? I was thinking it might end with akistan, but that’s a far larger population than the Bahamas.

    • seedeevee says:

      I, also, was wondering the name.

      In what country would ” . . .and one other country, which The Intercept is not naming in response to specific, credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence” pass the laugh test?

      I mean, what country could this actually increase violence? People in Pakistan always have a reason to riot, if they want.

    • Malkovich says:

      Venezuela is possible. It seems like it must be somewhere that has been undergoing some sort of violent protest recently.

  5. Wayoutwest says:

    The big story here may be the self-censorship by the Intercept. If Wikileaks identifies the country’s name we may be able to judge if the censorship was justified or not.

  6. Rayne says:

    Well…given this fun revelation, Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp, used for messaging (which includes text messaging, images, video, audio media message, and location data) in Mexico and much of Latin America, looks all the more interesting since it’s used in the Bahamas, too.

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