The locations may not make sense — the Bahamas, Mexico, the Philippines, Kenya — but that’s not stopping the DEA from teaming up with the NSA to amass information on phone calls there.
Newly released documents obtained by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden confirm what many news agencies have reported throughout the past year — that the NSA is working with the Drug Enforcement Administration to spy on people in other countries, without the knowledge of any foreign government, in an operation known as SOMALGET, a subset of the NSA’s MYSTIC program.
Specifically, the documents confirm that with the help of technology installed by private telecommunications companies to aid DEA agents tracking “international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers,” the NSA intercepted, recorded, and archived the audio of virtually every cellphone conversation in places such as the Bahamas — a country the State Department describes as “a stable democracy that shares democratic principles, personal freedoms, and rule of law with the United States,” and is of little to no threat to Americans.
While the NSA’s role in the intelligence community may have been to ensure that the U.S. was shielded from any sort of serious or credible threats, the documents note that the Bahamas is not a terrorist hotbed, but instead was used as a prime testing ground for large-scale telephone spying operations in which every phone call made and received for up to 30 days was logged.
The NSA also used the DEA’s technology to eavesdrop on phone calls in several other countries, including Mexico, the Philippines, Kenya and one other nation that has not been identified, as there are credible concerns that publishing the information would likely lead to an increase in violence there.
The DEA is one of the most widely deployed U.S. agencies, with more than 80 international offices around the globe.
“[The] DEA is actually one of the biggest spy operations there is,” said 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,” he said, adding that countries often allow the DEA to enter their country because the agency isn’t viewed as a spy organization.
Talking to MintPress News, Sean Dunagan, a former DEA Senior Intelligence Research Specialist and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, agreed with Selander that many people are surprised to learn the DEA is an intelligence-driven agency, but he said “it’s a lot of what we do.”
Like other U.S. intelligence agencies, the DEA works with other agencies such as the FBI and CIA to gather information about drugs, as well as criminal activities such as moving merchandise, laundering money or any other suspicious behavior that may be related to terrorist activity. However, the U.S. intelligence agencies often work with local governments — or at least obtain their approval to conduct an investigation — which is not what happened with the recorded phone calls.
Given that under the Bahamas’ Listening Devices Act, all wiretaps are required to be authorized before they are used, the individuals targeted have to be specifically named and personal data can only be collected if it’s lawful and fair to do so, this latest revelation could create further distrust toward the United States among the international community.
“It’s surprising, the short-sightedness of the government,” said Michael German, a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice who spent 16 years working undercover investigations as an FBI agent. “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 NSA has refused to comment so far, but it released a statement to The Intercept saying that “the implication that NSA’s foreign intelligence collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false.” The agency insists that it follows procedures to “protect the privacy of U.S. persons” whose communications are “incidentally collected.”
Given that Dunagan worked abroad in Mexico and Guatemala while he was with the DEA, MintPress asked him if he could think of a reason why the NSA would want to eavesdrop on all of these phone calls in the countries named in the documents. After saying that he has never worked for the NSA, Dunagan said it appears that the NSA collects information for the sake of collecting information in order to try and get as much information as the agency can, even if not all of the places where they are collecting the information — such as Germany and the Bahamas — make sense.
He added that it’s important for the public to realize that the government tries to defend the use of these intelligence programs by “crying terrorists,” even though Dunagan says the war on drugs has done more harm than terrorism, giving the example of how civil liberties have eroded since the war on drugs began more than four decades ago.